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Tuesday, Apr 23, 2024

Congressman Welch on Politics Here and Nationwide

Congressman Peter Welch, Vermont’s sole representative in the U.S. House, has served in Congress since 2007. This week, he spoke with fellow Vermonter Ellie Anderson ’19, a local editor for The Campus, about some of the salient issues heading into the midterm elections, both within Vermont and nationwide.

What would you say to college students who are not particularly motivated to vote in the upcoming midterm election? What issues do you believe are the most critical for college students to pay attention to and vote on?

The reason to vote is that it’s all about your future. Do we want a future where diversity is respected? Where we attack climate change? Where we address this mountainous student debt that kids are graduating with? All these things are extraordinarily important. What kinds of opportunities are going to be there for you as students when you graduate? What kind of world are you going to live in? 

Voting is about making a decision to participate in the effort to change the world for the better. There have been some really compelling [issues] where there’s been great leadership by younger people — climate change is one, gun safety is another, respect for people regardless of their race, religion, creed, or sexual orientation is another. All of these causes are absolutely crucial to the future of our country, and young people have very much been the leadership up front. Voting is just a further way of expressing solidarity with others who want to have a better future. 

The national administration is a concern for many Vermonters and Middlebury students right now, particularly because of the political divide that the nation is facing, which was illustrated by the bombs that were mailed to various “Trump critics” last week. What were your reactions to this threat? What can you do as Vermont’s representative to address these concerns about this divide and the state of the national administration?

Politics is about trying to resolve differences in a peaceful way. The responsibility all of us have, starting with the president, is to have respect for people who we disagree with, to have respect for people who are different from us. That has to be the baseline, so no matter what my position is, or yours, we have to start out with mutual respect where I acknowledge the right that you have to take the position that you have, and reciprocally, you acknowledge my right to take that position. 

What you’re seeing is this winner-take-all approach to politics, where the person who one disagrees with is demonized. That makes it impossible for people to find ways to reach common ground. It’s extremely dangerous to a democracy when there’s a breakdown of basic rules of civility and mutual respect. I’m very alarmed by it at the national level. 

Parkland shooting survivors and activists Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg and Alex Wind recently visited Burlington to speak about their new book and call for increased gun control. Were you able to attend? Where do you stand on Vermont’s gun control legislation as far as the banning of bump stocks, expansion of background checks and increase of the minimum age requirement to purchase a gun? Where do you stand on gun regulation on a federal level?

I met with the Parkland kids when they came to Washington and they were very inspiring. They went through just an incredible tragedy and I was impressed with how focused they were in trying to improve our gun safety laws. 

I was not there when they came to Vermont, but I did meet with them in Washington, and met in Vermont with young people who organized the March for Our Lives rally in Montpelier. Sen. Sanders and I were there, just listening to one student after another give an eloquent statement about the necessity for gun safety. So this is an issue that is extraordinarily important. Gun safety has been something we’ve resisted and young people are leading the charge. They know that schools have become the target of choice for shooters — we had a near miss in Vermont, in Fair Haven. I totally support the gun safety legislation that Vermont passed and Gov. Scott signed. We need gun safety legislation in Washington and I’ll continue to fight for it.

You were outspoken in your opposition to Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. Student activists at Middlebury College have recently raised concerns about poor treatment of sexual assault cases and victims on our own campus, and a student last spring posted a list on Facebook naming alleged perpetrators of sexual assault. What are your thoughts about how institutions like the Supreme Court or Middlebury should approach sexual assault claims?

Well you know the colleges obviously are all working through that, but in Washington I’m working with Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) on legislation that would get rid of the so called “magic asterisk,” where the student who is disciplined for sexual assault on one campus applies to another without the disclosure in the application that that person had a sexual assault violation. 

Our legislation would require that that information be included in any transfer of transcript. So that’s what I’m doing in Washington — I don’t want people who have been convicted through the process at one school to be able to shed that from their record by simply applying to another school.

In the past you have supported the rights of individual states to make their own marijuana laws. While possession of marijuana was legalized in Vermont this year, Gov. Phil Scott has expressed his continued opposition to legalizing its sale. While you’re more involved with federal policies, do you have a stance on creating a taxed and regulated marijuana market within Vermont? 

I favor legalization on a state level, but at the federal level I believe that we should respect the decisions the states make. It’s fully legal in Colorado — I think at the federal level we should respect that and not be threatening federal prosecution. 

Also at the federal level, we should pass legislation allowing for medical marijuana. That should be a national policy — I don’t believe that the government should get between a doctor and a patient when it comes to prescribing a medication or something that will alleviate pain, like marijuana or any other substance that is appropriate. So I fundamentally believe that at the federal level we should respect states’ decisions on marijuana, whatever their policy may be. 

State Rep. Kiah Morris resigned in September after receiving continued racist harassment. What were your reactions to racism directed at Rep. Morris? Do you have any thoughts about how to combat this type of racism and foster a more diverse legislature in a very un-diverse state like Vermont? 

I was appalled at what she had to suffer through. Kiah’s a friend, she’s been an outstanding legislator. Whoever was verbally attacking her was doing so on the basis of her race, and also at a time when her husband was having a significant medical issue, and it’s just cruel and completely reprehensible. 

Bottom line, I think we have to have tolerance and acceptance of everybody, regardless of what their race is or their sexual orientation. Vermont’s been pretty good on this, but we have to be vigilant all the time. The kind of language that we’re getting out of the Trump administration hurts, it doesn’t help. I think in Vermont, each and every single one of us [should] do each and every thing we can to have an accepting, open, and respectful dialogue, totally unrelated to a person’s race, gender, sexual orientation, religion. We’re all Vermonters.

During this election cycle, there has been significant news coverage about voter suppression in various states including Georgia, where the state government recently stalled thousands of voter registrations. If Democrats take back the House, do you think that’s an issue they should be focusing on?

I do. In a democracy we want to encourage people to vote, not discourage them from voting. We want to make it easier, not harder. It’s very alarming to me that some of these states — unfortunately with the help of the Supreme Court, which undercut the protections of the Voting Rights Act — are trying to win elections by keeping people away from the polls, by doing everything they can to discourage them from voting, by making it more difficult for them to vote. I want to make certain that if we do get the majority we pass legislation that absolutely and effectively protects the right to vote. We should make it easier to vote. 

Vermont’s very good — same day voter registration, early voting. The more people that vote, the more people who have a stake in the democracy, the more they feel the election is legitimate, the better our chances of making progress are.