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Orange County Senate Seat Rivals Face Off for Sixth Time

  • On the campaign trail, Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Williamstown, talks with Thetford resident Roxy Maxfield at her home on Oct. 17, 2016 in Thetford, Vt. MacDonald is the incumbent in the Orange Senate race. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Stephen Webster, in his office in Randolph, Vt., is running for the Orange Senate seat. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Williamstown, leaves a note while camapigning door to door for a Thetford resident on Oct. 17, 2016 in Thetford, Vt. MacDonald the incumbent is running against Stephen Webster. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Stephen Webster, of Randolph, Vt., is running for the Orange Senate seat. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Randolph — Voters in 11 Orange County towns have a familiar decision to make in next month’s contested election in the Orange Senate district.

Former Senate President Pro Tempore Stephen Webster, R-Randolph, is challenging state Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Williamstown, in the sixth time the two have battled for the seat.

MacDonald, 73, a beef farmer and retired middle school history teacher at Randolph Union High School, has held the seat since 2003 and also held it from 1996 to 1998. He previously served in the House from 1983 to 1994.

His challenger, Webster, 72, a Randolph native and former Orange County prosecutor, has served in the House and held the Senate seat for five terms. He turned back a challenge from MacDonald in 1994 but then lost to the Democrat in 1996. MacDonald has withstood three other challenges from Webster, a lawyer in Randolph, most recently in 2010.

The Orange Senate district consists of 11 towns, including Randolph, Chelsea, Tunbridge, Strafford, Thetford, Vershire and Corinth.

Four other Upper Valley towns in Orange County — Bradford, Fairlee, Newbury and West Fairlee — are part of the two-seat Caledonia Senate district.

MacDonald continues to run for office because he enjoys the legislative process, he said in a phone interview.

“I do a good job of bringing folks together to discuss the changes that people think need to happen without doing it in a way that we all regret,” he said.

He is particularly proud of collaborative efforts to grow the state’s renewable energy sector, which he says have curbed electricity costs and helped to reduce the state’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Webster said he is running to support Republican Phil Scott in the Legislature, should Scott win the governor’s race against Democratic candidate Sue Minter.

“I think the Legislature is way out of balance,” Webster said in a phone interview.

If elected, he would try to act as a counterbalance to the Democrats’ supermajority in the Senate, he said.

In general, Webster characterized his views as “lower taxes and smaller government,” but he was not optimistic he would be able to enact new legislation or roll back existing laws, given the composition of the Legislature.

The two differ in their approaches to campaigning for office. MacDonald is an energetic door-knocker, while Webster has traditionally stood for election without much retail campaigning.

Marijuana Legalization

The two differ starkly in their positions on marijuana legalization.

MacDonald, who supported a Senate bill last session that would have legalized recreational marijuana use, voiced concerns about the safety of the marijuana currently bought and sold in an unregulated market.

“People don’t always know what they’re buying, so that can be dangerous,” he said.

While he supported the Senate bill last session, MacDonald said, there are ways it could be improved. For example, future proposals should allow small-scale growers to participate in a controlled market, rather than allowing a few large growers to benefit, he said. Future proposals should also include relevant education programs in the state’s schools, he said.

In contrast, Webster said he would not support any bill to legalize marijuana in Vermont before the federal government does so, he said.

“To violate federal law is not something I would support,” Webster said.

School Consolidation

The two candidates agree that Act 46 goes too far to encourage consolidation among school districts around the state.

Both wish to preserve school choice in the communities that have it, including Tunbridge and Strafford, and Webster said he would like to expand choice options for all Vermont students.

MacDonald, who said he voted against Act 46 in an unrecorded voice vote on the bill’s final version, said he did so because “I thought the bill was overly prescriptive.”

He did, however, vote in support of the bill’s progress through the Senate up to that point. The language of the Senate bill differed from the final version he opposed, he said.

He said he hopes that communities that determine that consolidation would not benefit their children will be able to opt out. Communities are best able to determine what works for them, he said.

If he had the opportunity, Webster said, he would like to repeal or amend Act 46 to give local communities more say. He said there could be some “equal protection issues if you allow some at this juncture to have choice and not others.”

One model the state might explore is to create education savings accounts where people could make charitable contributions, he said.

“I’d create a system, if I could, where every student in Vermont could ... go to any school that they wanted,” he said.

Gun Control

Both candidates are generally content with the state’s gun laws, but MacDonald said there may be room to improve background checks.

“We have laws for universal background checks, (but it) appears (they’re) not as universal as we thought they were,” MacDonald said.

He did not have a specific recommendation for how to improve the checks. Instead, “gun owners are best at making suggestions to making the checks universal,” he said.

Webster simply said he is a “strong believer in the Second Amendment.”

Regarding background checks, “I don’t see it as a big problem in Vermont,” he said.

State Budget

Both candidates pointed to human services as an area where costs ought to be reined in, but they have different ideas as to how to do so.

Benefits for the working poor have increased in recent years, with people who are often working two part-time jobs unable to make ends meet, MacDonald said.

He proposed that out-of-state corporations that own retail businesses in Vermont ought to pitch in for health insurance, child care and food stamps for their employees, he said. Otherwise, the state’s taxpayers are effectively subsidizing the businesses, he said.

“Most Vermonters, I think, resent the idea of having to pick up the tab for large corporations that come in,” MacDonald said.

Overall, the state is too generous with the benefits it provides, Webster said.

For example, the state pays for some seniors to live in nursing homes while they continue to own their own homes, Webster said. Legally, seniors in nursing homes may sign their houses over to relatives before they die, bypassing the probate court and Medicaid recovery system. In which case, the system never recovers the cost it incurred to house the senior in the nursing home, he said.

Health Care

Neither candidate was enthusiastic about the state’s approach to health care reform.

MacDonald, who supported since-abandoned efforts by Gov. Peter Shumlin to move Vermont toward a single-payer system, said it is clear that the state has not taken the “most efficient” approach to health care.

He said he plans to keep an eye on enrollment in Vermont Health Connect, the state’s health insurance exchange, this fall. If numbers are low, he said he is sure adjustments will be made. He suggested that employers, particularly out of state corporations, ought to provide benefits for their employees.

MacDonald said he is listening to conversations about an expanded all-payer health care model proposed by the Shumlin administration, which would pay more providers based on their patient populations instead of the volume of services provided, as happens under a fee-for-service system.

MacDonald is looking to see whether the proposal will result in cost savings, healthier outcomes for patients and collaboration with insurance companies.

“It takes several years to come up with a system like that that works,” he said.

Webster was critical of the state’s overall health care goals and the way in which Vermont Health Connect is working.

While he said there should be a “a safety net for those who need it,” he opposes the idea that “the government should be in the business of paying all of the health care bills of everybody.”

As treasurer of White River Valley Ambulance, Webster said he has found Vermont Health Connect to be difficult to work with.

As a result of a new 3.3 percent tax on ambulance providers passed by the Legislature last session, Webster said the group will have to increase its rates.

In order to find out more information about the new tax he tried to contact Vermont Health Connect and was unable to find a person to answer his questions.

“I feel alienated,” he said. “I didn’t used to feel that way about state government.”

State Sens. Joe Benning, R-Lyndonville, and Jane Kitchel, D-Danville, are both running for re-election in the two-seat Caledonia district, which includes the Bradford-area towns. They face a challenge from Marijuana Party candidate Galen Dively III, of Walden.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.