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Orange County Senate Candidates Offer Clear Contrasts

For the first time in a number of years, there’s a competitive race for Orange County’s lone Vermont Senate seat.

It pits a political newcomer against a longtime office holder. The candidates offer a stark contrast in their positions on the issues and their campaign styles.

Republican Bob Frenier has spent much of his campaign waving from the side of the road flanked by two big red, white and blue signs that bear his name and his campaign slogan: “Let’s Fix It.”

In one hand, Frenier holds a clicker to record each passing vehicle he’s waved to during the campaign. Less than a week before the election, his tally stood at 30,000.

“People are so nice. I know they’re not all voting for me,” he said as waved from the side of Route 12 in Randolph on a recent drizzly day.

Frenier is the newcomer in the race. He had an "a-ha" moment after hearing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speech in Burlington late last year and decided to challenge incumbent Democrat Mark MacDonald.

On the key issues, health care and education funding, Frenier believes a freer market with minimal government involvement is the best route to improved quality and manageable costs.

He wants to abandon Gov. Peter Shumlin’s planned single payer system in favor of an open marketplace where Vermonters could shop for health insurance.

He says just as consumers can easily go online and compare retail prices, they should also be able to compare the prices of medical services. In his view, competition for both insurance coverage and health care will contain costs.

Frenier says government should help those who can’t afford insurance, but Vermonters also need to shoulder more of the financial responsibility for their care.

“There never was a free market, so don’t tell me that free market hasn’t worked,” says Frenier. “Every politician in the world wants to keep his voters from having to take responsibility. I’m saying, ‘Sorry guys, that’s not working, everybody has to have some skin in the game.'”

Similarly, in education, Frenier wants Vermont parents to have the ability to shop around and send their children to any school, using a state voucher to pay for it.

"There never was a free market, so don't tell me that free market hasn't worked." - GOP Orange County Senate candidate Bob Frenier

He’d like to see more private independent schools competing with existing public schools for education dollars, which he believes would lower costs.

“All the money goes to a central place, Montpelier, and then they send it back to the towns with all the strings and mandates attached. The union is heavily involved in this so nothing happens in Montpelier that the teachers union doesn’t like, so you have this sclerotic, bureaucratic, inflexible system,” he says.

Incumbent Mark MacDonald, a retired high school teacher, says the state’s public schools offer a good quality education. He says the current system of funding is the most equitable.

MacDonald says Vermonters have the ability control costs through their local school budgets, and the funding formula’s income sensitivity protects people from overly burdensome property taxes. 

He says allowing parents to use state vouchers for any schooling they choose would largely benefit the wealthy and would weaken the public school system that the majority of families rely on.

“If we continue to allow families with money and privilege to leave the public schools and [we] pay for that, then we get into a two-tiered system.  We have a moderately successful system now,” he says.

MacDonald says Frenier’s health care ideas would leave people at the mercy of insurance companies.

He says a free market approach places an unfair burden on businesses that are willing to provide health insurance, giving a free ride to businesses that don’t cover their workers. 

“Those people should be paying for health insurance for their workers, so there’s equity and fairness. People live longer, they’re healthier and it costs less money,” he says.

MacDonald says once the details emerge, a single payer system should get a full airing by lawmakers and voters before its decided whether or not it’s a good idea. 

As he has done in the past, MacDonald prefers face-to-face campaigning over roadside appearances.

"People should be paying for health insurance for their workers, so there's equity and fairness. People live longer, they're healthier and it costs less money." - Dem. Orange County Senate Incumbent Mark MacDonald

In one indication of his concern about this race, MacDonald says he’s knocked on more than 4,000 Orange County doors this year; twice as many as in the past.

Frenier is putting his background in advertising and marketing to work in an energetic campaign. His ‘honk and wave’ appearances are designed to get his name in front of as many people as possible. A rotating series of roadside signs patterned after the old Burma Shave billboard campaign has also attracted attention.

His campaign has also received a boost from a Washington based political action committee (PAC) that’s putting money into advertising for Republicans in local races around the country, including several in Vermont. 

Out of state PAC money for an Orange County Senate race is something new. MacDonald says it’s an effort by national interest groups to derail progress toward a single-payer initiative in Vermont.

Frenier, whose campaign has no connection to the PAC effort, says he’ll take all the help he can get as an upstart candidate with an uphill battle.

Politically the rural county has changed in recent years.

“For a number of reasons, Orange County has been electing Democrats recently, so Mr. Frenier will have a tough time,” says M. Dickey Drysdale who publishes the Herald in Randolph

Drysdale says there’s a lot of local interest in the race. With a low turnout expected, the result may hinge on which candidate can get his voters to the polls tomorrow.