If the state Senate race in Windsor County is an indication of things to come, gun rights and high taxes may be the pivot to get out the opposition vote for the Aug. 14 primary as well as the November election.
This year, Windsor County’s Democrat incumbent senators stand unchallenged by other party candidates in the primary.
However, those incumbents in the three-seat district can expect three Republicans and one independent to challenge them in November.
As a Democratic stronghold district, two out of three incumbents voted for S.55, the controversial gun control measure that Gov. Phil Scott signed into law in April. The development is galvanizing the pro-gun GOP base to turn out at local polling places this year.
Yet, unlike the Republicans, Windsor County’s Democratic senators aren’t focused on Second Amendment issues now that S.55 is a settled matter.
“Vermont has been struggling to narrow the gap between many Vermonters’ incomes and the cost of living,” said incumbent Democratic Sen. Dick McCormack, of Bethel. “Although employers have trouble finding employees, low wages are a national systemic problem. Nevertheless, Vermont must do what we can at the state level to raise incomes, raise the minimum wage, provide for family leave, support collective bargaining and promote economic growth.”
According to veteran Sen. Alice Nitka, a Democrat from Ludlow, the big issue in Windsor County isn’t gun rights or high property taxes, but the shortage of local workers and education.
“This is affecting large and small businesses as it is around the state,” Nitka told True North. “Many places are offering signing bonuses and higher wages. Other worries are about health care and taxes. A local concern in Ludlow is whether Black River High School will close earlier than 2020, which was voted with an option to close earlier; however, most families are presuming it will go to 2020. Predictability is needed so families can plan.”
Windsor County’s three GOP challengers — Randy Gray, Wayne Townsend and Jack Williams — say guns, taxes and jobs are the big concerns in the district. The Republicans also have been criticizing the “liberal” biases of McCormack, Nitka, and the other Democrat incumbent, Sen. Alison Clarkson, of Woodstock.
The Republicans claim that Windsor County’s current senatorial trio of liberal Democrats illustrate what’s wrong with Montpelier’s one-party rule. They cite well-known examples from the past: Clarkson sponsored S.6, an act relating to requiring background checks for the transfer of firearms; McCormack supported assisted suicide legislation and sponsored a 2015 bill proposing a statewide $2 per night fee on lodging; and Nitka sponsored a bill to officially recognized the left-leaning, anti-police Black Lives Matter Movement in Vermont.
Given that voting record, Gray, a resident of Springfield, believes he has a chance of getting a bigger vote margin this year than he did when he was on the GOP ticket in 2016.
“I feel I can beat at least one of the incumbents if the average working class Vermonter makes an effort to get to the polls,” Gray told True North. “Vermont’s political atmosphere is one-sided and unchecked. I feel this must change — an unbalanced legislature benefits no one. I feel confident I’ll win a seat if the people research the candidates.”
At the top of Gray’s list of concerns is the drift away from a strict compliance to both federal and state constitutions.
“Any bill that is passed should comply [with] and not even closely come to compromising our constitutional rights,” he said. “I am pro-Second Amendment and Article 16. I feel the focus should not be limited to these amendments and articles, however; the [letter of both] constitutions should be respected, especially by elected officials.”
Gray also has a plan for grappling with what he terms Vermont’s “crippling drug issue.”
“[I have] a multi-pronged plan starting with better prevention programs to stricter penalties for dealers. The slap-on-the-wrist policy for dealers has to end,” he said. “I also feel addicts need more opportunities for rehabilitation as part of the incarceration process through the Department of Corrections.”
When it comes to school issues, Gray wants to see Act 46 repealed, and he has extended an olive branch to unionized teachers in the state to help control spiraling education costs.
Townsend, of Bethel, owns and operates a sustainable timber and firewood logging business. He, too, believes Republicans stand to benefit by getting pro-gun, pro-tax-cut voters to the polls.
“I know that I can beat my incumbent,” Townsend told True North. “First off, I am pro-business. The fact that taxes keep going through the roof, Vermont ranked No. 3 as the most moved-out-of-state in the nation, the most unfriendly to business, and the fact that the state wants to pay $10,000 per person to move here.”
“We need to keep residents here with new business and good-paying jobs, which will create more revenues in the long run,” he added. “But what’s really getting attention of many Windsor County voters is S.55 and more gun restrictions.”
McCormack, however, says the state’s new gun control law was necessary, responsible legislation. In fact, he sees his votes for gun control as praiseworthy as he seeks to fend off GOP challengers.
“I look forward to defending Vermont’s new gun safety laws,” McCormack said. “Time will tell if they’re effective, but they’re a good effort and completely constitutional.”
Townsend said McCormack’s actions are why he thinks more Windsor County residents will vote for him and the entire GOP Senate ticket in November.
“I stand by the Second Amendment and won’t vote for any bill that will impose stricter gun laws,” Townsend said. “The real problem isn’t the gun, it’s the person behind the gun (in these mass shooting cases).”
Williams, of Perkinsville, rounds out the GOP’s trifecta of 2018 Senate candidates in the district.
He describes himself as a true Vermont conservative and Christian who is pro-Second Amendment, pro-family and pro-constitutionalist.
“To present an analogy,” he said, “Vermont has one of the lowest crime rates in the United States and Vermont is one of the highest taxed states in the United States. [Yet Windsor County’s] incumbents have voted in new gun control laws and have voted consistently to raise taxes. Doesn’t make sense does it?”
According to Williams, those positions are going to come back to haunt all elected officials who voted in favor of these issues.
“Vermonters expect more out of their elected officials than this; they want political, economic and social sanity brought back into state government. As a conservative candidate, I will bring a commonsense approach to all issues, I will listen to the people and I will represent the will of the people.”
Williams said that his recent campaign tour of the Windsor District revealed several things which seem to go far beyond county lines.
“Voters are very concerned about the new gun laws in Vermont,” he said. “Overall, I find Vermonters to be very pro-Second Amendment. Also, voters are concerned about high taxes. High property taxes are hurting older retired people who aren’t able to hold onto their property … and younger people can’t afford to buy, due to high property taxes.”
He also said unnecessary regulations, drugs, immigration and homelessness will likely play a role in how voters choose candidates in November.
Lou Varricchio is a freelance reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Two out of three Democratic incumbent senators voted for S.55. Sen. Nitka voted against S.55. The original story erroneously stated all three approved the bill.