3 Democrats seek 2 spots on fall ballot for House seat

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BENNINGTON — A veteran representative, a prior candidate and a newcomer are vying for two November ballot spots in the Bennington-2-1 House district primary race.

Dane Whitman, the Bennington Democratic Committee chairman; Michael Stern, who ran for a House seat as an independent in 2018; and Rep. Timothy Corcoran II, who is seeking a ninth term, are facing off in the Aug. 11 Democratic primary.

Two of the three will land spots on the Nov. 3 ballot, where they are expected to face at least one other candidate, Republican Colleen Harrington, who is unopposed in that party's primary.

There is only one incumbent in the two-seat House district because Rep. Chris Bates is not seeking re-election.

Michael Stern

Stern, 67, who ran in the district in 2018 as an independent, said some of his key issues remain providing access to health care and promoting a sustainable level of income for all families — through such initiatives as a $15 an hour minimum wage.

The economy, he fears, could plummet further before the COVID-19 epidemic is over, and Stern said he wants to ensure Vermonters who are not comfortable or well-off today don't fall further behind.

"One thing we need to be is proactive," he said.

Education, particularly at the college level, also has become too expensive for those at the lower income levels, he said.

He added that "we have to stop rewarding those at the top" more than average workers, who today have less opportunity compared to the working class of past generations.

He also advocated an emphasis on geriatric care in Vermont in terms of enhanced care options and provider training. He noted that Vermont "is the second oldest state in the nation, and Bennington has the second oldest population [in the state]. That's both a problem and an opportunity . I know there are so many opportunities for health care once we get our pay level up to 15 an hour. These people are working hard and doing difficult work."

As for the Democratic Party in Vermont, Stern said some Democrats are too conservative for the times, adding, "I think we need people who are more progressive and with vision."

His take on controversies involving the Black Lives Matter movement, Stern said, is that is has become unfairly conflated with mid-20th century or earlier paranoid fears of communism, Marxism or socialism conspiracies.

Stern said he would consider diverting some funding now going toward law enforcement and the criminal justice system to social programs that might address some of the root causes of crime.

He also reaffirmed his prior stance in favor of expanding the legalization of marijuana. Rather than merely approve dispensaries to sell cannabis products, he advocates allowing growers to develop and sell their own "best quality home grows" to produce a strong Vermont market similar to craft beer, wine and spirits.

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State cannabis policy "has not been working for the average person in Vermont," he said, because of "limitations on personal grow and cultivation techniques that if made more reasonable would give people especially Vermont farmers a chance to grow a cash crop."

The state also would benefit from additional tax revenue, he said, allowing more funding for social programs and education.

Noting his college degrees and training in more than one discipline, Stern, who is mostly retired but works on creative projects, such as films, said he "just wants to make myself available" in some capacity, win or lose on election day.

Stern received a master's degree from Rutgers University in social work in administration, policy and planning with an emphasis in drug and alcohol studies. He also received his master of divinity degree relating to pastoral studies from Drew University.

"I've lived an amazing life," he said. "I want to make a life in service to the community."

Dane Whitman

Whitman, 26, is chairman of Bennington's Democratic Party and a 2016 Bennington College graduate who stayed on in North Bennington after college.

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He now operates a business, Grey Oak Landscaping and Garden Design.

"The problems facing Vermont demand leadership that is hard working, thoughtful, and creative," Whitman said. "I believe I have what it will take to represent Bennington at this important time in Vermont's history."

He said the coronavirus pandemic "has changed everything. Vermont is expecting over $300 million in revenue losses, and the Legislature will need to be resourceful and diligent to make sure we get through this safely and in one piece."

He added, "However, we also have an opportunity to invest in many of the programs Vermont needed long before the pandemic (affordable housing, childcare, broadband access, to name a few). This will help to jump-start our economy and bolster our workforce when the time comes to safely reopen."

The candidate also said "it is also high time to address the various inequities facing people in Bennington. From food and housing insecurity, to bias in our criminal justice system, we need to rethink state programs so that they uplift people, rather than keep them down."

As a state representative, Whitman said, "I hope to hear from the people in my community who are struggling most, and to work together with partners in the state to design systems that better serve everybody."

It is also important "to remind ourselves that the clock is still ticking on climate change," he said. "By weatherizing our homes, electrifying our vehicles, and generating our own renewable energy, we can keep more money in the Vermont economy, have a healthier environment, and create good paying jobs."

Whitman has said during the campaign that he intends to focus on initiatives that combine "societal benefits with economic returns on investment," such as workforce development.

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He also wants to attract more young people to Vermont, and to strengthen the existing talent pool in the state by tackling poverty, food and housing insecurity, and addiction recovery.

He said he believes early childhood education is an important component in building the state's future.

Whitman was raised in California and moved to Vermont in 2012 to attend Bennington College's Center for the Advancement of Public Action. His studies focused on land use, food systems and environmental justice.

He is a member of the Shires Young Professionals Advisory Board and also serves on the Southwest Vermont Regional Technical School District board and as choir director for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bennington.

Timothy Corcoran II

Corcoran, 47, is the ranking member of the House Committee on Transportation.

"I personally believe I still bring a voice of reason to the table, and am someone who understands that compromising is key to getting things done," he said. "There's been plenty of votes in my years of representing Bennington 2-1 that I struggled with, but at the end of the day, I always did what I felt was best for my constituents."

In balancing the state budget, with a projected $300-plus million deficit due to the COVID-19 epidemic, "there's going to be tough decisions made," Corcoran said. "If elected again, I'll be sure to lend my voice to protect the best interests of Bennington 2-1 district."

Child care "has always been a big issue for me," Corcoran said. "I've heard over and over again stories of parents having to stay home because of the high cost of child care. We as a state need to do more to lower the cost for the average family."

Opioid addiction, he said, "continues to be a major issue for me. Every day, it seems like, we lose someone in Bennington due to a drug overdose . I know Senator [Dick] Sears has done some great work in addressing this crisis; however, we need to build on those efforts. It's a three-pronged-approach — more money on prevention, treatment, recovery."

In general, Corcoran has said he "always tried to bring a common sense approach to any piece of legislation," not based solely on party affiliation or ideology. "I really pride myself on listening to what the proposal is and what is the effect, negative or pro and go from there."

Corcoran is a lifelong Bennington resident who is employed by Hoisington Realty.

He was educated at Mt. Anthony Union High School and Johnson State College, where he received a bachelor's degree in political science.

In the other Bennington House race, in District 2-2, Democrat Rep. Jim Carroll and newcomer Michael Nigro are unopposed in the primary for the two Democratic ballot spots, and incumbent Republican Rep. Mary Morrissey is unopposed for her party's nomination.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner and Manchester Journal.


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