Dan Freilich, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, says incumbent Rep. Peter Welch has sponsored legislation that directly benefits companies that have contributed to Welch's re-election campaign. But Welch counters by saying the charges aren't true and that he's working to change the current campaign finance system.
Freilich is a Navy captain and a medical doctor who has spent most of his career in the military. In 2010, he ran in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary against incumbent Sen. Patrick Leahy and received just under 11 percent of the vote.
His major issue then is also his major issue now: He strongly believes that the country's current system of financing elections — one that relies heavily on contributions from political action committees, or PACs — has a corrupting influence on public policy.
Freilich says he was stunned to learn that Welch sponsored legislation in 2016 that was viewed by some people as being favorable to the pharmaceutical industry.
Freilich notes that Welch had received more than $75,000 in contributions from PAC groups that supported the bill, and he says Welch also had a sizeable personal investment in Rite Aid, a company that was backing the legislation.
"There is a bubble that I am potentially busting," Freilich said, "because the bubble is that Mr. Welch is a good progressive and does all the right things that many Vermonters believe in, but it's misleading at best. It's a scam at worst."
Freilich and opponents of the bill argue the legislation made it more difficult for federal authorities to take action against drug manufacturers who were thought to be diverting opioid drugs to the black market.
Welch disagrees with this assessment. He says the goal of the bill was to clarify federal procedures and that it didn't affect the government's ability to crack down on illegal activity by pharmaceutical companies.
The legislation passed both the House and Senate on unanimous votes and was signed into law by then-President Barack Obama.
But Welch says that political action committee contributions have no impact on his policy decisions and he also points out that the bill had broad bipartisan support.
"Campaign contributions or my personal investments would never play a role in anything I do here in Congress. ... The specific stock that he's [Freilich's] talking about is something that I owned seven or eight years before I even went to Congress," Welch said.
Welch says he supports efforts to ban PAC contributions, but he argues that this step will be impossible until the U.S. Supreme Court overturns what is known as the Citizens United ruling.
Until that time, Welch says it's important to understand that all of his campaign contributions and expenses are publicly disclosed.
"I filed my financial statements and all my campaign contributions are public record," Welch said, "and every nickel I spend on my campaign is publicly disclosed."
But Freilich says it's hypocritical of Welch to be critical of a political system that relies on PAC contributions at the same time that he accepts them.
"It's really immoral and it's really dishonorable, honestly," Freilich said. "And just because other people do that and that is what most congressmen do, that's absolutely no justification 'cause he's our congressman and I don't think Vermont deserves to have a congressman that is willing to accept mediocrity when it comes to honor and public service."
Freilich says he'd drop out of the race if Welch would agree to give back all of the PAC money that he's received since the 2016 election.
Welch says he won't do that because he's concerned that Republican special interest groups could flood the campaign with large amounts of advertising and that he needs a way to respond to this situation in the event that it occurs.
In addition to Welch and Freilich, Ben Mitchell is also a candidate in the 2018 Democratic primary for Vermont's sole U.S. House seat. The Republican candidates for the seat are H. Brooke Paige and Anya Tynio.