‘A Complete Bonfire’: Kiah Morris Speaks Out on Racism | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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‘A Complete Bonfire’: Kiah Morris Speaks Out on Racism

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
From left: Sha'an Mouliert, Rep. Kiah Morris, Ebony Nyoni, Senowa Mize-Fox, Mark Hudson - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • From left: Sha'an Mouliert, Rep. Kiah Morris, Ebony Nyoni, Senowa Mize-Fox, Mark Hudson

Former state representative Kiah Morris stunned the Vermont political community when she dropped her bid for reelection on August 24 and then abruptly resigned from the legislature on September 25.

The Bennington Democrat is an outspoken advocate for racial justice in a nearly all-white state. She resigned, she said, after enduring years of racially motivated harassment and threats.

Until recently, Morris has refused most media requests for interviews. Last Friday, she agreed to an extensive conversation with Seven Days. In it, she explained her actions and argued that Vermont has failed to confront its own strains of racism and bigotry.

What led her to resign from the legislature? The harassment has continued, Morris said, and on September 11 her husband, James Lawton, had open-heart surgery that will require months of convalescence.

Morris described her situation as "a complete bonfire of so many different challenges that we're facing right now." Morris said Lawton's difficulties "are absolutely caused by that chronic stress and that level of alarm we've lived under for the last few years ... We need this time to heal and to come back stronger than ever."

Morris has cited numerous examples of bigotry, including racist comments and threats on social media, vandalism at her home and at the local Democratic Party office, and unwanted intrusions on her home and property.

Recently, she said, a group of local teenagers has targeted her home, knocking on windows and walls, banging on doors and shouting.

Morris is reluctant to detail every incident of bigotry and harassment, saying that if she did so, each one would be picked apart in isolation. "When we see these things in aggregate, we understand it," she said.

Perhaps. Or perhaps we are blinded by the whiteness of our landscape. Many of us have not experienced or witnessed incidents of racism. That makes it easy to conclude that such incidents are rare or nonexistent. "We are ill-prepared as a state to really talk and think and understand the impacts of systemic racism," said Morris.

"My story is not that unique," Morris said. "There are repercussions when you speak up. We have kids [in the community] who have experienced hate crimes and won't report them for fear of further marginalization. That's real."

And the legal system, Morris added, "is not necessarily a place of trust." She believes that local authorities have failed to take her complaints seriously. Police have made no arrests. Attorney General T.J. Donovan has referred to "a breakdown in Bennington" and launched a special investigation. 

The blindness can be sad and hilarious at the same time. On September 25, True North Reports, the right-wing news and commentary website, posted a piece about Vermonters' perceptions of racism in the state. Or, as the headline put it, "claims of racist incidents." The story was unintentionally revealing. 

"I am certainly not a racist," Windsor County Republican state Senate candidate Wayne Townsend said. "Sometimes you wonder if [charges of racism] are thrown out there by one party to ... try to make the party I am running in look bad."

Douglas Tolles, a candidate for assistant judge in Addison County, was quoted as saying that the term "racist" itself has lost its meaning, thanks to yammering leftists. "Anybody who yells 'white privilege,' well, I think they're the racists because they're bringing color into it," he said. Way to keep an open mind, your honor. 

But the grand prize goes to Peter Briggs, Republican candidate for state Senate in Addison County. He told True North that, well, he might not be the best one to comment on racism because, ahem...

"I believe the average Jew looks to me to be smarter than the average white [Christian], and the average black seems to be more athletic than the average white." (The word "Christian" was apparently added by True North editors.)

Oh yeah, that's the stuff. 

To sum up: In an effort to downplay or deny the presence of bias in Vermont, True North interviewed 10 white men — who unwittingly revealed far more than they intended.

As did True North itself. By presenting these comments uncritically, the organization revealed its own cluelessness about the extent and impact of racism.

Kiah Morris is a remarkably strong and capable person. She was considered a rising star in Vermont politics. If she can be brought low by racial harassment, how many others have suffered in silence?

A Pro-Choice 180

Last week, the Planned Parenthood Vermont Action Fund announced four endorsements in statewide races but stayed silent on the top of the ticket, choosing not to endorse either Republican Gov. Phil Scott or Democratic challenger Christine Hallquist

"Both scored 100 on our candidates' questionnaire," explained Lucy Leriche, vice president of public policy for the political action committee. "Whoever is elected, we're looking forward to having a productive relationship with their administration."

How noble. How inspiring. And how different from 2016, when the PAC not only endorsed Democrat Sue Minter but spent $458,000 on anti-Scott advertising that slammed the then-lieutenant governor as "wanting to restrict a woman's right to choose." Scott has occasionally called for parental notification when minors seek abortions and for restrictions on late-term procedures, but the ads made him out to be thoroughly anti-choice.

So what happened between 2016, when Scott had to be defeated at all costs, and 2018, when he's no different from the Democrat?

"I wasn't here in 2016," Leriche said on Monday, "but my understanding is that there was more concern over Phil Scott's interest in limiting abortion."

This year, she continued, "We have two candidates who are running for governor, one who doesn't have a record and one who does."

Sounds like a subtle burn on the challenger.

Here's another bit of irony. Scott and Hallquist each scored 100 on this year's questionnaire, right?

According to Leriche, Scott also got a perfect 100 in 2016. That was never mentioned in all those anti-Scott advertisements.

Lion in Winter

Vermont Rep. Paul Poirier (I-Barre) has had a remarkable life in politics.

"I just finished my 22nd year in the legislature," 70-year-old Poirier said at a candidates' forum last Thursday night. "I've held 52 years of elective office — legislature, city council, justice of the peace."

And then he added: "This will be my last election. You'll never see 'Paul Poirier' on a ballot again."

He might exit the political stage as a loser. Many of his longtime allies have abandoned him. In previous years, the Democrats have only run a single candidate in the two-seat Barre City district. This time, they are fielding a full slate in a direct challenge to Poirier. 

Everyone agrees on one fact: With two Democrats, a Republican and one liberal independent, the race is wide open. "The math is very difficult to predict," said Rep. Tommy Walz (D-Barre), the other incumbent on the ballot. Which means this is one of the Republicans' few opportunities to add a seat to their caucus. Their entrant is John Steinman, an orthodontist and first-time political candidate. The fourth man in the race is Democrat Peter Anthony, a former mayor of Barre.

Steinman is a solid Republican who trumpets his conservatism on taxes and spending and his skepticism on climate change. That might seem like an odd fit for traditionally Democratic Barre, but with three liberal candidates on the ballot, there's room for Steinman to make a move. Besides, he noted, Republican Karen Lauzon, wife of former Barre mayor Thom Lauzon, finished a mere 140 votes behind Poirier in 2016. "She came very close in a three-way race," Steinman said. "A four-way race may increase my chances."

Poirier has served three separate stints in the House: 1981 to 1989, 1997 to 2001, and 2007 to the present. During the '80s he was a fixture in Democratic leadership. He was House speaker Ralph Wright's top lieutenant and the party's nominee for Congress in 1988. He served as a Democrat until the end of the 2009 session, when he went independent because of what he saw as an increasingly partisan atmosphere. "I chose to leave the Democratic Party so I could do what's best, not follow orders," Poirier said at the candidates' forum. 

Until this year, the Democrats valued Poirier as a strong voice on progressive issues and tolerated his occasional straying. Not anymore. 

"Paul has lost credibility in the Statehouse," said Brandon Batham, Barre city councilor and chair of the city's Democratic Party. "He's been inconsistent on many issues."

Take this year's gun-control debate, in which Poirier was a strong critic of new restrictions. "The bills we passed this year did nothing to protect our children," he told the forum audience.

Poirier loudly opposed the Democratic majority's bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour over six years; he favored a quicker implementation, while Dems were content to make incremental progress. Union leaders also criticize Poirier for raising the idea of converting the Barre City Fire Department from a full-time, unionized service to a volunteer-based organization. 

"We're disappointed with Paul," said Darren Allen, communications director for the Vermont-National Education Association. "He used to be a staunch supporter. Recently, he's taken positions contrary to labor and education."

Poirier insisted he still has a "perfect record" on labor issues and blames the Democrats for the loss of union support. "I called the two unions," he said in a Monday interview. "They gave me some bogus answers. I think the Democratic Party told them not to endorse me. I think they got squeezed." 

Poirier claimed that his independent status allows him to work with all parties and vote his conscience. Anthony argued that being independent actually diminishes a lawmaker's clout. "Walking out of the fold is not the best way to be effective," Anthony said. If he joined Walz in the caucus, he added, Barre would have two voices "who could argue the case for the city's challenges." 

Sue Higby, who succeeded Poirier on the Barre City Council, views herself as a former ally and supporter who saw him as "a legislative lion." No more. "Good political leaders have to evolve," she said. "The 'I' used to stand for 'independent.' Now it stands for 'impediment.'"

Ouch.

The voters of Barre, Poirier noted, "have been very good to me." It remains to be seen if they will continue to stand by him, even as his political and labor allies have moved away.

The original print version of this article was headlined "'A Complete Bonfire'"

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