Featured, Local News

Candidate forum offers food for thought

By Julia Purdy

RUTLAND—Some 50 citizens attended a candidates’ forum at the Rutland Public Library Saturday, Sept. 22, sponsored by the Rutland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Tabitha Pohl-Moore, president of the chapter, said that the focus of the forum was more about the issues than about party and asked for respectful conversation but encouraged challenging questions as well.

Panelists included Stephen Marx, Earth Rights candidate for governor; Murray Ngoima and Emily Peyton, Liberty Union candidates for lieutenant governor and governor, respectively; Trevor Barlow, independent candidate for governor; Rep. Janssen Willhoit, Republican candidate for attorney general; and Christine Hallquist, the Democratic nominee for governor.

Other candidates, including the incumbents, were invited but did not attend.

The panel covered the spectrum of issues from poverty, treatment of prisoners and institutional racism to democracy, world harmony and environment.

Emily Peyton, a frequent candidate for public office, led off with an impassioned case for inclusiveness, calling for a “universal basic income” and for the major parties to “honor democracy.”

Stephen Marx, an educator and former selectman in Strafford, outlined his philosophy that “Earth should be considered a person too,” which would establish a culture of mutual respect.

Christine Hallquist, a resident of Hyde Park, called for action to address bigotry, climate change, education, rural economic development, and Medicare for all.

Trevor Barlow, who grew up in Springfield and moved back from Colorado, outlined his goals to achieve “more economic equality” by putting Vermonters in leadership positions and returning local control to towns.

Janssen Willhoit (R-St. Johnsbury) is a native Kentuckian and pardoned convict who attended Vermont Law School and works as a public defender. Bigotry, prisoners’ rights and implicit bias must be addressed, he said.

Murray Ngoima, an artist who has lived in Africa and now resides in South Pomfret, read from the Liberty Union platform, which calls for sustainability, democracy, self-fulfillment, universal disarmament, diversity and opposition to fascism.

NAACP member Scott Holliman posed a question to the panel: “What do you see as the main issues facing Vermonters in marginalized and disenfranchised positions and what is or are your plans to address them, should you win?”

The answers reflected strong values and fresh ideas.

Emily Peyton recommended consulting citizens about their needs directly through surveys and setting the budget accordingly.

Janssen Willhoit stated that he sees how “social and economic disparities” are baked into the criminal justice system. He cited bail as an “economic disincentive” that results in unnecessary incarceration for nonviolent offenders, such as addicts, who need help.

Christine Hallquist would place people of color in her administration and support a citizens’ oversight board that looks at data of how diversity is achieved in schools and employment. She also supports more investment in mental health and ensuring that people have a place to live.

Trevor Barlow suggested returning taxpayer dollars to localities “to stimulate entrepreneurship” and solve problems. “The best way to solve these problems is restore the pride that we used to have in the smaller towns that don’t have the economic benefits of Burlington and Montpelier.”

Murray Ngaima declared that the “common denominators” of marginalization and disfranchisement are poverty and racism. With a state racial justice oversight board, criminal justice reform could be brought to local communities. Housing should be a priority.

Stephen Marx said he has witnessed how marginalized people can change when they are empowered. Talking to people is “the important thing. … People know what they need. By talking to people we can figure out how to change society so it’s for everyone and every thing.”

Audience comments and questions focused on policing and criminal justice.

All candidates acknowledged the problem of implicit bias in policing and attributed it to ignorance, stereotyping and lack of training and education, as well as surrounding societal attitudes and fears, but felt that solutions are possible.

Emily Peyton pointed out that even language includes negative associations with darkness.

Trevor Barlow felt that the future can be bright if people take it one step at a time, practice the golden rule and raise the next generation to become “the change that we are seeking.”

To an audience question about how revenues might be raised to fund programs, answers ranged from Barlow’s support for creating a tax-and-regulate market for cannabis and Marx’s recommendation to “tax people who poison the earth,” to reallocating funding from the F-35 fighter jet and incarceration to housing development and other social programs. Peyton recommended establishing a public bank and Vermont credit card.

Hallquist would make fiber optic cable available to every home and business and use tax increment financing to subsidize infrastructure in communities.

Wrapping up, candidates were asked, “What is the most important thing to you?” The candidates combined their answers with brief value statements.

Hallquist said she “will not cower in the face of headwinds from Washington. Nothing is impossible when you’re on the side of justice.”

Janssen will advocate for the people of Vermont. “We can and will do better.”

Noting that several parties are being ignored by mainstream media, Peyton asked that all candidates be included in the upcoming public debates “and restore democracy.” Barlow endorsed individual empowerment as the way to achieve an “equitable society. … It comes down to different strategies at the local level and helping each other as neighbors.”

Photo By Julia Purdy
The Rutland Area branch of the NAACP sponsored a candidates’ forum. From left, Stephen Marx, Murray Ngoima, Trevor Barlow, Tabitha Pohl-Moore, Emily Peyton, Jannssen Willhoit and Christine Hallquist debate.

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