Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor fought to distinguish themselves among their competitors in a debate forum held Tuesday evening, hosted by the nonprofit social justice organization Rights & Democracy.
Sen. Pro Tem Tim Ashe, Assistant Attorney General Molly Gray, state Sen. Debbie Ingram, and activist Brenda Siegel are vying for the party’s nomination in the Aug. 11 primary.
Over a virtual Zoom call, candidates were questioned by moderator Kiah Morris, RAD’s movement politics director and a former state representative, about issues that could come up in any debate: health care, education spending and climate change.
But the candidates were specifically tasked to highlight how their policy priorities would prioritize marginalized groups like people of color, those with disabilities and those who are low income.
“Our current systems are deeply dysfunctional, rooted in historical oppression and fragile,” Morris said, kicking off the discussion. “When those fragile systems break it is Vermonters who have been systematically kept out of places of power that are the most impacted.”
Siegel touted her activist roots and pointed to her own experiences with poverty that have allowed her an important perspective on policy making. She emphasized that she would facilitate the presence of marginalized groups’ voices in the Statehouse as much as possible, if she were elected lieutenant governor.
At one point in the discussion she criticized other candidates for not centering the perspectives of marginalized people in their answers to policy questions enough.
“I think, what we’re seeing right now in this forum, we don’t center the voices of marginalized people,” Siegel said. “We don’t even center talking about them at this forum. I want to be honest, it’s frustrating me right now.”
The comment was sparked by an idea brought up by Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, who defended the Legislature’s inability to pass a statewide paid leave program this past February by saying that the failure rested primarily on the governor’s shoulders when he vetoed the bill. Ashe said that as lieutenant governor, he would prioritize getting Gov. Phil Scott out of office.
VTDigger is underwritten by:
But Siegel pushed back on the idea — she said that groundswells of public support have power that can rock even the governor’s decisions. She pointed to the recent uproar around the Vermont State Colleges System’s proposed closure of three campuses, and the rally of support from communities that halted the shutdowns.
“While I agree it is going to matter who our governor is, we have to be fighting for these issues right now,” Siegel said. “We can’t just say, ‘Well, we have to see who is in charge.’ because it’s never happened that our elected folks are leading us. It has always been true that we lead them.”
Ashe continually pointed to his legislative record and experience as pro tem that brought a more pragmatic view to some of the topics discussed. When asked about Vermont’s public higher education systems and how they should be funded moving forward, other candidates pointed to the concern that higher education has been historically underfunded by the Legislature.
Ashe pushed back and said that a simple cash infusion couldn’t have stabilized the VSC.
“What I think has been true is that the leadership of the state college system has been a mess,” Ashe said. “I think the finances are a mess and I think easy solutions about how much money it’s going to take and what it’s going to look like are not so straightforward.”
When discussing how the candidates would approach criminal justice reform, Gray, an assistant attorney general, touted her experience as a prosecutor who has prioritized human rights in her work.
She said she wants to bring more accountability to those who do not practice fair and impartial policing.
“Here in Vermont, we have come a long way in some areas,” Gray said. “But we haven’t focused on fair and impartial policing enough. We haven’t looked at some of our police stations and law enforcement officials where we might not be meeting the mark, and we could do a lot better.”
Ingram, a state senator from Chittenden County, said that as a member of the LGBTQ community, she understands what it feels like to be discriminated against. That’s part of the reason why she said she has supported pieces of legislation, like the proposition to clarify the prohibition of slavery in Vermont’s Constitution and the bill that established Indigenous People’s Day, in an effort to further racial justice and equality in the state.
“I would put my record for racial justice against any legislator in the Statehouse,” Ingram said. “I have worked tirelessly to introduce legislation to mitigate the impacts of racial inequality.”
RAD is also hosting a debate forum at 7 p.m., this Friday, May 29, over Zoom with the three Democratic candidates for governor: Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, former education secretary Rebecca Holcombe and attorney Patrick Winburn.
Missing out on the latest scoop? Sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on politics. And in case you can't get enough of the Statehouse, sign up for Final Reading for a rundown on the day's news in the Legislature.