In their first debate of the general election, the two U.S. House candidates jockeying for Vermont’s conservative vote — Republican nominee Liam Madden and Libertarian nominee Ericka Redic — targeted the presumed frontrunner of the race, Democratic nominee Becca Balint.
Madden, an anti-war activist and former Marine, and Redic, an accountant and online content creator, took shots at Balint throughout the Thursday evening debate, hosted by VTDigger, as the candidates fielded questions on the opioid epidemic, abortion access, Israeli-Palestinian relations, digital surveillance and more.
But their offensives reached a fever pitch when Balint, who currently serves as the Vermont Senate president pro tempore, was asked a series of questions on an issue that has followed her since her days on the primary campaign trail: campaign finance.
Moderators’ questions to Balint followed an August revelation, first reported by Seven Days, that one single, massive donation to the LGBTQ Victory Fund Federal PAC funded a rush of pro-Balint campaign media that flooded airwaves and filled mailboxes in the final days of the Democratic primary campaign. The man behind the $1.1 million donation was Nishad Singh, a top executive with the cryptocurrency exchange FTX.
“I want to really assure Vermonters that I had absolutely no knowledge of who was donating money to the Victory Fund, which is an LGBTQ organization,” Balint said when queried Thursday night. “I did not want that investment in my campaign. I had no control over it. The thing I did have control over was how I ran my campaign, which was with many, many small-dollar donors, the most Vermont donors of any of the candidates.”
Also backing Balint’s campaign were Singh’s colleagues: FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried and his brother, Gabe Bankman-Fried. The duo are the moguls behind two pandemic-preparedness groups, Guarding Against Pandemics and Protect Our Future, both of which provided Balint endorsements she had sought. Balint’s campaign website previously included specific, verbatim language on pandemic policy identical to the two groups’ talking points — which has since been removed.
When asked by moderators Thursday night how Vermonters could trust Balint to think for herself, she responded that she makes decisions “based on what I think is right for Vermonters.
“That's how I've done my work here in the Vermont state Senate on so many issues,” she said. “That's what I will do in Congress. And my support of pandemic preparedness should not be at all conflated with issues around cryptocurrency. I don't know the donor. I have had no communication with the donor about cryptocurrency.”
Madden jumped in to say he took Balint “at her word that she didn't know these people that well,” before taking a jab: “But I remember a VTDigger debate early in the primary where she said she wouldn't seek the support of lobbyists. And so I wonder how that squares with meeting with that fund in the first place.”
“Well, they were discussing something that was of the utmost importance to me, which is preventing future pandemics,” Balint retorted, before highlighting support she’s received from the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, two teachers unions.
“There are groups that are fighting on behalf of issues that I care deeply about that I'm going to meet with and if our values are aligned, I will accept contributions,” she said.
Redic chimed in, remarking that she thought “it's really interesting, given the conversation, that a lobbyist is only a lobbyist when we (don’t) agree with them.”
“I think that that's really part of the issue in this campaign, is that the grassroots voices of Vermonters are being drowned out by special interest groups and lobbyists pouring tons and tons of money into one side of this campaign,” Redic continued. “It's very clear that this election was bought and paid for by lobbyists and special interest groups. And I think that that's really too bad.”
Asked by moderators which government agency should regulate the cryptocurrency market — the industry-favored Commodity Futures Trading Commission or stricter Securities and Exchange Commission — Balint responded, “I don’t think in this instance we should follow the guidance of the industry. I think we want to really have a strict investigation of what this really means for our economy.”
Posed similar questions on crypto regulation, Madden said he needed to learn more about it. Redic said to regulate cryptocurrency would be antithetical to “the point” of it, which is “for it to not be part of the government. So I don't think that we should be looking to regulate it at all.”
Fossil fuel costs
When asked about a “side-deal” negotiated between U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., which would loosen federal permitting requirements for energy projects, such as fossil fuel pipeline construction, Redic took the opportunity to criticize Balint’s proposals to increase taxation of fossil fuel corporations.
“She said we need to tax the hell out of fossil fuels, and has repeatedly said that she wants them to be so cost-prohibitive that people will change their behavior and not use them anymore,” Redic said.
During a time of economic hardship and record-high inflation, Redic said, “The idea that anyone in elected office would then say, ‘You know what, we're actually going to make it even more expensive’ ... that person does not seem to actually care about the hardship that Vermonters are suffering right now.”
Balint accused Redic of mischaracterizing her stance and said, “What I have said is that we need to end fossil fuel subsidies, absolutely. We also need to tax the corporations that are benefiting from the windfall profits on fossil fuels.”
“It is very important to me that we, at this time of rising inflation, deal with the fact that there are people getting incredibly wealthy off of regular Vermonters and fuel costs,” Balint said.
The Schumer-Manchin deal was made in exchange for Manchin’s support of the mammoth Inflation Reduction Act. Balint said that she would have signed onto the letter penned by 72 U.S. House members decrying the Manchin provision, but also that she would not have “gone back” on the deal that led to Manchin’s “yes” vote on the bill.
At a debate hosted by VTDigger in June, Madden decried the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that month to overturn Roe v. Wade case precedent, thereby ending federal abortion protections. But asked at the time how he would vote on a federal abortion ban, he said he would support “compromise” federal legislation based on fetal viability.
On Thursday, Madden said that the majority of abortions occur before a fetus is indepedently viable — or before it can survive outside the womb — “and those should be protected choices.” While the majority of abortions performed post-viability are carried out due to health complications of the mother or fetus, he said, he believes government regulation is appropriate in the remaining “extremely rare instance of elective abortion in the last term.”
In Vermont, all abortions performed after fetal viability (approximately 22 weeks gestation) are conducted in a hospital setting, at the University of Vermont Medical Center, and are first reviewed by an ethics commission, which determines whether the procedure should take place. According to a recently released 2020 Vital Statistics Report by Vermont’s Department of Health, of 1,227 abortions completed in 2020, 14 were of fetuses aged 21 or more weeks gestation.
“I believe it is relevant when a child can live independently of the mother, and that provides a moral and legal complexity that deserves attention,” Madden said Thursday.
Madden then criticized Balint for her campaign’s depiction of his stance on abortion. In a Sept. 12 email blast, Balint’s campaign accused Madden of holding beliefs that are “wildly out of step with the views of the average Vermonter, who believes that abortion access is an essential right that needs to be protected.”
“I'm realizing that I don't think you actually see that there's nuance here, Becca,” Madden said. “And I'm so happy to be a voice for the middle 80% of Vermonters who want a voice in this discussion.”
Balint responded that her views are in line with the majority of Vermonters.
“Seventy percent of Vermonters support protecting a woman's right to control her own body, protect a Vermonter’s autonomy and your ability to make decisions about your future in your body,” Balint said. “And any decision that should be made around health care should be made between a Vermonter and their health care provider and their doctor. And it is not the state's role, it's not the government's role, to interfere with that relationship between a Vermonter and their health care provider.”
Also at June’s Republican primary debate, Redic said that she would not support a nationwide abortion ban, saying the decision should instead be left to state governments. In light of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s newly proposed 15-week federal abortion ban, Redic was asked if her views were the same. She said yes.
Redic said she instead wants to see state support for crisis pregnancy centers, controversial facilities that offer some prenatal care and parent counseling, but largely exist to dissuade patients from obtaining abortions. Some Vermont lawmakers are pursuing legislation to crack down on crisis pregnancy centers, saying they falsely advertise themselves and distribute misleading medical information.
Neither Madden nor Redic have served in elected office, and in their closing statements Thursday night, they amplified their outsider statuses. More importantly, they slighted Balint for her tenure in the Statehouse, casting her as just another politician.
“The last thing Vermonters should do is send another politician to Washington, someone who has a demonstrated history of increasing the cost of living, making Vermonters less safe, and taking away your freedom, your personal liberty, and imposing government rules and mandates on you, your body and your children,” Redic said in closing.
Madden, a self-declared independent and opponent of the two-party political system, made an appeal to Vermonters to abandon the status quo.
“If you know in your heart that changing the players over and over is a failed strategy, that what we need to do is to change the rules of the game, please join me in voting not for the experience of those who are wedded to broken tools, but voting for the vision needed to fulfill our potential,” he said.
Balint leaned into her years of experience in Montpelier.
“I'm the only person on this Zoom tonight who has actually passed legislation that has brought housing to Vermonters, that has increased the minimum wage, that has protected reproductive rights,” Balint concluded. “And I'm proud of the record.”
Clarification: This story's headline has been edited to more specifically describe the candidates.
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