In final TV debate, Becca Balint and Molly Gray draw distinctions on criminal justice

In final TV debate, Becca Balint and Molly Gray draw distinctions on criminal justice
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Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, left, and Lt. Gov. Molly Gray in Johnson on July 28. Photos by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for Vermont’s sole US House seat met in one final televised debate Thursday to make their closing arguments ahead of Tuesday’s primary.

In a lively and sometimes barbed exchange on the WCAX debate stage, state Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and physician Louis Meyers drew contrasts on issues of affordability, foreign policy and health care.

But the most animating differences between the race’s frontrunners surfaced on issues of criminal justice, with Balint at one point accusing Gray of positioning herself as the campaign’s “law and order candidate.”

While the two agree on the vast majority of issues, criminal justice reform and drug policy stand out as areas where Gray and Balint have greater differences of opinion. Gray, who appears to be courting the more moderate vote, has repeatedly tried to draw attention to the issues.

“I think one thing that differentiates me from my opponent is while I do support decriminalizing marijuana, I don’t support decriminalizing all drugs — fentanyl, opioids, meth, for example,” Gray said, adding that she has “never supported defunding the police and never will.”

Balint has not shared calls to defund police, and said Thursday that “we need fully funded police departments here in Vermont.” But she leans more progressive than Gray on several related topics.

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Balint supports the use of safe injection sites, where people can use illegal drugs under medical supervision, as a harm reduction tool aimed at lowering overdose deaths. As the Senate’s leader, she also backed legislation that would have ended, for police officers, the use of qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that shields public servants from litigation for violating citizens’ civil rights while on the job. And she has said that the possession of small, personal amounts of all drugs should no longer be treated as a crime.

Gray has said she’s “willing to consider” safe injection sites. She’s also said she’s “open to a conversation” about ending qualified immunity — but only if that includes getting rid of it for all public servants, not just police. (Such a condition is a non-starter for criminal justice reformers, who say police must be held to different standards of accountability, given their unique powers to incarcerate and kill.)

In a press release sent Thursday evening, Gray’s camp highlighted again that the lieutenant governor “made it clear she has not supported, and never will support, defunding the police,” and accused Balint of appearing to “backpedal earlier statements supporting the decriminalization of illicit drugs.”

Asked Thursday by WCAX’s Darren Perron if she supported the legalization of drugs other than marijuana Balint answered that she supported “investigating whether we shouldn’t be having scheduled drugs being moved off of this particular schedule.”

Natalie Silver, Balint’s campaign manager, said the candidate’s answer didn’t contradict earlier statements she had made about decriminalization. Balint is “absolutely firm” on decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs, she said.

“She thinks that we absolutely need to move towards the harm reduction model there. Legalization is a different conversation. I think she’s very open to that. But she, I think, at this point, would not say yes, let’s legalize all drugs,” Silver said.

Decriminalization typically means that, while a drug remains legally prohibited, the legal system will no longer prosecute someone for carrying a small amount of the substance. Legalization means that a once-illegal drug is made completely legal, usually to both buy and sell.

As the candidates enter the home stretch in the campaign, Balint appears to have momentum behind her. Two polls show her with command leads over Gray, and just last weekend, US Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., barnstormed with her across the state. Sanders has also activated his formidable fundraising apparatus on Balint’s behalf, sending texts and emails to his supporters to solicit donations for her.

US Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has since come out in support of Gray, saying in a written statement that he had cast his nerd for her. His political action committee has also donated $5,000 to Gray’s campaign.

A torrent of outside spending — $1.3 million and counting — has also poured into the race in the last few weeks to support Balint’s run, with the bulk of that support coming from the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a political action committee that supports LGBTQ+ candidates running for office.

The Gray camp has also sought to wield this against Balint throughout the campaign. On Thursday, the lieutenant governor again used the line of attack in her closing remarks to voters.

“You’ve seen it in your mailbox. You’ve seen it on social media. You’ve seen it on television and you’ve seen it on ads from outside groups trying to win your vote, trying to buy your vote, trying to interfere in our democracy and our elections here in the state,” Gray said.

Balint, for her part, closed by saying that “in this moment, when our democracy is at risk, I think it’s critical that we send someone to Congress who has actual legislative experience and has built coalitions of Republicans, Democrats, progressives and independents. ” Her remark served a way to all her own accomplishments—and as an indirect jab at Gray, whose position is effectively ceremonial.

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