MONTPELIER — The five candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for Washington County’s three State Senate seats participated in a forum last week, which addressed topics including systemic racism and rising housing in Vermont.
The forum was held virtually on July 7 and was co-hosted by Vermont Conservation Voters and Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRGdd). The moderator was Steven Pappas, publisher and editor of the Times Argus.
The candidates for the Democratic nomination in the state primary on August 9 are Ann Cummings, Jared Duval, Jeremy Hansen, Andrew Perchlik and Anne Watson. Cummings, a former Montpelier mayor and retired real estate agent, is seeking her 13th term in the Senate and Perchlik, director of the Vermont Clean Energy Development Fund and resident of Marshfield, is seeking a third term. Progressive Democrat Anthony Pollina announced he was not seeking reelection to the third district seat. Watson, the current mayor of Montpelier and a high school physics teacher, Duval, a Montpelier resident and executive director of the Energy Action Network, and Hansen, a computer science professor at Norwich University and a member of the Berlin Select Board, each seek their first term. The district they seek to serve covers all of Washington County, as well as the cities of Stowe, Braintree, and Orange.
Residents can go to bit.ly/3RBjmdK to watch a video of the entire discussion on YouTube.
Pappas asked the candidates how they would work to dismantle systemic racism in the state and address environmental injustice.
Hansen said systemic racism is a structural problem that should have been addressed in the past instead of “kicking the road.”
He said he supports the inclusion of racial justice statements on the proposed legislation. Hansen said these statements would be an analysis of how the bill would disproportionately impact certain marginalized populations and include an acknowledgment that this is the case. He said residents expect tax notes on bills to better understand the cost of a bill and that his proposed statements would also help residents understand the costs of racial justice.
Perchlik said he supports increased education that shows there is systemic racism and systemic discrimination holding back the state.
“There are still people in Vermont who don’t believe it exists,” he said. “I think we need to make sure that’s embedded in everything we do.”
He said all new programs are already supposed to go through an equity review to make sure they don’t further reinforce systemic racism.
Watson said she wanted to focus on renters, who are a financially vulnerable population, and how they can get off fossil fuels. She said with the price of oil as high as it is now, tenants could pay a high cost for heating. Watson said their landlord may not have had the incentive to weatherproof the building.
“If we’re going to be realistic about the Global Warming Solutions Act and achieve our goals, we have to address the plight of tenants,” she said.
Watson said around 40% of Montpellier’s housing stock is rental and much of that stock is old and needs to be weatherized.
Cummings said that with the fight against systemic racism, two things happen. She said the first tries to change people’s attitudes and perceptions.
“People get defensive if you tell them they’re biased because they don’t think they are,” she said.
She said the conversation shouldn’t be threatening.
Cummings said the state also needs to look at its systems and see who is affected by them. She said the state doesn’t have a large population of those who identify as black, indigenous or of color, but the population is growing, which is a good thing.
“But we have a huge underbelly of white Vermonters, poor Vermonters who have been systematically biased in many things that we do,” she said.
Duval said the reason it’s important to address systemic racism is that it’s not just about individual attitudes and behaviors.
“It’s generational,” he said. “We’ve seen this nationally with redlining and just who has had access and who hasn’t had access to state and federal government programs and it leaves a legacy that needs to be overcome.”
He said it was about who benefits and who pays when it comes to things like pollution. He said that to fully understand this, data must be collected. Duval said he supports the environmental justice bill that has since passed, which will help collect this data. He said the state needs to make sure the law is properly funded and implemented so the state knows where the disparities are.
Pappas asked the candidates what they would do to support smart growth housing in the state, which protects state resources while increasing access to affordable housing.
Cummings said housing is not just a state issue, there are also decisions made at the local level with regulations put in place by local planning and zoning. She said she helped draft Montpellier’s first master plan.
She said there was also a “NIMBY” or “not in my backyard” issue, which needs to be resolved. Without identifying him, she said that there is a land in Montpellier that should have housing now, but it does not because of this kind of attitude and refusal from some residents.
She said a frank discussion is needed where if people want others to move here to fill vacancies and help pay for services offered by Vermont, they will have to compromise.
Duval said housing is one of the state’s most important issues. He said it was systemically linked to so many other challenges.
He said the issue needs to be addressed from both the supply side and the demand side. He said more incentives were needed to develop housing in town centers and village centres. Duval said more can be done for secondary suites.
“We need to have a real sense of urgency around creating more housing because there is an undersupply,” he said.
Hansen said when housing is built in city centers, those areas can be walkable. He said that when residents have the option of walking to the store, they don’t have to use their car, which is both cheaper for the resident and helps the environment.
He also talked about adding secondary suite incentives to increase the number of units.
“If you have a single family home and there’s space and the zoning allows you to add a small house to it, the mother-in-law’s apartment, whatever you want to call it, I think that’s an easy short-term fix,” he said.
Perchlik said he supports full funding for the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board. He said the funding for the council comes from the property transfer tax which has increased recently due to the price of property sales, but all the funding that should go to the council is not going there.
He said the council is not only focused on creating more affordable housing, but also on land conservation. Perchlik said he doesn’t want to see a “gold rush” where the state creates as much housing as possible, leading to regrets later. He said he supports building housing that falls within the guidelines of Law 250, but he also supported making changes to the law to help increase housing in downtown areas.
Watson said she would like town centers to be exempt from Bill 250 if the zoning there provides enough environmental protections.
“Because going through this process of both Law 250 and local zoning is often redundant. So just to facilitate (housing construction), I think it would be beneficial,” she said.
She said the state must support the rehabilitation of the second and third floors of downtown buildings where spaces are vacant. Watson said the state must build in places already impacted by development.
Watson said she was interested in the idea of allowing municipalities to implement “property taxes” for designated town centers, which would encourage building in town centers.