Sarah Schweitzer / Boston Globe – 2005-03-01 07:52:29
(February 26, 2005) — Vermont’s town meetings next week will offer the nation one of the first popular referendums on the Iraq war.
In one-fifth of the state’s 251 towns, residents on Tuesday will be asked to vote on a resolution that calls upon President Bush to withdraw troops from Iraq and urges the state’s elected leaders to reconsider the use of Vermont’s National Guard in the war.
The state has borne a heavy burden from the Iraq conflict. Vermont has the second-highest per capita rate of reservists called to active duty, after Hawaii. It has also suffered a high casualty rate: 11 service members, from a state with a population of 621,394, have died during active duty.
The balloting is largely a symbolic effort, with the towns’ votes having no binding effect. But by utilizing the time-honored format of New England town meetings, often seen as incubators of democracy, antiwar activists hope to express what they say is a deeply rooted and widening opposition to the war.
”The timing is pretty special because there is a real concern about the war that is growing,” said Ben Scotch, of Montpelier. ”You can feel it creeping.”
Scotch was among a handful of Vermonters who mounted a statewide effort to obtain the signatures necessary to place the resolution on town meeting ballots.
They succeeded in 52 towns.
Middlebury, a town of about 8,000 residents and home to Middlebury College, is among those that will be voting on the war resolution. Selectmen there initially resisted placing the resolution on the town meeting ballot, saying the war in Iraq was too far afield from local affairs.
But they relented when Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz intervened, saying that at least 5 percent of town residents had signed the petition and that the law required the resolution be placed on the ballot.
”Many here wondered how a town meeting could direct something on a national scale,” Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger said. ”But it does send a message that hopefully people are listening to.”
Vermont has a rich history of using town meetings as a venue to make its people’s views known to the nation. In 1974, five towns voted to urge congressional leaders to seek the impeachment of President Nixon. Recent years have seen efforts to stamp out nuclear weapons, abortion restrictions, and the USA Patriot Act.
Some say that introducing too many national referendum items on town meeting ballots dilutes each one’s power.
”These things are all good now and again,” said Frank Bryan, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont who has written extensively about Vermont’s town meeting history.
”But there is the risk of people using town meeting for whatever particular interest they might have.”
Vermont, Bryan noted, has long been at the forefront of military resistance. In the War of 1812, he said, the governor ordered Vermont soldiers to break off hostilities with the British. The soldiers balked, and continued fighting. Vermont was also a hotbed of opposition during the Vietnam War, with US Senator George Aiken, a Republican, among the earliest national leaders to speak out against it.
During the Iraq war, Vermont has produced some of the country’s most outspoken critics of the conflict, including Senators Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, and Jim Jeffords, an independent.
Former governor Howard Dean, the new Democratic National Committee chairman, also based a failed presidential bid in part on his vehement opposition to the Iraq war.
The three members of the state’s congressional delegation offered support for resolution, although all three expressed reservations about the feasibility of immediate troop withdrawal.
Leahy said in a statement, ”This resolution has prompted the kind of constructive debate that should be happening not only in Washington but in every community in the country, and Vermonters again are setting a good example of civic responsibility and participation.”
Representative Bernard Sanders, an independent, is the only congressional member who lives in a city where the matter is on the ballot. He said in a statement he will vote in favor of the measure.
The language of the antiwar resolution varies from town to town.
The template resolution proposed by organizers calls for the Legislature to study the effect on Vermont of numerous deployments and asks Vermont’s congressional delegation ”to work to restore a proper balance between the powers of the states and that of the federal government over state National Guard units.” It also asks the president and the Congress to withdraw the US military from Iraq.
In recent months, the Vermont National Guard has seen recruitment suffer. Six months ago, Vermont was second in the nation in recruiting; now it is among the bottom 10 states.
As elsewhere in the country, the war has been a source of tension in Vermont. In Brattleboro, a dispute arose over the phrasing of a bridge dedication to a fallen soldier that would have read, ”Freedom is not free.” Many said the phrase sounded jingoistic, and it was eliminated.
In some towns, the war resolution will be voted on without discussion. In others, such as Middlebury, time has been set aside for hearing residents’ opinions on the matter.
”I am sure it will prompt an interesting discussion,” said Finger, Middlebury’s town manager.
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