6 candidates compete for 3 seats in Windsor County Senate race

  • Alison Clarkson (Courtesy photograph)

  • Dana Colson (Courtesy photograph)

  • Alice Flanders (Courtesy photograph)

  • Bill Huff (Courtesy photograph)

  • Dick McCormack (Courtesy photograph)

  • Becca White (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/29/2022 12:36:00 AM
Modified: 10/29/2022 12:35:45 AM

WOODSTOCK — Three Democrats and three Republicans are squaring off to represent Windsor County in its three-person state Senate delegation.

Democrat Alice Nitka is retiring from the Senate, opening up the seat she’s held since 2012 and leaving the other two incumbents — Democrats Alison Clarkson, of Woodstock, and Dick McCormack, of Bethel — to campaign alongside state Rep. Becca White, of Hartford.

They face Republicans Dana Colson, of Sharon; Bill Huff, of Thetford; and Alice Flanders, of Hartford.

If elected, White, who has represented the Windsor-4-2 District in the House since 2019, would be Vermont’s youngest state senator.

Ahead of the Nov. 8 general election, the six candidates talked about abortion policy, school choice and high energy prices.

Huff, 64, a former airline pilot and financial planner, is running a tough-on-crime and tough-on-taxes campaign. He has previously made two unsuccessful bids for the Orange District Senate seat. But this year’s redistricting moved Thetford from the Orange District to the Windsor District, giving Huff a shot with a changed electorate.

“As a legislator, I wouldn’t introduce legislation or vote for any legislation that would prohibit a woman to have an abortion, particularly in the first to second trimester,” Huff said, also voicing opposition to abortions later in pregnancy.

Colson is in the same camp.

“I’m pro-choice to a point,” Colson said, adding that he would draw the line at abortions after six months, except in cases where the mother’s health is at risk.

Colson, 48, was born and raised in the Upper Valley. He ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2020, losing in the Republican primaries.

Flanders, 67, is a retired Navy engineer and former teacher. She also doesn’t support late-term abortions and is “concerned that casual use will bring us one step closer to euthanizing of elderly or disabled for convenience,” she wrote in an email to the Valley News.

Both Colson and Huff oppose Article 22, which would enshrine the right to have an abortion in the Vermont constitution and is on the ballot in the general election.

“It’s not a good piece of legislation,” Huff said. “The language is extremely vague, and if we pass Article 22, we really don’t know what it is we’re passing, and the final determination will be made in the courts.”

But McCormack, who has served in the Senate since 1989, except for a gap from 2001-07, pushed back on the assertion that the details would be left up to the judiciary.

“My thought has always been that the constitution should deal with basic fundamental matters, and that details should be dealt with legislatively,” McCormack said. “It specifically has to do with women’s right to abortion, but it also has to do with the whole notion of privacy.”

Clarkson is seeking her fourth term in the state Senate and previously has served in the House for over a decade. She played a substantial role in drafting Article 22. “There’s nothing vague about it,” Clarkson said. “Every word is exact, and every word is needed.”

Enshrining the law in the constitution all but ensures that it can withstand shifts in the political makeup of the Legislature, Clarkson said.

“This is a further protection and sets the bar higher,” she said.

White looked beyond the implications of legislation related to abortion on just Vermonters.

“It looks like Article 22 will pass, but the concern for me is that then we’ll have other states who will try to penalize those medical practices of our providers or the people who are coming here for services,” White said. “We want to make sure that other states can’t infringe on our citizens’ rights.”

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling greased the wheels for public money in Maine to continue going to religious schools, which could have broader implications for the kind of curriculum tuition dollars could support in Vermont. Like Maine, Vermont allows public school tuitioning, which lets taxpayer money follow students from a town that doesn’t have its own public school to another public or private school in or around the state.

Clarkson, who has penned legislation that would end the transfer of public education money to private schools in other states, sees the Supreme Court decision as spurring a broader dialogue in the state about the practice of school choice.

“I believe we will have a very robust conversation in the Legislature about the separation of church and state,” she said. “It will be very curious to see how Vermont, always labeled as one of the most liberal states, takes this on.”

Clarkson was elected Senate majority leader in 2021. Among her positions on a number of committees, she serves as the vice chairwoman of the Economic Housing, Development and General Affairs Committee.

Huff voiced concern for private schools in the area, including The Sharon Academy and Thetford Academy, that might be hurt if the faucet of public money was turned off.

“Schooling should be a choice between parents and their children,” Huff said. “All three of my Democratic opponents have expressed an eagerness to regulate that option away from parents in the state.”

Also mentioning the Sharon and Thetford academies, Colson asked, “Why destroy something that’s working?”

“Those parents at those schools are taxpayers, too,” he said.

McCormack questioned the lack of state oversight that comes with the dissemination of public funds to private, especially religious, institutions.

“If we’re giving tax dollars to private schools, those schools should have to comply with the same requirements and conditions as public schools,” he said, voicing concerns for LGBTQ students that might face discrimination in religious schools.

Flanders, a “strong” supporter of school choice, pointed to “numerous private schools that routinely outperform local government schools, that seem to be bogged down with political correctness rather than academic excellence,” she wrote in an email.

Candidates were in agreement across the aisle that rising costs, especially energy prices, need to be addressed. But when it comes to crafting solutions, they found less common ground.

McCormack, who is vice chairman of the Institutions Committee and also serves on the Judicial Retention and Natural Resources and Energy committees, turned first to fossil fuels.

“We’ve got to get out of petroleum,” he said. “One reason is climate change, but the other is look at how expensive it is, and we don’t control the expense.”

White also pointed to the transition to renewable energy as a price stabilizer.

“When I look at the cost at the pump, at the increased price that the average Vermonter is seeing when they fill up, it makes me concerned that we’re not moving quickly enough away from fossil fuels,” said White, who served on the House Committee of Transportation.

She wants to bolster support for programs like Mileage Smart and Replace Your Ride, which support moderate- and low-income Vermonters’ switch to electric vehicles.

Wary of increased regulation, Huff focused less on soaring energy prices and more on the burden of high taxes.

“We’re in a situation where we can’t attract people to the state because housing is expensive and taxes are so high,” Huff said, adding that these expenses are keeping jobs out of the state, too. “I really fear that my children won’t be able to afford to stay here in Vermont.”

Huff also pointed to “overregulation” and cost-intensive permitting processes as a barrier to affordable housing.

Colson expressed frustration with Act 250, a law designed to mitigate the effects of development and give community a say in project approval, which he said is a stumbling block for small businesses trying to get on their feet.

“I think small projects should be exempted from that (process),” he said. “Act 250 should focus on big developments and leave those small homeowners alone.”

Projects that encompass less than 10 acres, or less than 1 acre in towns that do not have permanent zoning and subdivision bylaws, do not require Act 250 approval, nor do housing developments with 10 units or less.

Colson mentioned support for a number of environmental issues, including bolstering water-related infrastructure and addressing PFAS and other chemicals in consumer goods.

“But I think the government should focus on transitioning government buildings and fleets to renewables first, before putting mandates on the people,” he said. “I’m less concerned about CO2.”

But in order to “save the Vermont industries that we care about,” Clarkson, who also supports increased funding for weatherization, urged a rapid transition away from fossil fuels.

“Climate change is not some abstract concept; climate change is impacting tourism and agriculture,” Clarkson said. “There will be no maple sugaring if we don’t protect our environment. There will be no skiing here in Vermont.”

Flander argued the transition to renewable energy should proceed “carefully, with numerous backups and redundancy built into the picture,”

“I am a strong proponent of relying on tried-and-true methods primarily while exploring and implementing various alternative renewable energy options in parallel,” Flanders said.

Colson, who owns Sharon-based North Country Welding Supply, has felt the direct impact of price surges for fuel, which he calls “the linchpin to the economy.”

“I see it in my own business,” Colson said. “The cost of product coming in, the freight, goes up, and I have to pass that price on, or I’ll go bankrupt.”

The three Democrats — White, McCormack and Clarkson — have been campaigning as a team, their photos side-by-side on mailers and appearing in person at events together. But going into the election, White extended an olive branch of bipartisanship.

“If elected in November, I’m not elected just by the Democrats,” she said. “If someone doesn’t vote for me, I’m still going to be there if they have concerns or opportunities that they see in their community that they want to move forward on the state level.”

Voting in the Windsor County Senate race is scheduled for Nov. 8.

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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