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More of the same or change in Washington?

House candidates begin to draw bright lines in debates

By Christian Avard | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted September 22, 2006

TUNBRIDGE — In their first head-to-head debate, candidates for Vermont’s lone congressional seat asked voters: What is the best direction for our country?

That was the overall theme in the first of many debates scheduled between State Sen. Peter Welch, a Democrat, and former Vermont National Guard Adjutant General Martha Rainville, a Republican, on Sept. 15.

The setting was the famous Tunbridge World’s Fair, now in its 135th year, and was moderated by WDEV radio host Mark Johnson.

The candidates fielded questions of all kinds but the overall topic of conversation was who can best change the course of our country — and Vermont — for the better.

“I think the most important issue in this campaign is ‘Who do you want to lead in Congress?’ We’ve had one-party rule for the past six years and there’s been a record of extreme policies that’s been extremely damaging to Vermont,” said Welch. “The question that Vermonters have to decide is do they believe one more vote in the Bush Congress for two more years is the right thing or if you want a vote for change.”

Rainville, on the other hand, believed that changing faces — or party rule — isn’t the necessary solution.

“I think we have to change the way Congress does business. Some will say that means changing the faces of leadership. I disagree. I believe the only way we’re actually going to change Congress is change the way they operate: their procedures, to make their business more transparent to voters, and hold them accountable for the actions that they do,” said Rainville.

Another topic raised was the on-going war in Iraq. The United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan remarked recently that the United States could not afford to leave Iraq but also could not afford to stay.

When Johnson asked which of the two statements was true, Rainville agreed with both of Annan’s comments but also believed that we should not pull our troops out precipitously.

“We must understand the realty of what we’re facing. The U.S. must follow through its obligations: to train Iraqi security forces, to give them the flexibility to determine the style and structure of government they want, and most importantly, bring our troops home with honor.”

Welch, however, said our forces have already set out what they intended to do: They got Saddam Hussein, conducted a search for weapons of mass destruction, and allowed Iraq to have democratic elections. He emphasized the war efforts have now not gone as planned, that the military is caught in middle of a bloody civil war and has spent irresponsibly at taxpayers’ expense. “This war is costing taxpayers $250 million a day at the great expense of our country, not just in the money that it takes but in how it diverts our attention from addressing some of the other issues at home that are important.”

Discussing war costs segued into domestic fiscal policy. When asked by Johnson where they would cut spending, Rainville suggested inefficient federal programs.

“Twenty nine billion dollars was added to the budget last year. Some of those projects were reviewed and many of them were not justifiable. We have a budget of a couple trillion dollars and there are ways to become more efficient. When we were spending billions of dollars we need to make sure they’re spent effectively and efficiently.”

Welch disagreed. “General Rainville says we’ve got to have programs reviewed and I say we need to change the leadership. Republicans have been in power for six years. They have a record and Vermonters are entitled to know about that record so they can decide whether or not they want to hire that Congress to continue doing the public business.”

Welch elaborated that the priorities of the Republican Party were clear: tax cuts for the wealthy, funding the Iraq War, and the slashing of veteran’s benefits.

While the first debate was civil in tone, there were some tense moments. Rainville stated that the U.S. should have dealt with global warming 30 years ago and called for the need to conserve, remove our dependence on foreign oil, and move toward renewable energy sources.

While Welch agreed that they should have dealt with it 30 years ago, he pointed out that 30 days earlier, Rainville commented that the human-induced effects of global warming still needed to be studied.

“When I said the dynamics need to be studied more that is still not an excuse for us not to control our impact on the climate. We can do and control what we can control and we cannot use other excuses to avoid that any longer,” Rainville responded.

While the debate was primarily civil there were two minor moments of heated discussion. Rainville responded that she tirelessely advocated on behalf of our “Green Mountain Boys” and their families, both before and during the war in Iraq, including, at times, advocating against tour of duty extensions. Welch touted his record as a bipartisan leader in the Vermont Senate. But after his response, Welch pressed Rainville about why she did — or did not — speak up about the lead up to war with Iraq.

Rainville said her primary role was to prepare the guard for their mission, but she said she provided some of her opinions to the Adjutant Generals Association, she also claimed she didn’t have the luxury of throwing shots at people. “My responsibilities were enormous at that time and required my attention in the way I could best serve, the point of which was to keep my focus on preparing the troops.”

In the end, Welch asked the audience, “Do we want two more years of George W. Bush or do we want to vote for a different direction? Martha Rainville believes if you vote Republican that somehow all the things we’ve seen in the last six years will somehow change.”

Rainville said her 27 years of service in the military prepared her for the job and specifically asked Vermonters in the end “to send someone who’s not going to be a part of the partisan political system. One who will work with others and look at things from a fresh perspective.”