ENOSBURG FALLS — Republican challenger Felicia Leffler and incumbent Democrat-Progressive Cindy Weed debated their respective qualifications for the Franklin-7 House seat in the Enosburg Falls High School auditorium Thursday night.
Franklin-7 includes Enosburgh, of which both Leffler and Weed are residents, and Montgomery.
Their debate was generally civil and occasionally contentious, especially regarding their financial backing and respective histories.
Weed raised the former issue after an audience question on publicly financed elections. Weed said her financial backing is a big difference between her candidacy and Leffler’s. Weed said she has not accepted corporate donations, and accused Leffler of receiving donations from a Massachusetts couple with a history of funding homophobic hate groups.
That was most likely a reference to Tom and Carol Breuer, who have donated $2,000 to Leffler’s campaign, according to Leffler’s public campaign finance disclosures. The Breuers are Massachusetts residents with a second home in Stowe and a well-publicized history of donations to Republican campaigns in Vermont. They also have a well-publicized history of donations to Christian right and anti-marriage-equality causes.
Leffler did not deny Weed’s accusation. Leffler said she “has been very fortunate” in the number of people donating to her campaign. Leffler’s campaign has raised nearly $10,000, more than any other House candidate in the county. Weed’s has raised nearly $4,000.
Leffler said, “In no way, shape or form am I a candidate who responds to money with votes.”
Later in the debate, Leffler said she has “always supported” the LGBTQ community — that they’re the “same people as you and I,” deserving of the same rights and “same dignity.”
An audience member later questioned Weed’s assertion that she does not accept corporate donations, pointing to a campaign ad in which she lists endorsements by five organizations. Weed said she accepted donations from two of those organizations: the National Education Association (NEA) and the Vermont State Employees Association.
The debate’s other point of contention was the candidates’ records, specifically Weed’s voting record. Leffler has no voting record — this is her first candidacy — and she questioned several of Weed’s votes, in particular Weed’s yes vote on H.883, a 2014 Act 46 precursor.
Leffler said H.883 was a “more aggressive” version of Act 46, largely due to a six-month rollout. According to the last version of the bill before the Senate voted it down — available in the vermont.gov archives — H.883 seemed to have a six-year rollout, allowing potentially merged districts six years for compliance.
Weed said H.883 concerned voluntary district mergers. Leffler responded with a gleeful: “Nope.” H.883, particularly in its initial form, did focus on voluntary mergers, but it also stipulates that districts that did not voluntarily realign “shall be assigned to Expanded Districts.”
Leffler said she has never supported Act 46, that its goals are “lofty” and that a better recourse to cut our education spending is to look at and modify previous decisions.
Weed said she “wasn’t around” to vote on H.361, the House bill that Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law as Act 46. The state’s legislative voting record supports that. She was absent during the vote. Weed said she supports the law’s goal, “quality education at an affordable price,” but said she feels state officials are not listening to local communities and that she does not support forced mergers. She said she has written letters to the chair of the state education board arguing officials should heed local input.
Audience members took their own jabs at the candidates by way of questions on anonymously submitted index cards. One asked Leffler about her association with the County Courier. Leffler is romantically involved with its editor and publisher, Greg Lamoureux. Leffler said she worked on graphic design for the paper’s advertising during a staff shortage. The paper has a new graphic designer, Leffler said before adding that she hasn’t recently been directly involved with the publication itself.
“My only association with the paper is that my dog stays there during the day,” Leffler said.
Another audience member asked Weed who the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, or VPIRG, answers to, and whether VPIRG had convinced Weed to vote for a carbon tax. VPIRG is a non-profit environmental advocacy group. VPIRG has noted Weed’s actions on several Progressive issues — for example, her pledge not to accept donations from the fossil fuel industry.
Weed said she does not know to whom VPIRG answers — VPIRG lists its staff and board of directors at vpirg.org — and that VPIRG has not swayed her one way or the other on a carbon tax. Weed said she has no opinion on the tax without a specific proposal in question. As far as a carbon tax as a general idea, Weed said only that it “behooves us” to examine long-term renewable energy sources.
Leffler said she opposes a carbon tax in any form because it specifically targets rural Vermont, which currently lacks certain resources — she gave the example of natural gas — that might be accessible in more populated areas. She also said it could financially hurt commuters, a significant portion of Franklin County’s population.
Audience members asked multiple questions about the Second Amendment and Vermont’s three recently passed gun laws. Both candidates said they support the Second Amendment. Weed voted in favor of all three gun laws. She said she does not expect further gun legislation, that those laws went far enough, and acknowledged the laws may do little to avert a mass shooting aside from a ban on larger magazines. She said the laws were designed more to combat suicides and incidences of domestic violence.
Weed also contested the idea that the laws took Vermonters’ guns away, noting the laws are “grandfathered in” so that they affect only future purchases, not past.
Leffler criticized the domestic violence bill. She suggested supporting local law enforcement as an alternative to the measures contained in the law.
One audience question asked about each candidate’s community involvement. Leffler said she grew up here after moving from Idaho when she was three weeks old. She cited her realtor work and attendance at Enosburgh Initiative and Enosburg Business Association meetings as ways in which she understands the community’s issues.
Weed said she served on the local school board for four years, served on the Enosburg Opera House board, including four years as the opera house’s publicist, several years on the Northern Tier Center for Health (NOTCH) board. She also cited her own attendance at Enosburgh Initiative meetings.
The first question asked each candidate about their “bedrock values.” Weed said “social and civil justice.” Leffler said she wants to see a community she can live and grow in, and in which her peers can stay.
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