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Democrats Fight for 2 Windsor Seats

  • John Bartholomew

  • Paul Belaski (Courtesy photograph)

  • Zachariah Ralph (Courtesy photograh)



Valley News Correspondent
Saturday, July 28, 2018

Windsor — The two Democratic incumbents representing Windsor, Hartland and West Windsor in the Vermont House are facing a rare primary challenge.

Hartland resident Zachariah Ralph, who has been the program coordinator for Sustainable Woodstock since 2014, is challenging state Reps. John Bartholomew, D-Hartland, and Paul Belaski, D-Windsor, in the Aug. 14 primary for the two-seat Windsor 1 House district.

Ralph, 31, previously has worked for different nonprofit foundations and in community organizing efforts, including the 2008 campaign of President Barack Obama in Maryland, where he attended college.

Ralph said in an email he is running for the Vermont House to take away the “power and influence of the major parties, private interests and money” and give it back to ordinary Vermonters who he said no longer are empowered to participate in the political process.

“We need leadership that will aggressively work to create broader whole systems solutions for all Vermonters to address our failing economy, communities/families, democracy, environment and judiciary,” Ralph said. “The top-down approach practiced by our Legislature is taking power away from our communities.”

While Bartholomew and Belaski said last session’s signed gun legislation, which expands background checks, prohibits sales of guns to people under 21 and bans bump stocks, was a good step toward making Vermonters safer, Ralph called it “ineffective.”

“It does not address the problem of gun violence in Vermont while simultaneously vilifying and scaring gun owners,” Ralph said.

Bartholomew, 63, disagreed and said the new law strikes a proper balance and improves safety.

“We passed common-sense gun legislation without restricting access to anyone legally allowed to own a gun and is not an infringement on constitutional rights,” said Bartholomew, a four-term incumbent.

Belaski, who was first elected in 2016 and is an architect and former zoning administrator in Windsor, also supported the bill, calling it “reasonable gun safety legislation.”

“I am pleased we could work with the governor to deliver a bill he could sign,” Belaski said in an email.

Bartholomew pointed to the state budget that passed the Legislature as one example of his work on behalf of his constituents.

“I think we can be proud of the House and Senate passing a budget three times with bipartisan support,” Bartholomew said. “Having a budget everyone can support is impressive. It is responsible and balanced.”

If he wins in the primary and the general election, Ralph said, he will focus on the environment, in particular clean energy.

“I will work to get our state to 100 percent renewable energy, to increase funding for weatherization, clean water projects, public transportation and ban single use bags,” he said.

Other priorities will be a “livable wage” and universal health care in the state.

Though he supported the new law that allows for recreational use of marijuana by adults in Vermont, Ralph said the legislation should have included rules for sale.

“If elected, it is important that it is regulated to prevent marketing and access to children and minors and that taxes and regulations are not so high and strict as to be a hindrance for Vermonters who have been growing and selling dope for the last 50 years to not be able to enter the market legally,” he said.

Bartholomew supported the legalization law, as did Belaski.

“I agonized over the decision because people are under the false impression it is innocuous,” said Bartholomew, a retired veterinarian who was chief of research in the animal management branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health. “It does have health implications and there is potential for abuse. But in the end, I concluded prohibition does not work. It just enriches the black market.”

He said Vermont has to proceed cautiously, especially if the federal government decides to crack down on marijuana use.

“Probably what makes the most sense is to move forward but in a careful way so we are clear about what we are doing,” said Bartholomew, a member of the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry.

Belaski, who sits on the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions, also believes more needs to be done but said the Legislature should not rush into it.

“I believe a well-researched and defined commercial sale of marijuana law would benefit the state financially as well as diminish or eliminate the black market sales of marijuana,” he said. “This would also severely restrict access to those under 21 that had ready access via the black market.”

All three candidates said they would like to see the state’s minimum wage increase over time. The wage increased to $10.50 an hour this year; beginning in 2019, it will be tied to the rate of inflation.

“A slow, six-year increase in the minimum wage is important for all Vermonters to earn a livable wage and not have to rely on social benefit programs,” said Belaski, who co-sponsored a bill that would have provide employees with 12 weeks of paid family leave with funding from employers and employees. “A paid family leave program, paid for by employees and not taxes, will especially benefit small businesses that cannot offer that to their employees. Both raising the minimum wage and a paid family leave program will help Vermont keep families here and attract new families to move here to work.”

Bartholomew backed a bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024. It passed both the House and Senate, but it was vetoed by Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

“I was disappointed it was vetoed,” Bartholomew said. “How can anyone survive if they don’t have the opportunity to earn a livable wage?”

Bartholomew also wants to work toward an energy policy that recognizes the need to act in the face of climate change. “We really have to deal with climate change issues. We can’t keep kicking the can down the road,” he said.

The two Democrats who emerge from the primary will be facing Wesley Raney, 32, a Hartland Republican.

Raney said it is his first run for public office and one of the issues that spurred him to file for the seat was the gun legislation signed into law by Scott.

“I would not have been in support any of those measures,” Raney said, adding that affordability for Vermonters also is important to him.

Raney, who is married with two daughters, was born and raised in Hartland. He is employed at the River Valley Club and also has a firearms instruction business, Green Mountain Armory.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.