by Aubrey Weaver, for the Community News Service
SOUTH BURLINGTON — In the chandelier-adorned ballroom of the DoubleTree Hilton, several hundred folks from Vermont and elsewhere gathered Wednesday to hear from an old household name.
Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. spoke that night as part of the Gen. John Stark lecture series hosted by the Ethan Allen Institute, the small-government conservative think tank named for one of Vermont’s founding fathers.
Kennedy, the nephew of President John F. Kennedy and son of former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, is one of two challengers to President Joe Biden in the 2024 Democratic primary, joining author Marianne Williamson.
“He’s a familiar name — my parents loved his family, and I think Vermonters should listen, just listen and hear what he’s trying to say,” said attendee Judith McLaughlin, 65, of Franklin, who lost bids for the Vermont Senate in 2010 and 2012, first as a Republican, then as an independent.
Recent polling has Kennedy’s Democratic support against Biden between 15 and 20%. Many of the attendees who spoke to Community News Service said they had come because they plan to vote for Kennedy or are considering his candidacy as an option.
Amid a sea of cocktail and business attire stood one attendee sporting a Kennedy 2024 campaign t-shirt and button. If you looked closely, you might’ve noticed her “RFK Jr.” necklace and matching bracelet, custom made by a close friend, she said. When it comes to Kennedy, Joanne Clemens is all in.
“Absolutely, I’ll be voting for him. There are no questions about it. I’m an early supporter. I actually designed my own yard sign,” said Clemens, 63.
Clemens lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts. She said she attended Kennedy’s campaign announcement in Boston Park Plaza in April and drove the 200 miles to see him speak in South Burlington.
Clemens said she voted for Biden in 2020. These days, she said,“I would vote the other party before I vote for Biden again.”
Why? It came down to Covid, she said. During the height of the pandemic, she spent winters in Florida for its comparatively laxer rules, finding out along the way that she liked how Gov. Ron DeSantis approached policy, she said. She hopes DeSantis doesn’t succeed in his own push for the presidency, as a Republican, “because I actually like the fact that he’s governor of Florida because that’s where I spend my winters.”
The candidate didn’t mention that stance during the speech, but even if he had, some attendees didn’t seem to care about his views on vaccines. “I know that some people say he’s a conspiracy theorist, but I sort of buy into (the mantra that) ‘everything that you disagree with sometimes ends up being a conspiracy,’” said McLaughlin, the Franklin resident.
When asked about the YouTube video takedown, Chittenden County attorney Peter Schubart, 56, said he found the move somewhat suspect. “It seemed like he was positing a valid theory that warranted more examination that, for whatever reason, was taken down.”
In an email to Community News Service, Kennedy’s campaign press team said that “his stance has not changed, although vaccines are not a major emphasis of the campaign.”
Williamson has slammed the administration in the press for so far not agreeing to hold primary debates; Kennedy earlier this year described the situation as “unfortunate.” The move would be unlikely if trends hold: No incumbent since President Gerald Ford has participated in primary debates. Some attendees interviewed at the South Burlington event agreed with the two challengers: They would like to see open primary debates for the 2024 election, despite it being unusual for incumbent elections.
“Are you kidding? It’s unconstitutional — it’s undemocratic — not to have a debate.” said Clemens. “But the whole question is whether the (Democratic National Committee) will allow him to be in the primary. That will be the biggest test of our democracy that we will see in years.”
Before Kennedy’s turn at the podium, Ethan Allen Institute board chair Jack McMullen spoke about the controversial clean heat bill that became law last month with a legislative override of Gov. Phil Scott’s veto.
“We are eager to hear Mr. Kennedy’s views on appropriate free market and fair solutions for carbon emissions reduction,” McMullen said. “Perhaps his advice will eventually have an influence on our representatives in Montpelier.”
Kennedy, who in a moment of humor told the audience he had lost a tooth implant he’s had for 60 years right before his presentation, spoke at length about the dangers of lost natural resources and how his solution — focused on revoking subsidies from polluters and forcing them to pay for environmental damages — would make fossil fuel corporations take accountability for the economic burdens they cause.
“I’m a free marketeer,” he said. “I’m going out into the market, and I’m catching the cheaters. And I’m telling them, ‘I’m going to force you to internalize your costs the same way you internalize your profits.’”
Apart from a few mentions of how he could achieve some of his environmental goals as president, Kennedy steered clear from campaign specifics.
Though he is broadly considered a longshot against Biden, excitement surrounding Kennedy’s candidacy could be indicative of some voters’ disenchantment with their options for 2024.
Schubart, the Chittenden County–based lawyer, said he voted for Jill Stein in 2020 and would vote for Kennedy in 2024.
Jeffersonville resident Ferron Wambold, 35, who ran as the Republican candidate for a Lamoille House district seat in 2020, said she didn’t vote for president that year. She wasn’t much enthused about next year’s field either. “I don’t like any of the potential candidates for president,” she said.
But something about Kennedy’s polarizing nature made her curious enough to come out that night.
“You have some Republicans enjoying Mr. Kennedy, and then you have Democrats who are enjoying him, and then others on both sides are like, ‘He’s crazy,’” she said. “So I feel like it’s the opportune time to hear what he’s about.”
The author is a reporter for Community News Service, a news initiative of the University of Vermont.
Categories: Community Events