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Seven Aiming for Three Windsor Senate Seats

  • Alison Clarkson

  • Randy Gray

  • Dick McCormack

  • Alice Nitka

  • Wayne Townsend

  • Mason Wade

  • Jack Williams



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, October 27, 2018

White River Junction — A lengthy slate of candidates are campaigning for the three seats in Vermont’s Windsor Senate district, with a variety of viewpoints on the gun safety legislation signed into law this spring by Gov. Phil Scott.

State Sens. Dick McCormack, D-Bethel; Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock; and Alice Nitka, D-Ludlow, are being challenged by Republicans Randy Gray, of Springfield; Wayne Townsend, of Bethel; and Jack Williams, of Perkinsville, and by independent Mason Wade, of Rochester.

Two of the three Democratic incumbents supported the gun package, while the third voted against it. All three Republican candidates oppose the new gun laws, while Wade said he sees both sides of the issue.

The three seats represent all of Windsor County, along with the towns of Londonderry and Mount Holly, in the Vermont Senate.

Gun Laws

McCormack and Clarkson voted for the gun legislation, which raised the legal age for gun purchases to 21 unless younger adults take a hunter safety course, extended mandatory background checks to private gun sales, prohibited the sale of high-capacity magazines and banned bump stocks.

The 71-year-old McCormack, who has served in the Vermont Senate for 25 years, said the new laws were “reasonable regulation” and “perfectly constitutional.”

“Getting firearms out of volatile situations like domestic violence and pending suicide, limits on the availability of especially dangerous weapons, age limits and training requirements, and background checks are a good-faith attempt to protect innocent life,” McCormack said.

The 63-year-old Clarkson, who is seeking a second term in the Senate and previously served for more than a decade in the House, said she supports “commonsense firearm safety measures” and backed the package.

“None of these measures impact our Vermont hunting traditions,” Clarkson said.

Nitka, 73, voted against the overall package and has an A-rating and endorsement from the National Rifle Association. She said the most controversial measures were not “thoroughly vetted,” and she voiced concern that some parts of the legislation are not enforceable. But she did say two other new gun laws, which passed unanimously and enable police to take guns from people who are deemed by a court to be an extreme risk or who are suspected of domestic violence, can make a difference.

Gray, a 48-year-old former sales administrator for a plywood and hardwood company, also is endorsed by the NRA and said he is against the gun package.

“My feeling is passing the gun laws is only going to affect the law-abiding citizen,” he said. “The criminals don’t care what we pass for gun laws.”

Townsend, a 45-year-old Upper Valley native who grew up on a dairy farm and now works as a logger, also has an NRA endorsement. He said the Legislature should have “invested in mental health ... and try to fix the person who may have been a threat, rather than taking away a tool.”

WIlliams, 69, also has an A-rating from the NRA, though is not endorsed by the group. He said the new guns laws should be repealed in their entirety.

“Gun ownership is a God-given right of people to protect themselves, their families, their communities and their country from all enemies, foreign and domestic,” said Williams, who served in the Army for more than 20 years and now works as a civil engineering technician for the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

The 63-year-old Wade grew up in Alaska and has been homesteading in Vermont for decades, living on private property in Rochester in the Green Mountain National Forest.

He said members of the Legislature rushed into passing the gun laws, “but at the same time I understand the stress that they were under” over concerns about potential school shootings.

Act 46

Opinions are also split over Act 46, the law intended to encourage school district consolidation.

Nitka voted for the law, but said he is concerned that some school districts, such as Barnard, are being ordered to merge by the State Board of Education.

“It’s not going to be repealed,” she said, “but I think there may need to be some tweaks for us to ensure that what we put in there is being adhered to.”

Clarkson also backed the law, and still does. “Going forward, the Legislature needs to balance honoring the districts which have worked so hard and invested in consolidation — and the local control which was expressly supported in Act 46,” Clarkson said. “We can’t backpedal — or throw those who’ve made tough choices for their communities under the school bus.”

McCormack said he opposed Act 46, but said it is now a fait accompli, and to repeal it would be destabilizing.

“The current issue is to honor the flexibility requirements of Act 46 because some communities simply do not fit into the Act 46 model,” he said.

Gray thinks the law should be repealed, and at the very least revamped.

“It was passed on the (pretext) of saving money, and it’s been proven it’s not going to save any money,” he said.

Townsend, who graduated from Whitcomb High School in Bethel, said he is concerned that Act 46 may have taken some local control away from communities.

“I’m going to look into repealing it,” he said. “I definitely want to hear from more of my constituents.”

Williams said it should be repealed.

Wade, who served for a term on the Rochester School Board, said he thinks the law has been a “disaster,” and also called for fewer supervisory unions in the state.

Marijuana Legalization

On the topic of marijuana, McCormack and Clarkson voted to support the legalization of recreational marijuana, and Clarkson said he would now like to see it taxed and regulated.

“As a public health and safety measure, we need to control the quality of the marijuana sold to Vermonters. And, creating an income stream to finance prevention and treatment of our opiate addiction problem is essential,” she said.

McCormack favors the same to “regulate for purity and potency,” though he said he doesn’t think it will prove to be a big revenue generator.

Nitka, a longtime social worker, said she opposed recreational marijuana because she is concerned that more children and teens will be exposed to the drug now that it is legal for adults to possess in small quantities. But she said she would now “consider” a tax-and-regulate system.

Gray said he is “kind of on the fence” on the issue, but said he would support a tax-and-sale system if there is a better way to test impaired drivers. Townsend said he might support a tax-and-regulate system.

For his part, Williams said the recreational marijuana law should be repealed in its entirety. “Marijuana is a crisis same as opiates,” he said.

On the other hand, Wade said he thought it was “an insult to Vermonters” and to “personal freedom” to quantify the number of marijuana plants they are allowed to possess, and he said he opposed taxing marijuana.

Carbon Tax

Clarkson has been a Senate sponsor of a “carbon pricing bill” which would tax fossil fuels such as propane, heating oil and gasoline in a bid to combat climate change, with some protections for lower-income residents. She said: “we have just experienced the hottest year on record. … We need to explore the incentives which will reduce our use of fossil fuels and make a meaningful dent in our carbon consumption.”

McCormack suggested expanding mass transit and expanding wind and solar, where appropriate and wanted by local communities, and also suggested developing “a carbon pricing system that helps low-income working people conserve energy and so save money. Such a ... system could include a carbon tax if struggling Vermonters can be made whole for the tax’s regressive impact.”

Nitka said she is not in favor of a carbon tax, and she noted that in the last recession she saw “serious suffering” among the elderly and low- to middle-income families struggling to pay heating bills.

Williams said a carbon tax “is nothing more than a ‘Ponzi scheme’ of the radical militant left,” among other groups, for the “legalized extortion of billions of dollars from the taxpayers and businesses.”

Gray also said he would strongly oppose it. “We already struggle with bringing business into the state, and one of the biggest costs for business is heating their buildings,” he said.

Townsend also said he was against the idea, as it would drive up the price of fuel, and “struggling Vermonters can’t afford more tax.”

“All it would do is send more revenue to feel-good programs in Montpelier,” he said.

Wade is opposed, too, saying he was in a room with older Vermonters who “all shook our heads” when some young advocates of fighting climate change with a carbon tax raised the idea.

Williams and Gray challenged the incumbents two years ago, along with Hartford Republican Mark Donka.

Clarkson won 15,436 votes in 2016, Nitka 14,430, and McCormack 13,905 in winning Senate seats. Donka was the closest challenger then, with 9,836 votes, while Gray had 8,148 and Williams 7,460.

A search for the seven candidates in Windsor County court records indicates Townsend had misdemeanor convictions in his past, including unlawful mischief in 2006 and 1995, and simple assault in 1992. The search turned up no criminal records in Windsor County for the other six candidates.

Asked about the convictions, Townsend said he “made a couple of mistakes” when he was younger, but it was “a long time ago.”

This is Townsend’s first run for the Legislature. He said he is motivated to run in large part because he has watched friends and neighbors having to sell their homes and move out of state.

“I’m glad these real estate agents aren’t running against me because they’ve got more signs up than us politicians do,” he said.

Meanwhile, the three Democratic incumbents have taken out joint advertisements urging voters to “elect experienced leadership.”

The last Republican to hold a Senate seat from the Windsor district was the late Ruth Harvie, a Chester Republican who was defeated in 1996.

John P. Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com.