RUTLAND, Vt. — With Vermont’s Aug. 14 primary election on the horizon, statewide candidates are scrambling to be seen and heard via a series of public forums around the state.
On the heels of a gubernatorial forum in Burlington televised last week, the first multi-party public forum for U.S. Senate and House candidates was held Thursday at the College of St. Joseph’s Tuttle Hall. The event was hosted by Rutland County Republicans.
Since the college forum wasn’t limited to GOP faithful, the Republicans demonstrated their “big tent” ethos by inviting all challengers, which included both a socialist and a Progressive. Not surprisingly, incumbents U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., declined to attend.
Participating in the forum were U.S. Senate Republican candidates H. Brooke Paige, Lawrence Zupan, and Jasdeep Pannu. U.S. House Republican candidates included Anya Tynio, Democratic Socialist Benjamin Mitchell and Progressive Democrat Dan Freilich, M.D.
Moderated by Republican National Committee Vice Chair Jay Shepard, of Essex, the forum was less of a debate than it was a chance for candidates to gain visibility and get in a few potshots.
“This is a forum, not a debate,” Shepard cautioned participants at the outset. Nevertheless, all candidates took the evening as an opportunity to needle their respective challengers.
Following opening statements by the candidates, Shepard corralled the forum topics into four topics of national interest: Spending and the size of the federal government, the controversy of noncitizen voting privileges, the idea of a national election identification card, and the pros and cons of a national single-payer health care program.
In the case of the size and overreach of government, candidates had differing perspectives.
House candidate Anya Tynio voiced the Republican view and said the nation faces a severe deficit with out-of-control spending. “We need to look carefully at education spending and welfare spending to see where we can improve,” she said. “We do not need to cut defense spending … borders, military, health care for veterans. I do not want to cut back on these. … We have a $16 trillion deficient — we don’t need to add to it. Anybody who is on welfare needs to be moved to work if at all possible.”
Benjamin Mitchell said that being a Democrat Socialist is to his advantage in the primary campaign.
“The idea of socialism has been under attack by (capitalist) propaganda for more than 100 years including the McCarthy era,” he said. ” … The only thing we can do now is tax working people and give it to our friends at Lockheed Martin. … Sixty percent of Vermonters are struggling to make it to the next paycheck, myself included. If my transmission goes in my car, my only choice is getting a loan. … Energy costs are so expensive — let’s put solar panels on every public building to drive down property taxes and stop global warming.”
House and Senate candidate H. Brooke Paige agreed with his fellow Republicans.
“Our federal bureaucracy has become a many-tentacled sea serpent attaching itself to every aspect of business, life in the states and in the lives of citizens,” Paige said. “No … government must be sent back to tend only to those matters that individuals cannot attend to themselves.”
The suggestion by some liberals of giving noncitizens voting privileges evoked passionate responses, as did conservative proposals to establish voting identification.
“I am going to be blunt: I don’t think immigration is a big deal,” House candidate Dan Freilich said. “… I also know that if I was poor and in a horrific situation in Central America, I would do everything I can, including breaking the law, so to speak, to save my family’s life.
“It’s a little scapegoating. We have problems we should fix first. Putting up a wall is not going to solve the problem … we should help these countries pull themselves up.”
Zupan said he is the grandson of immigrants, but that a country without border security is no longer a nation.
“Illegal aliens are people who crash our borders, they’ve already broken the law,” he said. “We cannot be a nation without laws.
“All the soft-spoken tones about welcoming refugees, if it’s done by destroying borders, we don’t have sovereignty, we don’t have a country. We have to re-establish the rule of law.”
Jasdeep Pannu said that many illegal criminal immigrants are brought here by human traffickers, or “slave traders,” as he called them.
“That’s a significant core we need to address. We need to get the most vile and vicious (illegals) first,” Pannu said. “Our priority needs to be people who are hurting — unfortunately, young women and children.”
Paige said he is the grandson of immigrants, too, and that while noncitizens are welcome legally, they are here only under certain terms and conditions, and with limited rights, which do not include voting rights.
“Those who come here illegally are nothing more than trespassers and should be treated humanely, but firmly, and returned to the place from whence they came,” he said. ” … The government has the obligation to protect the national sovereignty.”
Tynio agreed that illegal immigration is an important issue and that noncitizens should not be given the ability to vote.
“Immigration is a huge deal,” Tynio said. “We do not know at this time who is in this country … (so) we must have documentation and immigrants must be legal and working toward becoming legal.
“We need to correct the failed policies of the previous administration that have caused this catastrophe on the southern border, and we also need to understand that Vermont has an illegal immigration problem, too. Illegals doubled here since 2017.”
Tynio added: “A noncitizen should not be allowed to vote. Anyone who intends to stay here needs to become a citizen and learn English; anyone on a work visa or who intends to return to their country, they do not need to have a say in our political process, they should not vote.”
Mitchell, who at one point blamed Republicans for being “Russian” and phobic during the 1950s, oddly reversed himself to echo the latest Democrat mantra of Russians as bad guys, and as experts on “disinformation.
“There is actually no evidence of voter fraud,” he said blithely. “This is a made-up problem, it’s a distraction.”
Freilich, in support of Mitchell’s statement, added: “Trump made this (voter fraud stuff) up as a distraction. It’s a silly topic … Why are the middle class working four jobs? We should be talking about this and climate change. Voting should be as easy as possible. It’s ironic that the socialist and the progressive Democrats are arguing the libertarian side. The Republican side wants the government to be more intrusive.”
Regarding single payer, Republican candidates called for more competition and shopping for insurance plans across state lines, and mocked the failures of the Veterans Administration as an example of a government run single-payer health plan that’s a mess. But Mitchell supported a plan to let consumers choose either purchasing private insurance or opting into Medicaid.
Freilich, who works as a physician with the V.A., cited the success of the program, and he differed strongly with the Republican candidates about America’s “embarrassing” health care network for its veterans.
Finally, when it came to taking on Sanders and Welch in absentia, all the Republican candidates got in their below-the-belt jabs. One candidate, H. Brooke Paige, was willing to excoriate Vermont’s two liberal incumbents at length.
“Peter Welch has become a senator in waiting,” Paige said. “Peter does little of specific service to Vermont; he has failed to bring home the bacon of federal dollars.
“Bernie is a charlatan, a socialist Pied Piper whose mantra is that everyone should expect everything for free without explaining how it will be paid for. … Sanders does little to advance the better good of Vermont, just his own personal agenda. He does little and passes few bills, thank heaven. His crowning achievement was to name three post offices.”
Lou Varricchio is a freelance reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.