Four candidates running for the six state Senate seats for Chittenden County spoke with True North Reports about their views on hot-button issues this election season, including the coronavirus shutdown, Black Lives Matter protests, mail-in balloting and the Global Warming Solutions Act.
Of the various candidates running for Vermont state Senate, True North was able to interview Democrat Steve May of Richmond, Democrat Louis Meyers of South Burlington, Democrat Kesha Ram of Burlington, and Republican Ericka Redic of Burlington.
In total, 13 Democrats and two Republicans are running for the county’s six Senate seats.
No incumbent senators responded to TNR’s request for participation. Those incumbents include Michael Sirotkin, Virginia Lyons, Phil Baruth and Chris Pearson, all Democrats (the latter two are also Progressives).
The questions posed to the candidates were as follows:
1. Was Vermont’s shutdown response to the coronavirus worth the loss of more than 80,000 jobs and many businesses, or do you think the response was an overreaction?
2. Do you think Vermont should defund state and local police forces following the death of George Floyd?
3. In light of the current economic and COVID-19 crisis in the state, should lawmakers be pursuing climate change legislation such as the Global Warming Solutions Act?
4. Do you support switching to universal vote-by-mail elections in which the state sends absentee ballots to every registered voter on the statewide checklist?
Question 1: On the shutdown response to COVID-19
For question No.1 on whether the economic hardships suffered due to the shutdown to mitigate the coronavirus were worth it, both Kesha Ram and Steve May said they believe the shutdowns were worth it, whereas Meyers and Redic were more critical.
Ram offered the following response:
“My grandfather is a 94-year-old World War II veteran with a Purple Heart, and he has not seen his beloved wife in over two months as she recovers in a rehab facility. Our elders deserve our best care and support to flatten the curve and beat this virus so they can live their remaining years in dignity, surrounded by loved ones.
“Individual and family decisions about health and safety informed by public health expertise are what led to the halt in our economy, and the government response to financially support Americans so they could stay home was the right one. Whether that financial support was ultimately felt by most Vermonters and small business owners with limited cash flow is what’s in question when it comes to the future of our economy, and I have fought alongside some of the hardest-hit families and business owners to ensure relief.
“We still have a long way to go, but I credit our early, cautious response with the relative success Vermont has had compared to other states in reducing the risk of further outbreak.”
May offered the following response:
“No, public health in fact was in fact endangered. The pandemic represents a once in a century event. The truth is that VT has been very fortunate that more Vermonters have not gotten ill. But, it is also true that government has a duty to help restart the economy. Only government was large enough in a moment of real peril to step in, and now in an economic moment of equal peril, our leaders have to step up.
“That does not mean that under a State of Emergency we did not ask a lot of individual Vermonters, we did. Sacrifices were made by the great majority of us, some of those sacrifices were pretty painful. As someone who chooses to stand for public office, and hopes to genuinely bring people together, I thank you for having endured this inconvenience.”
Meyers said the response to COVID may have been warranted initially, but now it’s time to reopen:
“I believe that the initial state Covid shutdown may have been appropriate, since we did not know what we were dealing with. But as the weeks went by and we saw the very low numbers outside Chittenden County, the governor has been too slow in reopening the less hard-hit areas of the state. And he has knee-capped our tourist industry.”
Redic says each life lost was tragic, but the shutdown was too much:
“I understand people’s fear at the beginning, given the information we had, but I trust Vermonters to make the best decisions for themselves and their families. Invariably some people will make bad decisions and there will be consequences – this is the risk we assume when living in a free society. As of today, 55 people have lost their lives to Covid19 in Vermont.
“Each of those lives is tragic and a great loss for their family and friends. It appears that the suffering caused by the shutdown has been demonstrably worse than the virus. Let us start with the children who are food insecure, that get two meals a day at school, who don’t have their parent’s help to do their schoolwork during this.”
“Next we see the Burlington Police Department has seen a large increase in calls for domestic violence and child abuse. Suicide hotline calls are through the roof and by May we had already had more shootings than all last year. The lockdowns were not worth it.”
Question 2: On defunding the police
On question No. 2 about defunding police, the candidates were split.
May offered this response:
“Police reform is an important concern, but I believe efforts to address use of legislation and the decision of labor between the State Police, County Sheriff’s Departments and Local Police is a more prudent use of resources. Also, I believe it is essential that police be allowed to engage in the life-savings activities of public safety, and if there are opportunities to off-load some ancillary duties so they can best focus on fighting crime I would support that change.”
Meyers said he opposes defunding:
“I do not believe in defunding the police departments. However, I do think it is appropriate to examine whether their union protections are preventing helpful changes.”
Ram said that there may be a need to redirect funds away from police departments:
“George Floyd’s murder by Derek Chauvin, the other officers who kneeled on his spine and lungs, and the officers who stood by without intervening was tragic, horrific, unjust, and unnecessary. They should be held fully accountable for his murder.
“Many of us, including many police officers, believe state and local police forces were being asked to do too much before this heinous act took place. Across the country, including in Vermont, they are put in situations they are not trained to navigate or deescalate and they are taken away from the crimes they were trained to investigate.
“Our state and local governments should be engaged in long-term, community-led processes to ensure greater civilian oversight of police; to redirect funds to more appropriate responses to mental health crises, youth behavior, and public safety; and to right-size law enforcement budgets in comparison to other programs and initiatives in education, poverty, hunger alleviation, and mental health that keep people safe and healthy.”
Redic does not support defunding police:
“No. The best way to ensure we do not get social justice is to eliminate the mechanism that deters, stops and investigates criminal activity. All I can guess is that the people calling to defund the police have never been the victim or perpetrator of a crime. Otherwise they would understand the importance of the police in providing justice for victims. Vermont’s criminal justice system is already more merciful and gives more favor to the perpetrator than the victim – and that is wrong.”
Question 3: On big climate action during a bad economy
For question No. 3 about lawmakers taking on bills such as the Global Warming Solutions Act during a time of economic downturn, the answers were mixed.
May said that maybe the private sector can drive changes otherwise sought by legislation:
“I need to explore GWSA more to speak to its individual merits competently, however in times of economic crisis I believe the public sector can leverage private sector partners to amplify the reach of tax dollars so Vermont’s get the best bang for their buck.
“Lean times call for innovative and creative lawmaking, it means that solutions might look different than they might once had before, but it doesn’t mean that people of good faith and creativity can do important work in multiple areas and address multiple needs at one time.”
Meyers says he’s concerned about global warming but he’s not for overly aggressive legislation:
“Climate change is real and will affect Vermont, as it will everywhere else. However, we need to keep in mind that we are a relatively low-polluting state. We need to continue making steady progress, but balance that with not penalizing people who are struggling simply to get by. It is helpful when interventions actually save people money, such as weatherproofing homes.”
Redic said she is not for big bills like the GWSA:
“Absolutely not. The idea that they would continue considering any of the 1,240 bills while Vermonters are disallowed from public assembly and the ability to effectively advocate for themselves, is unconscionable. The GWSA is irresponsible and unconstitutional and will pave the way for devastating encroachment on personal property rights.
“Responses from my elected officials are rare, and when they do, they seem wholly uninterested in what their constituents have to say. For example, Senator Pearson justified his lack of consideration of my opinion by sighting an NPR poll of 603 random Vermonters. Outlandish.”
Ram says climate action should take priority, even during tough economic times:
“We have seen what happens when we act too late. Lives and economic security are lost. We need to shape the change rather than let the change shape us, and invest in green jobs and infrastructure to put Vermonters back to work.”
Question 4: On mail-in ballots
Regarding question No. 4 on mail-in ballots, the candidates offered various views.
May isn’t concerned about universal vote by mail:
“Reports of voter fraud in Vermont have been exceedingly rare in the last several years. Vermont has the most accessible early voting period in the country, with a 45 day no-excuse early voting period through town clerks across the state. In addition to ex-patriots and military personal oversees they have voted by mail for generations.
“Postal ballots are a logical extension of the no excuse period. Concerns over vote mail imply on some level that you are scared of the electorate- We haven’t scared off the unwashed masses in Vermont since Shays Rebellion. In the five western states where vote-by-mail exists Republicans beat Democrats with regularity. There is no reason to think that Republican candidates won’t record more votes than Democrats under a Vote by Mail system in Vermont in certain districts or with certain candidates once it is in place.”
Meyers offered the following response:
“I struggle with the issue of mail-in voting. Personally I prefer voting in person, and believe that it is an important community function, and one less prone to potential fraud. But there are situations where for physical reasons (or vacations) people cannot vote in person, and in those cases absentee ballots should certainly be available.”
Ram supports universal vote by mail:
“Yes, everyone should have a postage-paid opportunity to vote while still being able to elect to cast their ballot at their local town offices or the polls if they choose. Voting is the foundation of our democracy, and no one should have to take time from work or worry about filling the gas tank to exercise their fundamental rights.”
Redic is against universal vote by mail:
“No. During Town Meeting Day this year, I learned that Burlington believes at least 30% of our registered voters should not be on the list for one reason or another. We still receive mail for tenants that haven’t lived in our house for years. The margin of error, and opportunities for fraud are unacceptably high. We already have a mechanism for voting if people are unable or unwilling to come to the polls – it’s called an absentee ballot.
“Changing our method of voting is supposed to be done with a Constitutional Amendment. The Secretary of State does not have the authority to make this decision, and he is doing it against the will of the people. My hope is someone will challenge this in court. Our elected officials are openly and blatantly breaking their oath to protect the Constitution and our Rights therein. When ‘… any form of government becomes destructive to those ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…’ They seem to have forgotten they derive their powers from the consent of the governed.”