WEST RUTLAND — Rutland County Republicans, in a forum held Thursday night at Town Hall, appeared energized about their slate of candidates for the 2018 state Senate race ahead of the Aug. 14 primary.
While some other parts of the state are dominated by Democrats, Rutland County, a southern county with a population of more than 60,000 residents, serves as a GOP stronghold for the state.
“We are blessed with plenty of great candidates, (but) all around the state it’s not that way,” said Terry Burke, the chairwoman for the county GOP.
Indeed, the county has become a Republican hub despite being surrounding by Democratic-dominated counties. The majority of the county’s Senate and House seats are held by Republicans.
With Sen. Peg Flory’s retirement after serving 20 legislative sessions, and Sen. Kevin Mullin’s departure last year to lead the Green Mountain Care Board, Rutland County has five Republican candidates running for three seats in this year’s primary. Two candidates, Sen. Brian Collamore and Sen. David Soucy, are incumbents running for re-election, while James McNeil, Ed Larson and Terry Williams are seeking to win the seat left open by Flory’s retirement.
While Democrats should have a shot at the races, Rutland County Democratic Party Chairman Julian Fenn has admitted the party is struggling locally. As of July 21, the Democratic Party had yet to put forward a candidate in the county, according to Ballotpedia.
At last week’s candidate forum, Burke introduced the two incumbent senators and three newcomers to the state Senate race. The event was moderated by David Sunderland, former chair of the Vermont GOP, who grilled candidates about their experience and views on key issues.
Collamore, a two-term state senator and former radio broadcaster, said he stands with businesses and believes in small government and personal responsibility.
“Vermont is not a very business-friendly state, and we need to change that,” he said. “We did not need to raise taxes this year. I voted no on the budget because it raised taxes on businesses and Vermonters who have summer camps, apartment buildings and more than two acres of land.”
Collamore, who noted that he and former Republican Gov. Jim Douglas graduated together from Middlebury College in 1972, said he was proud of having voted no on S.55, a slew of controversial gun control measures backed by Democrats and signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott.
Soucy, who noted that he was appointed to the Senate last year by Gov. Scott, agreed with Collamore’s gun-rights stand, but he added a proviso.
“I firmly support to keep our schools safe and the Second Amendment, but I do believe that some people should not have guns,” he said. “But that shouldn’t infringe on the rights of responsible gun owners.”
He said if he is re-elected, he will continue to promote job growth.
“I have supported new jobs and the state Department of Labor’s One Stop career-development program, where employees, employers and training centers like Stafford are in one location, so a prospective job seeker can be in front of everyone at once.
“We have more of a people problem than a jobs problem here. Manufacturing jobs are not coming back. … We need to make the permitting process less costly and more predictive.”
Larson, perhaps the most animated of the candidates participating in the forum, noted his long experience in public service. The former alderman has worked in emergency management, headed up Crime Stoppers and anti-drug education programs, and has served on police committees.
“I am running for Senate because I think we need to keep Rutland County as a very Republican county with a Republican ethic,” he said.
“I am outspoken, and everyone who knows me knows that I have never declined a challenge. We need vocal people here, we need to be heard (and) … not part of a herd of ‘socialcrats’ up in Chittenden County.”
He added that if he is elected to state Senate, the Democrats in Montpelier are “going to have a hell of a fight on their hands.”
McNeil, a fifth-generation Vermonter, family businessman and former state representative, noted that while Rutland County was created in 1781 and is the state’s second-most populated county, its population base is on a rapid decline, in part due to taxes and overregulation.
“As a local merchant for 40 years, I understand what we’re facing here in Rutland County,” he said. ” … We must help existing business to survive and also welcome new business and make it easy to do business here. I want to say, ‘Rutland County is open for business.’”
McNeil also spoke out for programs that address the state’s drug epidemic.
“I see what’s going on with drug deals going on right downtown. … (That’s why) Project Vision and Evergreen have been important programs in the city. Whether it starts out as smoking cigarettes or marijuana … we see what is happening. That’s why I am proud to be involved in anti-drug programs underway in Rutland County,” he said.
McNeil, who received a coveted endorsement from Flory, noted that as a former two-term state legislator he received a 100 percent score from the Vermont Chamber of Commerce for his efforts on job creation, lower taxes and spending, and education.
Finally, Williams, an eight-generation Vermonter, said his qualifications for office include military management and agribusiness skills, as well as involvement with the National Rifle Association and county fish and wildlife clubs. During the spring, he jumped into the gun-control fight and opposed S.55 by both visiting the Statehouse and writing about the bill in various news outlets.
While all the Senate candidates at the forum said they oppose any future carbon-tax proposal, Williams was especially succinct about the political left’s favorite climate-change policy.
“We’re taxed to death already,” Williams said. “Will we give (carbon) credits to people who own timberland so that they don’t cut trees to sequester the carbon? I think every bill that goes to either a committee or the floor needs to be researched and then determined if it is affordable to Vermonters or not.”
During concluding remarks, Sunderland, the moderator, encouraged the evening’s attendees to take advantage of early voting opportunities.
“The world is ruled by those who show up,” he said. “Make sure that your voice is heard.”
Lou Varricchio is a freelance reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.