The Town of Castleton Candidate Forum, held Oct. 13 in Castleton University’s Herrick Auditorium, was intended to give Castleton’s Vermont House candidates Democrat Mary Droege and Republican Jarrod Sammis the opportunity to discuss their various political stances. However, the event did not quite go as intended, as Sammis decided to forego the forum due to fairness concerns.
Rich Clark, lead coordinator of the forum, informed that he “didn’t give the questions in advance,” referring to his denial of Sammis’ request for him and Droege to have access to the questions — created and organized by Clark’s political science students — prior to the event.
“In order to ensure fairness as a candidate personally, since the university is also my opponent’s employer, the questions were a request on my end to ensure fairness of the event and also remove potential bias,” Sammis said, explaining his reasoning for skipping the event.
He claimed that he had informed coordinators “well over a week and a half in advance that [he] was not going to be attending,” and he believed more effort should have been taken to inform the public.
Clark defended how he handled the situation, stating in an email, “I did not announce Mr. Sammis’s decision to not participate because (a) I held out hope that he would change his mind and still join the event, and (b) I had hoped that he would announce his reasons for not participating (these sorts of announcements are often made by the campaigns, not the organizers).”
According to Clark, Sammis originally agreed to attend the forum, and Clark says the event would not have been planned unless both candidates were planning on participating. However, Sammis declined the invitation on both Oct. 5 and Oct. 6.
“Mr. Sammis may have had many valid reasons for not being able to attend the forum, but if you see it from my point of view, I feel I did all that I could to provide the community with an event to compare and contrast the two candidates for office,” Clark wrote.
He also explained that had Sammis changed his mind and decided to attend, VSCS Policy 501 “meant that we could not exclude him, and if we had announced the reasons for his refusal to participate, it could have unnecessarily hurt his campaign.”
Policy 501 provides procedures and guidance on political activities within the VSC system, specifically stating that, “If the event is a debate or forum, all announced candidates shall be invited to participate although attendance by all is not required.”
For these reasons, it was decided that the event should proceed as planned, allowing the public to hear Droege’s responses to the prompts.
Despite the unprecedented turn, it was decided that the event should proceed as planned, allowing the public to hear Droege’s responses to the prompts.
“I’m running because I love this community and I want to make it thrive and grow as much as it possibly can,” Droege said in her opening statement. “I want to represent the retired folks, the working families, and the college students. And I’m running because I want to solve problems.”
She went on to respond to questions, delivered by moderator, Izzy Scott, concerning pressing issues in Vermont, her thoughts on how Vermont has addressed these issues and about her qualifying experience and character.
“What do you see as the greatest problem facing the state of Vermont today, and what would you propose that the legislature do to address that problem?” Scott questioned during the evening.
Droege replied, “climate change,” and later circled back to the topic saying, “my mantra is that the greenest, cleanest energy is the energy not used. Let’s get better at using less energy.”
Another question was, “What, in your opinion, is the most important quality for being an effective legislator and why?”
Droege narrowed it down to “hard work” and “being open to learning.”
She also shared her thoughts regarding Vermont’s funding for higher education.
“We need to support our Vermont State colleges system better than we have,” Droege said.
She also spoke to her fervent belief that the 2020 election was not rigged.
“I 100% believe that Biden is the fairy duly elected president of this country,” Droege said, followed by a roar of applause from the audience. “This is one of those intentionally divisive lies that’s making our country crazy right now and it’s really, really wrong and I completely disagree with it.”
Droege used her closing statement to emphasize the importance of voting, describing it as “the bedrock of our democracy” and noting how accessible it is in Vermont.
Although attendees were engaged and appreciative of Droege’s answers, many were confused and disappointed by Sammis’ absence, wishing for a chance to further understand and compare the candidates.
“I’m sorry Jarrod Sammis wasn’t here,” said Rich Byrne, a father of two CU alumni. “(I) would like to hear his positions.”
CU student Ikay Ekeji added that the forum was “a really helpful opportunity for students to know the candidates,” but that Sammis’ absence will have a “ripple effect.”