Vermont branches of the NAACP will hold their first-ever candidate forums in Rutland and Brattleboro this weekend, but most of the major-party nominees invited to participate have chosen not to attend.
Invitations to the forums went out late last month to all candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, but so far Democratic candidate for governor Christine Hallquist is the only major-party candidate who’s committed to attend.
Tabitha Pohl-Moore, Vermont director of the NAACP and president of the organization’s Rutland-area branch, said the forums are part of a broader effort to increase political focus on issues of racial justice in Vermont.
“There really isn’t a lot of focus, which is kind of surprising, considering the current climate here in Vermont and nationally regarding race,” Pohl-Moore said.
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The Rutland-area NAACP is holding its forum at the Rutland Free Library at 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22; the Windham County branch of the NAACP is holding a forum at the Brattleboro Memorial Library at 7 p.m. the same day.
Major-party candidates for statewide office, however, will be largely absent from the events.
Gov. Phil Scott’s campaign manager said the incumbent Republican has a prior commitment, at the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, Massachusetts. Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, according this campaign spokesperson, has a previously scheduled event in Troy, followed by a campaign rally in St. Johnsbury.
Zuckerman’s Republican challenger, Don Turner, has “private events” in Manchester that will prevent him from attending, according to his campaign spokesperson. And Attorney General TJ Donovan, according to his campaign manager, has a “personal obligation” that day.
Donovan’s Republican challenger, Janssen Willhoit, said he didn’t receive the NAACP’s initial invitation — his campaign’s email address was until recently misspelled on the Secretary of State’s website. While he has a previous commitment in Bennington, Willhoit said he might try to rearrange his schedule, “because participating in a forum with the NAACP is something that would be important for me to do.”
Pohl-Moore said she appreciates that candidates have busy schedules.
“I can’t really say that it’s for sure an indication that this doesn’t matter to them,” Pohl-Moore said. “But it does raise some eyebrows.”
Hallquist’s campaign spokesperson, David Glidden, said Hallquist will be attending both the Rutland and Brattleboro forums.
“We think it’s important to encourage participation from all sorts of different civil rights groups, and to acknowledge the work these civil rights groups do,” Glidden said.
Pohl-Moore said the forums will be driven largely by questions from the audience. Each candidate will have five minutes for an opening statement and the NAACP will ask one question, but Pohl-Moore said the remainder of the questions will come from people in the audience.
“The NAACP, especially here in Vermont, we’re trying to be intersectional in our approach,” Pohl-Moore said. “Obviously currently we’ve got a lot going on with racial justice in our state, racial equity in our schools … so certainly our questions are directed at those kinds of issues. But we also are interested to hear how they’re going to address systemic issues for other people in marginalized positions as well.”
In addition to Hallquist, three other candidates for governor — independent candidate Trevor Barlow, Earth Rights candidate Stephen Marx and Liberty Union candidate Emily Peyton — have said they’ll be attending the Rutland forum, according to Pohl-Moore. And she said Liberty Union candidate for lieutenant governor Murray Ngoima has also said she’ll attend.