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Familiar Foes Vie for Orange-Caledonia Seat

  • Chip Conquest

  • Joseph Parsons



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, October 08, 2018

Newbury, Vt. — Voters in the Orange-Caledonia district in the Vermont House have a rematch to decide.

West Newbury Republican Joe Parsons is again challenging state Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Wells River, House seat, which includes the towns of Newbury, Groton and Topsham.

Parsons, a 34-year-old floor installer, lost to Conquest — now a five-term incumbent — by a count of 1,134-960, or 52.2 percent to 44.2 percent, in the 2016 general election. 

“It was a great experience, even though the outcome wasn’t what I wanted,” said Parsons in a Friday phone interview. “It was definitely a learning experience. I expect the whole process to be easier for me this time around.”

The candidates agree on several key state issues.

For example, both oppose a carbon tax for fuel consumers for fear rural Vermonters will shoulder the bulk of the cost burden. The so-called Essex Plan, revealed at a climate summit meeting in Burlington last November, would tax fossil fuels such as propane, heating oil and gasoline and use revenues to help lower electricity rates. Providing incentives for a shift toward electricity would help Vermont meet its energy policy goals, proponents have argued, because most of the state’s electricity comes from renewable sources, but opponents argue that shift would be too costly.

“The way I see it, the Essex Plan is only a benefit for people who can afford it,” said Parsons. “Most of the people I know don’t have $10,000, $20,000 or $30,000 lying around to switch their homes to electric-based systems.”

Conquest, a 57-year-old beef farmer and butcher, also opposes a consumer carbon tax while agreeing with the principle that lowering overall greenhouse gas emissions is vital. “Global climate change is one of the biggest issues of our lifetime, but we’ve got to find a way to do it that doesn’t hurt families,” Conquest said. “We’d be asking Vermonters to take on a burden that I’m not sure would have much real affect on the problem.”

Both oppose a tax-and-regulate system governing retail marijuana sales, though for different reasons. Parsons said state legislators may have rushed into legalizing recreational use of marijuana — which went into effect July 1, allowing adults to possess up to an ounce while procuring up to two mature and four immature plants — and said a tax-and-regulate system would be “just another tax.”

“Most of the revenue (from retail taxes) would be used to pay for everything else it would take to implement it,” Parsons said. “It would be used for things like educating people about marijuana and equipment for law enforcement, like saliva tests.” 

Conquest, meanwhile, contended that the current status of legalization is enough for the time being, and, in fact, was one of the key lawmakers in legalizing recreational marijuana.

“We know that marijuana use has health risks and there is a good case that those health risks are lower than alcohol use,” he said. “If people want to procure and grow limited amounts of it on their own, that’s no longer illegal, but it’s different when you start talking about the opportunity for sale and distribution. I’m open to arguments, but I don’t know if we’re ready for that. The First Amendment might make it difficult to put limits on advertising, for example.”

As for the controversial gun control legislation signed by Gov. Phil Scott last April, Conquest supported two aspects of the bill — banning bump stocks and requiring people under 21 years of age to take a hunter safety course before they can buy a gun — while opposing limitations on magazine capacity and the expansion of background checks. 

“Bump stocks essentially allow a semiautomatic weapon to act as an automatic weapon, and the state doesn’t allow automatic weapons,” Conquest said. “As for the hunter safety classes, it’s still perfectly fine for an adult to buy a gun for an under-21-year-old kid without a hunter safety class, but at least in that case we know that there is some adult involvement.”

Parsons was opposed to Scott’s gun legislation as a whole. 

“I don’t see it as much more than a bunch of people telling themselves they did something,” he said. “Will it translate into an actual increase in safety? I don’t think it will.”

While neither is explicitly opposed to Act 46 — Conquest voted for the school consolidation law, and Parsons acknowledged its intent to improve education quality and lower expenditures — both candidates are opposed to a potential merger in their backyard. The state Agency of Education has proposed a merger of Blue Mountain Union with the Newbury Elementary School District, Oxbow High Union School District and Bradford Elementary School, and the State Board of Education can mandate it by Nov. 30.

The proposal has drawn fierce opposition from groups affiliated with BMU and Newbury Elementary, and both Orange-Caledonia candidates are on their side.

“The law is supposed to have the best interests of students in mind, and this merger would not do that,” said Conquest. “If BMU were closed and all their students were moved to Oxbow, the distance on a bus that students from Groton, Ryegate and Wells River would need to travel would be too great in my view, and many kids who participate in extracurricular activities rely on their parents for rides. They could miss out on those activities, because it would be more difficult for parents to pick them up.”

Parsons called all forced state mergers “heavy-handed” and vowed to support constituents fighting the state’s proposal that would affect BMU and Newbury Elementary. “On day one, I would start working with my colleagues in the House to ensure the will of the people is heard,” he said. 

The mid-term elections are scheduled for Nov. 6. 

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.