Four vy for two seats in Essex-Orleans Senate race

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Left to right are Jay Dudley, John Rodgers, Bobby Starr and Bob Lewis. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

by Chris Braithwaite

copyright the Chronicle 10-17-2012

In a campaign season that on the national level compels voters to choose between radical extremes, people who will elect the next two state senators from the Essex-Orleans district face the opposite problem.  It’s not easy to find important differences in what the four candidates stand for.

That was emphasized at the opening of Monday night’s media-sponsored debate at The East Side Restaurant in Newport.

Asked about industrial-strength wind power on the Kingdom’s ridgelines, the candidates were unanimous in their condemnation.

That included the only political novice in the race, Jay Dudley of Orleans.  In his day job, Mr. Dudley is the chief financial analyst for the state Public Service Board, the body that granted permits to the big wind projects in Sheffield and Lowell.  But Mr. Dudley is no friend to wind.

Vermont wind developers, Mr. Dudley said, “are going into wild, natural areas and blowing them to smithereens.”

The existing projects will offer a handful of highly technical jobs that probably won’t go to local people, Mr. Dudley added.

“I support a moratorium on industrial wind,” he said, “but ultimately we need to just stop it in its tracks.”

In response to the moderator’s specific question, how wind projects should be sited, John Rodgers of Glover said, “somewhere out in Nebraska would be good.  They have no place on our ridgelines.”

“Vermont does not need the power,” he added, noting that a wood-fired power plant in Ryegate shut down this summer because there was no market for its electricity.

Bobby Starr of North Troy, the only incumbent in the race, said the only people who make money on wind projects are the developers and the landowners who host the towers.

Consumers, he said, will have to pay for power that, even after government subsidies, will cost ten to 12 cents per kilowatt hour to produce, while the wholesale cost of power is about six cents.

All the towns within view of a proposed project should have a say in the permitting process, Mr. Starr added, and share equally in any payment the developer offers to the town that would host it.

“How come we don’t put them on Lake Champlain?” said Bob Lewis of Derby, a state representative who hopes to move up to the Senate.  “We have a lot to do on this issue.  We need to know the truth.”

Policy differences did emerge on the subject of drugs — specifically the prescription painkillers that, the candidates agreed, have become a bigger problem than illicit drugs.

Painkillers are the number one problem, said Mr. Lewis, who has retired from a career in law enforcement.  In Montpelier, he said, “we worked to give law enforcement the tools they needed.”

He supported a bill that would have given a police task force the right to monitor online the prescriptions filled at the state’s drugstores.  Presently, he said, police have to visit pharmacies in person to view such records.

The Democratic majority rejected the bill, he said, because “people were upset about access to their personal information.  We could get a lot more done if we just gave them the tools.”

“I disagree that we should let police look at every person’s prescription records,” said Mr. Rodgers, a Democrat.  “What’s next?  They can listen to your confessions in church, or when you talk to your lawyer?”

After 30 years of struggling with the problem, Mr. Rodgers added, “I think we would learn that enforcement is not the answer.”  He called instead for an emphasis on education and keeping young people in school.

Mr. Dudley, a Republican whose campaign puts a heavy emphasis on economic development, seemed to agree with Mr. Rodgers.  The root problem with drugs is people’s economic circumstances and high unemployment, he said.  “Economic development would be an important cure for a lot of these social ills.”

He blamed the plight of poor Vermonters on “this notion in Montpelier that we can have a zero-growth economy without any real effect on people.”

Mr. Starr agreed that “we need to keep children busy — keep them in school, hopefully, until they’re 18.”  Raising the age at which children can leave school from 16 to 18 is something he’s tried to accomplish in the Senate, Mr. Starr said in an earlier interview.

But Mr. Starr seemed to side with Mr. Lewis on the issue of prescription monitoring.

“It may not be good, John, to track these,” Mr. Starr said.  “But you can’t allow druggists to pump out prescriptions to these people.”

Mr. Starr and Mr. Dudley differed on a couple of points.  In his opening remarks, Mr. Dudley suggested that a major reason to vote for him is that he is not a Democrat, and so wouldn’t add to that party’s “super-majority” in the State House.

Among the consequences of that dominance, he said, would be a new sales tax on services — for work done by people like plumbers, electricians and mechanics.

In his regular visits to Montpelier, Mr. Starr said, “I haven’t heard one word about that.”

For the first and only time in Monday’s debate, Mr. Dudley invoked the rule that let him speak out of turn to respond to a direct challenge.  He said he’d heard House Speaker Shap Smith say that a sales tax on services would be on the agenda for the next session.

Mr. Starr said that was news to him.  Such a tax was discussed, but not adopted, during the last session.

And in his closing remarks, Mr. Dudley said his own campaign is self-financed.  “My only interest group is you,” he told his audience.  “My only debt is to you.”

While Mr. Starr and Mr. Rodgers might claim to be independent, Mr. Dudley continued, they depend on the Democratic Party for financial support.

“Nobody does anything for Bobby other than Bobby and his immediate family,” Mr. Starr responded.  “I don’t take directions from Montpelier, and I certainly don’t take any of their money.

“I usually get the job done without a lot of fanfare,” Mr. Starr concluded.  “I always left that up to Vince.”

That was the evening’s only reference to the man who is chiefly responsible for this year’s spirited Senate campaign.

Senator Vince Illuzzi created a vacancy in the district when he decided to run for state auditor, his first try at a statewide office.

That ended a long run of elections in which Mr. Illuzzi and Mr. Starr pretty much walked into office without serious opposition.

Mr. Starr is running to retain the seat he has held for eight years.  He moved to the Senate after a career in the House that began in 1978.  During most of his political career he ran — and drove for — his own trucking firm.

Mr. Lewis was appointed to the House to fill a vacancy five years ago.  The biggest reason he wants to move to the Senate, he said in an interview, is that “you have a lot more clout in the Senate than in the House.  You can get more done.”

Mr. Lewis worked as a state trooper and, later, a game warden.

Mr. Rodgers was part of the fifth generation on a family farm in Glover.  He runs his own small contracting firm.  That kept him so busy in the summer and fall of 2010 that he did little personal campaigning in his bid to retain his seat in the House.  He lost in his two-member Orleans-Caledonia district by a single vote, to fellow-Democrat Sam Young.

Mr. Dudley worked in commercial lending and small business development with area banks for 17 years before he joined the Public Service Board.  His lack of political experience put him at a disadvantage Monday night, when the candidates were asked to name their most important public accomplishment over the past five years.

Mr. Dudley spoke of his 18 years on the Barton Planning Commission and Zoning Board, ten years as chairman.  In that role, he said, “we structured our bylaws in a way that was fair, and had the interest of the property owner first and foremost.”

Mr. Rodgers said he was on the House Institutions Committee when local voters turned down a proposal for a free-standing technical education center in Newport that would be entirely state funded.

“Many legislators thought this area would never get it together,” Mr. Rodgers said.  “The majority on my committee wanted to drop the tech center.”

But Mr. Rodgers said he fought to keep the idea alive, and the center was ultimately established at North Country Union High School.

Mr. Starr cited his successful efforts to find state funds for all new school buildings on the western side of Orleans County.  “Our children were going to school in buildings they shouldn’t have been in,” he said.

Reaching back well over five years, Mr. Starr also mentioned the Northeast Dairy Compact, which he created with the help of economist Dan Smith.

He had to sell the idea in five other New England states and in Washington, Mr. Starr said.  Before it was killed by Congress, he said in an interview, it brought $150-million to distressed dairy farmers in New England and New York State, of which $50-million came to Vermont.

Mr. Starr said he hopes to become chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee if he’s returned to Montpelier.  He served for years as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

As for Mr. Lewis’ major accomplishment, he said, “There is no question that number one is my family.”

Beyond that he spoke of his work on the Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources.  “I’m very proud of the bills I sponsored for sportsmen that became law,” Mr. Lewis said.

Asked about a single-payer health care system, three of the candidates agreed that they had not been given enough information to make up their minds.  Only Mr. Dudley took a firm stand against a single-payer system.  He cited the Canadian system, which, he said, tries to control costs by rationing and delaying services to its patients.  That was the only comment of the evening that drew angry grumbles from some members of the audience.

“I support a market-based approach,” Mr. Dudley said.

In general, however, the two Republican candidates took moderate positions, which placed them miles to the left of the Tea Party, while the two Democrats emphasized their independence.  It may be that Mr. Starr spoke for all of them when he made this comment on national politics, in an interview:

“The middle of the road is gone.  You’ve either got to get into the ditch on one side or across the yellow line on the other.  Usually the best part of the road is in the middle.  I see myself as a middle-of-the-road guy.”

The full debate can be viewed on NEK-TV, Comcast channel 15, on Wednesday, October 17, at 10 a.m. and 8 p.m., Thursday at 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., and Friday at 2 p.m.

contact Chris Braithwaite at [email protected]

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