Tensions rise in Statehouse race

A statement made by Democratic challenger Kesha Ram has prompted Representative David Zuckerman to make several allegations about the practices of Ram’s campaign.Ram is running for one of the two seats in the Chittenden 3-4 district, which encompasses the majority of UVM campus, the old North End and Burlington’s hill section.Zuckerman and Representative Chris Pearson, both members of the Vermont Progressive Party, currently hold the two district seats.After being told that Ram had been insinuating that Zuckerman was moving out of the district following the upcoming election term, Zuckerman responded with allegations concerning multiple actions and statements made by Ram. It is not uncommon for so-called “personality politics” to become prevalent in small-scale political elections, UVM political science professor Frank Bryan said. “Personalities are usually more apparent in smaller situations, small town politics is full of personality politics and personalities are and can be critical to how one behaves in the political system,” Bryan said. Zuckerman said that Ram was being misleading when she made a statement suggesting that he was moving out of the district in two years to property he recently purchased in Hinesburg, Vt.Ram cited a Seven Days article and general public feedback as her sources for that information. The article in Seven Days quotes Zuckerman as saying that moving at the end of his next potential term is something that he and his family will “have to consider.” “I was referencing the feedback I am getting from voters at the door wondering if and when he is moving based on his openness about purchasing a new farm a considerable distance from Burlington,” Ram said. Zuckerman said that the question was brought up to him in a public debate, where Ram was present, and he clarified the issue at that point. “If my opponent is telling people that I am going to be moving out of the district in two years, she is lying based on information that she heard directly from me, and that is a very, very serious situation,” Zuckerman said.Ram said she believes Zuckerman should be more candid with voters about the issue. “I take him at his word that there’s no housing built on this property and he’s building the farm infrastructure, but I think voters deserve to know, and voters have asked me about it.” Questions of IntegrityZuckerman says in March 2008, Ram took a legislative update titled “Working for you in Montpelier,” which Democratic legislators were handing out at the polls, and tweaked it by substituting phrases such as “I voted for” with “I supported.” Zuckerman said Ram then handed out the update as her own at the polls on election-day during the primaries for the presidential election. “I was very affronted by that piece of literature, in that Chris Pearson and I had worked very hard on those issues, and she was essentially taking credit for the work that myself, Pearson and, frankly, Democrats in Montpelier had been doing on the behalf of voters in Burlington and voters across the state,” Zuckerman said. Ram said she did hand out 150 copies of a legislative update at the polls that day, but rejects the idea that she was taking credit for other people’s work. “My only intentions were to introduce myself to voters and give them valuable information on the accomplishments of Democrats in the past session,” Ram said. “Unfortunately, I made the mistake of overlooking the language that came already printed by the Democratic Party. “It was a sincere mistake, and I apologize to anyone who may have been misled, although I made it very clear to the voters I spoke with that day that I am a challenger,” Ram said.Zuckerman said that Ram misled voters in other aspects, including portraying herself as working full-time at a preschool. Zuckerman said he heard from others that she only worked one or two days a week. Ram called these allegations “ridiculous,” and pointed out that she addressed this concern in an open debate where Zuckerman was present. Ram said she continues to share her work experience openly with anyone who asks, tying in her work at the preschool to her general concern with the community. Ram said she works five days a week, but does not work a full 40-hour week, so the job is part-time. “It’s enough to help me pay my way through the election and do the work that I love to do, which is working in the community with families and children, and that gives me the opportunity to engage with people in the district more, to hear the concerns and to take them to Montpelier,” Ram said.Out of TouchZuckerman said he takes issue with the fact that Ram began campaigning for the office of State Representative in February, citing this as bringing “big town politics” from her home in Los Angeles to the state of Vermont. Zuckerman also said Ram’s ability to campaign part-time and work part-time is evidence of Ram being “out of touch” with the working class families of Vermont.Ram took offense to the comments by Zuckerman, citing her experience growing up with a single mother raising three children and her father’s struggles with unemployment as evidence that she knew what being from a struggling family was like. She also pointed to her work in the preschool program.”I do understand [the struggles of Vermont families] and I work with Vermont families every day,” Ram said. “I do understand a lot of their plights.”Disagree to AgreeFrom the start of her campaign, Ram has said she is running for office in order to bring a new voice to the Statehouse and provide students more “entry points” into local politics. Incumbents Zuckerman and Pearson believe that Ram has not chosen her battle wisely. Pearson, a graduate of the University of Vermont, was appointed as State Representative in the spring of 2006 and he was reelected later that fall. Zuckerman, also a UVM grad, has been serving in the Statehouse for 12 years. According to all three candidates’ publications and Web sites, there is a general agreement on critical issues such as livable wages, the creation of local jobs and reproductive choice. Ram said that the main difference between her and the incumbents is in the process of aggregating interests and “bringing new voices to the table.” Zuckerman doesn’t see that reasoning behind Ram’s campaign as legitimate.”It’s really a question of, ‘If she agrees with us on the issues, and the issue groups state that we are some of the most effective legislators in the building, what is it that she’s trying to differentiate herself from us with?'” Zuckerman said. “If it’s only age, then there’s nothing I can do about that.” Considering that this is Pearson’s first contested election, Ram said it will be a victory in itself to offer voters what she calls a “real choice.”One considerable difference on the issues between the Democratic and Progressive candidates is the state health care program Catamount Health.According to the Vermont Campaign for Health Care Security Education Fund Web site, Catamount Health is a program designed to help provide health care for uninsured Vermonters in a variety of situations. Ram acknowledges that it is an expensive program that is not working very well. However, she said that she takes exception to the fact that the Progressive Party members in the state Legislature voted against a bill proposing to expand the program to cover pregnant women and people with chronic illnesses.”I think we need to be moving forward on expanding health care every session,” Ram said.Zuckerman backed his stance on universal health care, saying that such proposals draw attention away from the possibilities of reaching a real solution. “Whenever we pass a bill that does a small portion of the overall goal, it then takes the discussion of health care off the table for a number of years, because most people say, ‘Well, we have to wait and see how this works.'”Negative CampaigningRam feels the issues are being overshadowed by what she described as “whisper campaigns” coming from the Progressive Party incumbents. “I think some of their allegations have been unfair and negative,” Ram said.Ram says she has tried her best to keep her campaign positive and focused on her own merits, asking, “If you can’t campaign with integrity, how can you lead with integrity?” Zuckerman rebuffed claims that he was running a negative race. “When someone misuses information, and then is called out on that, I don’t think that’s negative campaigning.”Pearson says he and Ram met for a cup of coffee before Ram took over her duties as Student Government Association President in 2007.”At that meeting I asked her what ideas she had, she never offered them,” Pearson said, “that bill she always talks about, that Representative Rachel Weston filed, that was sort of Kesha’s thesis, I am cosponsor of that bill.” Pearson felt that Kesha was unfair in her portrayal of him as a Candidate. “For Ram to continually suggest that I’ve not reached out or encouraged her to be part of the political discussion is ridiculous.”In response to Pearson’s comment, Ram said that she is “frustrated by all of these blatant lies and negative attacks.” Ram said she and Pearson spoke about multiple issues such as “the cost of tuition, student committee relations, turning research and the classroom environment knowledge into legislation and all of the things we could do to help UVM students have more of a voice and be more responsible citizens, be better neighbors and actually engage in Montpelier.” Ram felt that she raised serious concerns with the process of interest aggregation on campus, yet was not taken seriously by Pearson. “At the end of all of [those concerns], he asked me to push for wind turbines to be put on campus,” Ram said. A Tale of Two PartiesA second Democratic candidate, Phillip Ortego, is also on the ballot in the 3-4 district race. Ortego said he was asked by Ram to run.Ortego said he has no plans to hold office if elected, and is running to offer voters “a chance to vote across party lines.”According to an article in Wednesday’s The Burlington Free Press, Ram said that Ortego’s purpose in running is “primarily to soak up the votes that matter.”The article refers to such candidates as ‘sponge candidates’ because they draw votes away from the opposition in multiseat district races.Ram says people not involved in state politics often do not realize the “deep grudges” held between the Democratic and Progressive parties in Vermont.Both Zuckerman and Pearson acknowledge that there are divisions between the parties and that those grudges have a long history.Pearson said that he is personally not resentful towards the Democratic Party.Pearson said he learned during his time as director of the Progressive Party that it was important to “parse the rhetoric from the history” when speaking of boundaries between the Progressive and Democratic parties in Vermont. “[Progressives] don’t challenge sitting democrats who we agree with,” Pearson said. “We just simply don’t do that.”