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Five Candidates Vie for 2 Seats in Norwich-Area House District

  • Tim Briglin

  • Nick Clark

  • John Freitag

  • Jim Masland

  • Jill Wilcox



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Norwich — A moderate independent, two incumbent Democrats and a pair of Progressives from four different towns are presenting Norwich-area voters with a bevy of options to represent their interests in the Vermont House.

Rep. Tim Briglin, D-Thetford, is a 52-year-old capital investment firm owner; Rep. Jim Masland, D-Thetford, is a 69-year-old site supervisor for Upper Valley Habitat for Humanity; progressive Jill Wilcox, of Sharon, is a 64-year-old Dartmouth College employee; progressive Nick Clark, of Norwich, is a 30-year-old web developer; and independent John Freitag, of Strafford, is a retired Newton School district employee and selectman who will be 68 by Election Day on Nov. 6.

It’s an unusual spread of candidates for the Windsor-Orange 2 district, a traditional Democratic stronghold which encompasses Strafford, Norwich, Thetford and Sharon.

Freitag, a former Democrat who ran as an independent against Briglin and Masland in 2014, says Vermont’s Democratic Party hasn’t represented him since before the governorship of Peter Shumlin, whose tenure with a supermajority of Democrats in the Statehouse “really led to some overreach and some very bad policies in the state of Vermont.”

Freitag said one example of overreach was the 2015 education reform law Act 46, which seeks to lower the cost of education and improve educational opportunities for students by herding school districts into larger, more cost-effective units.

Disagreements over the law reached a fever pitch this month, when the State Board of Education voted to force a handful of districts to merge against their will, an action that prompted promises of legal action from school boards in those communities.

Freitag said that while he supports elements of Act 46, on the whole it is “a disaster,” and he said he would work to find a solution that includes more local control for districts.

Though Freitag was the most vocal critic of Act 46, the other candidates also expressed disapproval of the law.

Briglin said he opposed Act 46 when it passed, which was during his first year in the House, and that he helped to push through an amendment that softened a per-pupil spending cap that was part of the original law. While school districts in the four towns have not been forced to merge, Briglin said that he’s been sensitive to the concerns of other towns across the state.

“I think local school districts can make the best decisions,” he said. “It’s something I would be working on, to support towns that are trying to find a solution.”

Masland said he anticipates there will be a handful of bills introduced into the Legislature to address the situation, and that he also would favor an alternative to forced mergers.

Progressives Wilcox and Clark both said that education policy is not their strongest area of expertise, but that they value local control and a strong public school system. Wilcox said she would tend to support legislation that intervenes on behalf of the school boards that don’t want to merge, and Clark said he would follow the lead of more knowledgeable Progressive Party members, but that he supports both local control and affordability.

Wilcox and Clark both framed their candidacies around issues that are central to the Progressive Party — getting money out of politics through state-level campaign finance reform, increasing the minimum wage, pushing for universal health care coverage for Vermonters, and combating climate change, in part through the use of a carbon tax that would charge consumers a fossil fuel surcharge at the gas pump.

The prospect of climate change legislation is what first drew Wilcox, who has lived in Sharon for 30 years, into the political arena, and she said it would be her top priority as a legislator.

“The Vermont Legislature, the Vermont government and the Vermont citizens really need to exercise their political will to tackle this because I think it’s the single biggest issue we’ll ever face,” she said.

She said studies of a carbon tax often overlook financial benefits, such as the lower maintenance costs of electric cars, and the negative impact of a do-nothing scenario.

As with Act 46, Freitag said a carbon tax would be “a disaster,” mostly because he says it would negatively impact the community stores within the district.

“There’s things that are national problems, where a standalone Vermont solution doesn’t work,” he said.

Instead, Freitag said, he would support a partnership between the Legislature and environmental companies, in which Vermonters could voluntarily offset their carbon footprint by contributing toward carbon offset projects that also would improve water quality in the state.

Clark supports a carbon tax plan, but said his unique contribution would be a push for a state program that would sell Vermonters specialty license plates to finance the conversion of all state-owned buildings to renewable energy plans.

Masland and Briglin both expressed reservations about current carbon tax plans on the table, but support an idea that could impose a carbon tax while improving the fortunes of border town gasoline retailers.

“I would buy down the sales tax to make it revenue neutral,” Masland said. “It would be a great benefit to people along the river, mom-and-pop stores. It wouldn’t be such a great deal to go to West Lebanon anymore.”

Briglin said such a program also would put a dent in the $2 billion that Vermont currently sends out of state to purchase fossil fuel.

Briglin, a founding partner at Tuckerman Capital in Hanover, also is a board member for Mascoma Savings Bank. He said he’s proud of his recent legislative record, and counts among his successes amendments to soften Act 46, a discussion to insulate Vermonters from possible health care rollbacks at the federal level, and a resolution he introduced that opposed NewVistas, a proposed development from a Utah engineer who bought land near the Joseph Smith Birthplace on the Royalton-Sharon line.

Briglin also described himself as a strong supporter of a recent gun control measure that limited magazine sizes, raised the minimum age of purchase for firearms, and closed loopholes in background check requirements. “Those were the front-burner issues,” Briglin said.

Freitag and Masland had a similar take — they support the measures, but said they are not looking for more changes.

“We pass things and we see how things work,” Masland said. “I would like to see how this plays out.”

Clark and Wilcox both said they respect Vermont’s hunting culture, and its strong track record of firearms safety. Clark said he would go further in gun control if more “reasonable gun laws” were to be introduced.

“I think going too far would be taking away everyone’s guns,” Clark said.

Clark and Wilcox also said they would like to address gun violence with a focus on preventive measures, like investing more resources into upstream causes like mental health treatment and domestic violence.

“Counseling and support for men in domestic disputes is needed and helps to prevent escalation to violence,” Wilcox said. “I know where women go, but where do men go?”

Masland, a longtime legislator, said that his recent legislative successes include a brownfield reclamation bill, and a push to get more funding for ECFiber, which is providing internet access to rural Vermont communities. But he said one of his top priorities would be to revisit an issue that didn’t make it into law — paid family leave.

“It is certainly good for young families with children,” he said. “It puts employees at ease. If I get sick, or Grammy gets sick, or my wife has another child, I don’t have to quit my job if I have to be at home.”

One issue that divided the candidates is the extent to which the state should legalize marijuana. Lawmakers recently acted to legalize growing and owning small amounts for personal use, but has, to date, refrained from regulating and taxing commercial sales.

“I voted in favor of what we did, and that was very sensible for us,” Masland said. “It was very modest. But I am not in a great hurry at all to do commercial sales and taxes.”

Briglin voted against legalizing recreational marijuana, and said he is wary of large out-of-state marijuana companies lobbying on behalf of the idea.

“There’s question as to whether or not the revenue generated from the taxation really can overcome the issues that come with commercialization,” he said. “It’s something I oppose at the moment.”

But Freitag said he supports regulating and taxing.

“It should be sold only through state liquor stores, and then any profits should be in a lock box for education and law enforcement,” he said. “I think it’s the next reasonable step, treating it like we’re treating alcohol. And I think alcohol is probably more dangerous.”

The two Progressive candidates also support more extensive legalization, including taxing pot sales.

Wilcox said it would ease the cost and societal ill effects of the justice system, while bringing money into state coffers.

“If it can be done legally and smartly and it adds revenue to Vermont, then yes, I support it,” she said.

Clark, who mounted an unsuccessful 2016 bid in the district’s Democratic primary, is the youngest candidate in the race by more than 20 years. An activist who co-founded the Upper Valley Young Liberals and traveled to Standing Rock, N.D., to protest an oil pipeline, he says his perspective can be a strength.

“Marijuana is very easy for people to access, even for high schoolers,” he said. “I support tax and regulate purely from a safety standpoint.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

Correction

The Windsor-Orange 2 district has two seats in the Vermont House. A headline with an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how many seats are at issue.