BENNINGTON — The body language said a lot, with Bennington County State's Attorney Erica Marthage and her challenger and former top assistant prosecutor, Christina Rainville, sitting as far apart as possible during a campaign forum Tuesday.
The format for the 90-minute forum at the Bennington Firehouse prevented direct debate, but both candidates in the hotly contested race were at times disparaging of their opponent while answering questions from the audience and moderators Sean-Marie Oller and Bruce Lee-Clark.
Rainville, who was fired by Marthage in 2015, repeatedly asserted that during her nearly nine years in the Bennington office he handled all major cases and appeals and acted as the chief liaison with the Legislature on bills related to criminal justice issues.
In her closing statement, Rainville said the 12-year incumbent lacks the experience of handling major cases and appeals to the state Supreme Court, while she was lead prosecutor in 25 important trials, handled as many appeals, and oversaw an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to successfully overturn a Vermont Supreme Court decision that allowed the release of a man convicted of domestic assault.
A state's attorney "needs to lead the office and needs extensive appeal and trial experience" to accomplish that, Rainville said. "I did that for my entire eight and a half years [as chief deputy in the office]."
The challenger asserted at one point, "I am the real prosecutor."
Marthage countered that the principal focus of the state's attorney's office is to manage the budget and staff — including hiring and firing employees — and make decisions regarding criminal charges, court diversion options and related issues.
She said she has also interacted over many years with lawmakers and officials with multiple organizations or agencies on criminal justice or enforcement issues, and has helped usher in reforms while ensuring those charged with violent crimes are prosecuted.
Rainville also charged that Marthage has offered only a tepid response to the opioid addiction epidemic and only recently began a public awareness campaign about a decade-old crisis. The challenger referred several times Tuesday to a 21-point plan she recently offered for dealing with addiction issues.
She said she'd begin pushing for implementation of a drug court "on day one" upon taking office as state's attorney.
A key difference between the candidates is that Rainville supports having a formal drug court docket in Bennington, in which a judge would oversee alternative justice proposals that could allow a person facing criminal charges to avoid a conviction.
She said Marthage has shown no interest in discussing a drug court for the area, which some advocates of that approach have proposed.
"First, we need a drug court; we have needed one for years," Rainville asserted.
24 hours a day
But Marthage said she has worked closely with local human service organizations and other agencies over a number of years to help develop an assessment program through the Center for Restorative Justice for referrals into alternative justice options.
A formal drug court, which existed in the county before her tenure, had its funding cut at the state level, Marthage said. She contended that the current localized system doesn't depend on state appropriations and puts more money directly into services, rather than toward additional salaries for state personnel required for a court docket.
Marthage said she has been effective in overseeing the State's Attorney's Office and making the myriad necessary decisions regarding potential criminal charges and alternative justice options.
She said she also meets constantly with offenders, crime victims and family members and remains "on call 24 hours a day for 12 years" to respond to questions from police officers or others.
The incumbent said she has "dealt with every aspect of cases," including consulting with other state's attorneys, speaking with the parents of overdose victims and offenders, or those seeking to have a youthful conviction for a nonviolent crime expunged from their record. She said that is the primary role of the elected state's attorney.
She added that she's a native of the county who understands the area and remains heavily involved with the community, as well as with the agencies, organizations and legislative committees involved in criminal justice, drug addiction treatment and other issues related to her office.
Talking about high incarceration rates, Rainville implied that under Marthage, the office sometimes filed unnecessary felony charges against young offenders, and said the incumbent once stated in the office, "Make him take a felony so he can never work again."
"What Ms. Rainville just said is untrue," Marthage said in responding to the same question.
Marthage added that she has been an advocate of allowing youthful offender status for youths up to age 19 and has been active in processing expungement requests for people convicted of crimes like marijuana possession in their youth.
Both candidates said they would work with the Legislature to expand expungement options, such as for other drug offenses.
Offering more details of her addiction response plan, Rainville said she would use a drug court to ensure everyone arrested on charges with an addiction component is brought before a judge within seven days so that treatment or other options can be considered.
She said she'd work with medical professionals in the area to try to reduce the number of prescription for drugs that are sometimes abused. And she proposed legislation to allow medical professionals to check criminal data on persons seeking such prescription medication.
Marthage stressed her roots in the Manchester area, where she attended school before going on to the University of Vermont and then to law school.
That experience also included sometimes living in poverty as a child, she said, getting into trouble as a youth and missing more than 60 days of school one year, before finally turning her life around and going to college.
She said that, although she now functions in an arena populated by upper middle class, educated individuals, she is often reminded of her working class background and how some who lack that experience don't understand many Vermonters.
Rainville said she doesn't talk about her background but her father grew up in poverty and under trying circumstances before overcoming those obstacles, providing her with clear view into poverty and other challenges people face.
"I will always be there for Bennington County," Rainville said. "I will do what is in the best interests of Bennington County, and I will listen to everyone in Bennington County."
"Much of the facts you have just heard have been twisted and manipulated, as is the case with Ms. Rainville," Marthage said in her closing remarks.
She added that "there were multiple Supreme Court cases," but many "were returned for [Rainville's] presentation, offering manipulated facts and twisted thought."
Rainville, 56, now an attorney with Ellis, Boxer & Blake of Springfield, announced in early August that she had submitted voter signatures to land a spot as an independent on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Marthage, 48, defeated attorney Arnold Gottlieb of Dorset in the Aug. 14 Democratic Primary and received enough votes in the Republican Primary to win that ballot line as well.
The forum was produced by Mike Bethel and his "Bennington Tonight" program on CAT-TV, the local cable network, and will be rebroadcast in weeks leading up to the election and made available online.