Politics

At VTDigger debate, Democratic candidates for US House carve out distinct policy positions

The race for Vermont’s lone seat in the U.S. House has featured few major disagreements between the leading Democratic contenders. But at the first media debate of the election season Wednesday night, an online forum hosted by VTDigger, the candidates began to draw contrasts with one another on foreign policy, campaign finance, voting rights and policing. 

Answering questions from VTDigger reporters and readers — and their fellow candidates — Sen. Becca Balint, Sianay Chase Clifford, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale made their respective cases to succeed U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., in the House. They were also quick to cross-examine one another and question each other’s records. 

On the U.S. response in Ukraine

Asked early in the debate whether the United States should do more to help repel the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the candidates generally shied away from proposing additional involvement. Only Balint would say what circumstances might prompt her to support a military intervention: the use of chemical weapons. She voiced her support for stronger sanctions against Russia — and for sanctions against Belarus, which has allied itself with Russia and served as a launchpad for the invasion. 

“We need to have a vice grip around the dollars,” Balint said.

Gray plugged her experience working for the International Committee of the Red Cross and said she believed the U.S. was “taking the right approach.” Gray explicitly opposed imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine and said she would consider additional action only with the cooperation of allies through international organizations such as the United Nations. 

She also suggested that a decision to intervene should first be approved by the U.N. Security Council — a body over which Russia has veto power. 

“If ultimately a determination is made, together with the Security Council that boots on the ground may be necessary, then that’s a conversation that we need to have,” Gray said. “But at this point, I would not support putting U.S. military on the ground in Ukraine.” 

Ram Hinsdale, who noted that her ancestors fled Kyiv before World War II, expressed her support for President Joe Biden’s response to the invasion but noted the conflict was connected to tough questions around energy and climate policy. 

“Fossil fuels are at the center of so many of our global crises,” Ram Hinsdale said. 

Chase Clifford, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., said she would support more targeted sanctions, arguing that broader “nonviolent sanctions hurt the most vulnerable communities.” She said she did not support deploying the U.S. military to Ukraine. 

On campaign finance and voting

All four candidates have pledged to refuse campaign contributions from corporate political action committees, known as PACs, but on Wednesday night, they were asked to get more specific: Would they refuse campaign donations from registered state or federal lobbyists? 

The issue first came up last month when VTDigger reported that Gray had participated in a pair of Washington, D.C., fundraisers hosted by Luke Albee and Ed Pagano, both former chiefs of staff to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. 

Both have now spent years as corporate lobbyists. Pagano’s recent clients have included firearms manufacturer Sig Sauer, tobacco company PMI Global Services and corporate beermaker Anheuser-Busch, according to federal lobbying disclosures. Albee’s recent client roster includes Meta, Facebook’s parent organization, and manufacturers of personal protective equipment.

Gray made clear she was uninterested in refusing such donations in the future.

“I won’t here tonight say that I won’t accept state or federal lobbyist contributions,” she said. “But I will be disclosing every dollar, and Vermonters can judge who supports the campaign for themselves.” 

Balint hedged, saying she believed her campaign had not accepted any lobbyist contributions but that she couldn’t confirm it on the spot. She said she did not solicit lobbyist contributions and didn’t intend to accept them going forward.

Gray later returned to the point when given the chance to ask a question of another candidate. Turning to Balint, she said, “There was a question to you about whether or not you’re accepting federal lobbyist contributions. And I just wanted it to be clear because I didn’t fully hear the answer: Are you accepting contributions, currently, from lobbyists?” 

“I appreciate the question. I don’t believe we are, which is why I said that, but it is certainly something I need to confirm,” Balint said. “We have not been soliciting donations from lobbyists. We have not been attending lobbyist gatherings. And so can I say, absolutely, that there aren’t any lobbyist donations in the finance report? I can’t say that at this time. So that is my hope that that is what we’ll see going forward.”

Offered a follow-up question, Gray pressed further. 

“I just think that it’s really important. I know that there was some recent reporting on where candidates were receiving funding from,” Gray said, referring to VTDigger’s reporting last month. “And I received a little bit of attention for receiving funding from two former chiefs of staff to Sen. Leahy who have been together —” 

“Is this a question, Lt. Governor Gray?” Balint interjected.

But Gray kept talking — “decades of services to Vermont. And so as we’re talking about federal funding, or where we’ve received funding from, I just think it’s an important point of clarification that you were also potentially accepting money from federal lobbyists.” 

Ram Hinsdale said she would categorically refuse contributions from federal lobbyists but would consider accepting contributions from state lobbyists “if our values are aligned.” She said she had long declined contributions from tobacco or pharmaceutical companies or any corporation that supported private prisons. 

Chase Clifford answered the PAC question with an immediate “no.” 

“Like my hero Shirley Chisholm,” Chase Clifford said, “I intend to be unbought and unbossed.”

On making amends

Perhaps the most revealing moments of the debate came when the candidates were given the opportunity to ask questions of their competitors. 

During one such exchange, Balint asked Gray to share a mistake she had made — and what she had done to make it right. Gray opted to bring up an issue that dogged her throughout her 2020 campaign for lieutenant governor: her failure to vote in any elections from 2010 through 2016. 

“I think it’s not unknown to Vermonters that there was a period in my life, Becca, where I was not a consistent voter,” Gray said. “And that was a mistake. That was a huge mistake.” 

Gray then turned around with a voting question of her own, asking Balint what she would do in the Legislature to establish universal vote-by-mail in primary elections. The state currently sends ballots to all voters only in general elections. 

“Parties run primaries,” Balint responded. “The Legislature doesn’t have purview over that.”

Chase Clifford asked Gray if 16- and 17-year-olds should be able to vote. (The issue recently became contentious in the Legislature, when the Senate failed to override Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of a bill allowing teens to vote in local elections in Brattleboro.) Gray said she did not believe that younger Vermonters should be allowed to vote, because “they might be voting on things that they can’t fully participate in.” 

Chase Clifford offered an opposing view: “If you are old enough to work and have your labor exploited and contribute to public money,” she said, “then you should have a say in labor laws and have a say in how that money is spent.”

All four candidates expressed their support for making reparations to Black Vermonters, though with varied specificity on what such policies would look like. 

During one round of candidate-to-candidate questioning, Gray went out of her way to state that she did not support “defund(ing) the police.” She then put Ram Hinsdale on the spot and asked, “Do you agree with me?” 

“We need to be investing in public safety,” Ram Hinsdale replied. She said she supported limiting police involvement in situations unrelated to crime, especially mental health crises. 

“I don’t believe that we need to further militarize the police,” Ram Hinsdale said. 

On Welch 

Though Welch is vacating Vermont’s U.S. House seat to run for the Senate, his name came up repeatedly during Wednesday’s debate. 

When the candidates were asked to name an instance in which they disagreed with a vote taken by Welch, each took great pains to compliment the member of Congress they hope to succeed. But the candidates also found ways to separate themselves from the Democratic incumbent. 

Gray said she wished Welch and his colleagues in Vermont’s congressional delegation had pushed harder for paid family and medical leave. Ram Hinsdale criticized Welch’s decision to accept contributions from corporate political action committees for much of his career — but saluted his decision last year upon joining the Senate race to turn down such donations. 

“While I don’t believe that influenced his decisions, I’m very heartened now to see that he has turned a corner and is rejecting PAC dollars in his Senate run,” Ram Hinsdale said. 

Chase Clifford, meanwhile, alluded to past reporting by VTDigger that Welch’s inside knowledge could have contributed to decisions to buy certain stocks. “To be frank, I … also would have loved to have seen him make a little less money on the stock market off of legislation and actions happening in Congress,” Chase Clifford said. (Welch said at the time that he had no knowledge of the transaction in question and has since pledged to avoid buying and selling individual stocks.)

But the toughest — and least accurate — response to the question came from Balint, who falsely claimed that Welch had voted for the Iraq War. In fact, he was elected to Congress three years after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and won, in part, on an anti-war platform. 

“One of the things that I think we forget is that there was only one lone vote against the war in Iraq,” Balint said. “And I know that it weighed heavily on (Rep.) Welch to make the vote that he did, but I think given the information that we had at that time, I think I would have made a different choice.”

Balint went on to say that “we have to think very carefully about where the intelligence is coming from” and that “we as Americans sometimes get swept up in the fever of war and retaliation.”

In addition to misstating Welch’s voting history, Balint also appeared to conflate the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was Congress’ 2001 vote to authorize the use of military force in Afghanistan — and to wage the so-called Global War on Terrorism — that drew just one vote in opposition: that of U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Cali. 

The 2002 vote authorizing the use of force in Iraq drew opposition from 133 members of the House and 23 senators, including all three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation at the time, Sen. Patrick Leahy, the late Sen. Jim Jeffords and then-Rep. Bernie Sanders.

Gray quickly fact-checked Balint’s claim.

“I’m not sure which vote Sen. Balint’s talking about when it comes to Congressman Welch in Iraq,” the lieutenant governor said. 

“In the leadup to the war,” Balint responded. 

“Senator, I’m sorry,” Gray said. “Congressman Welch was elected in 2006, and that was long after the U.S. was in Iraq. I just had to clarify that point.”

Balint later waded back in to claim that she had been referring to a later vote of Welch’s to fund the U.S. military and said that Gray had “spoke(n) in error.” 

“The congressman did vote in 2007 to continue billions of funding for Iraq and Afghanistan and then later had to defend his vote in the spring,” Balint said. “So I just wanted to be clear about that.”

On guns, drugs and Republicans

During a lightning round of questions at the end of Wednesday’s debate, the candidates offered a grab bag of interesting answers. 

Have you ever used a firearm, and do you own firearms? 

Ram Hinsdale: Yes, and yes to owning firearms “in my household.” 

Balint and Chase Clifford: No and no.

Gray: Yes to having used firearms but no to possessing them.

Do you support federal legalization of marijuana or other controlled substances? 

Chase Clifford, Balint and Ram Hinsdale said they supported both. Gray said yes to decriminalizing marijuana, but no to other controlled substances. 

Have you ever voted for a Republican candidate for president, governor or Congress? If yes, who? 

Balint said she had supported Republican Bill Weld when he was running against “an extreme Democratic candidate,” John Silber, for governor of Massachusetts. Gray and Chase Clifford both said “no.” Ram Hinsdale also said “no,” but added, “and I have voted in a vast majority of the elections since I was of voting age.”

Who is the U.S. politician, living or dead, whose political values come closest to representing your policy positions?

Ram Hinsdale said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington; Balint said Chisolm; Chase Clifford said Chisholm and Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo.; and Gray picked from the home team: Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Welch.

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Riley Robinson

About Riley

Riley Robinson is a general assignment and multimedia reporter, covering stories across the state in writing, photos and video. She is a graduate of Northeastern University's School of Journalism and first joined the Digger newsroom as a Dow Jones News Fund intern.

Email: [email protected]

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