RUTLAND, VT – Vermonters of all ages gathered in Rutland on Oct. 12 to witness a political event that held all the feverish fury of a heavyweight title fight.Senate candidates Bernie Sanders and Rich Tarrant squared off at the Paramount Theater to take part in a political debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Vermont. Also attending were House of Representatives candidates Peter Welch and Martha Rainville.
Hundreds of people, including many who were barely old enough to dissect frogs in high school biology classes, crowded into the theater in anticipation of what was rumored to be an extremely heated debate.
“I hope there isn’t a riot,” one high school student said, as she adjusted her red “Bernie for U.S. Senate” pin on her jacket. The four candidates debated for nearly two hours and focused on issues ranging from the current nuclear standoff with North Korea, to the delicate position America has been forced into since 9/11.
“I think we were right to go into Afghanistan, but wrong to go into Iraq,” Democrat Peter Welch said. He also blamed President Bush’s “go-in-alone” policy for much of the world’s lack of faith in America.
Sanders went on to further Welch’s argument.
“George W. Bush is the worst president in the history of this country,” the Independent candidate said, amidst the sound of mostly thunderous cheers.
One man in the crowd then yelled to Sanders, calling him a “socialist” and telling him to have respect for the president of the United States.
Sanders fired back like a shotgun, asking how America could respect a president who didn’t respect the civil liberties of his own people.
Government spending was another hot button issue.
Sanders proposed to stop cutting taxes for the wealthiest one-percent of Americans as a means to chip away at the $8.5 trillion deficit.
“It’s high time this government started working for all of its people and not just the wealthy,” Sanders said.
Peter Welch also agreed that Congress was spending far too much money on a war that was not making Americans any safer.
But Tarrant shot back, pointing the finger at Sanders as the number one spender in Congress.
“Mr. Sanders, we gotta save some money for our grandkids,” Tarrant said.
Martha Rainville, the republican candidate for the house, proposed an online federal budget that could be viewed via the Internet, so that anyone could see just how the government was spending its money.
Another hot topic in this debate surrounded accusations that some of the candidates were running a very negative campaign, often making personal attacks instead of citing actual facts.
“I’m proud to say I have never run a negative ad in my life,” Sanders said.
Tarrant, who has been the center of controversy regarding his own campaign, admitted that he had not paid much attention to Sanders’ campaign ads. Tarrant said that his own ads were designed to inform rather than to smear Sanders’ character.
Tarrant also accused Sanders of furthering the division of the political parties instead of trying to work together as one unified voice in Congress.
“Parties are more interested in the demise of each other rather than the demise of America,” Tarrant said. “I promise you I’ll put Vermont and America before myself and my party.”
Rainville also stressed that a candidate’s party should not serve as an automatic assumption of character.
“I’m a republican but I’m not George Bush. I’m Martha Rainville,” she said.
After the debate the crowd filed back out into the streets. Some loitered around briefly to speak with candidates personally, while others scampered off to their cars to escape the brisk October weather.
One student, dressed in a bright-yellow Tarrant T-shirt, shivered as she handed out her remaining bundle of Tarrant bumper stickers.
“At least there wasn’t a riot,” she said.