MIDDLEBURY — “This chair is leaning slightly to the left,” said state Sen. Peter Shumlin (D), waiting for a replacement on the stage of Middlebury College's Dana Auditorium last Sunday. “But so do I.”
His statement garnered a laugh from the audience gathered for a debate between the five democratic gubernatorial candidates for August’s primary elections. Though it was a sunny, warm afternoon, the candidates spoke to a full auditorium — more than 200 townspeople, college students and local politicians filled the space.
Questions for the candidates revolved around issues that will likely be key in the upcoming campaign season — among them health care, state budget, jobs, the environment and agriculture, but throughout the debate they all attempted to distinguish themselves from the other candidates.
“The differences (in their platforms) are small,” said Eric Davis, professor of political science at Middlebury College and the event’s moderator. Following the debate, he spoke of the upcoming campaign season. “The candidates will be focusing less on views and more on narrative.”
Each speaker did emphasize personal connections to the politics they spoke of, and many times the talk turned to who would be the best candidate to beat the lone Republican gubernatorial candidate, Brian Dubie.
“Everyone is trying to figure out who the winner is,” said Shumlin of the choice that voters will face in the upcoming primary.
Susan Bartlett delivered her opening statement first, introducing herself as a state senator from Lamoille County who has served for 18 years and been on the appropriations committee for 16 years.
“I’ve been driving from the backseat for a long time,” she said. “Now my legs are getting tired.”
She said that the key to defeating Dubie come November would be personal connections with constituents, which would inspire trust.
“I know that people respond real well to that,” she said.
Matt Dunne was next to speak, citing an early introduction to politics upon his election to state legislature at the age of 22, his work as director of the federal AmeriCorps VISTA program and his current role as manager of community affairs for Google. He stressed his focus on keeping young people in Vermont, creating in-state sources of renewable energy and extending broadband access to the last mile.
Deb Markowitz, who has served 12 years as secretary of state, spoke of her decision to get involved in politics because Montpelier was not doing what she thought it should be doing. During Gov. Jim Douglas’s administration, she said, state government has been slashed across the board, which has been counterproductive. She emphasized job- and community-building in the state.
“Whoever inherits the government from Jim Douglas is inheriting a mess,” she said. “I’ve got the skills and experience to get it back on track.”
Doug Racine, state senator from Chittenden County, spoke of his role as chair of the Health and Welfare Committee in the Senate and his plans to enhance accessibility of good jobs and good education to working class Vermonters.
“I’m a consensus-builder,” he said.
He added that he had beaten Dubie before, and that he could do it again.
Sen. Peter Shumlin, President Pro Tempore of the state senate, spoke of growing up on the dairy farm where his parents founded Putney Student Travel, a business that he and his brother now run. He stressed his experience running a small business, which, while he is socially liberal, has taught him fiscal conservatism.
“I will manage your tax dollars responsibly,” he said.
The candidates all expressed similar views on education — the need to preserve Vermont’s small schools while making the system sustainable.
“I want to make sure that every Vermont kid has as good a chance at education as mine did,” said Markowitz.
Racine drew into question the prevailing desire to cut education funding, and emphasized that education budgets should not be cut simply to support other programs.
“Our values should be consistent and non-negotiable,” he said. “Education is important.”
All candidates said that they would focus on consolidating administrations and supervisory unions rather than cutting schools themselves.
The candidates similarly agreed on the need for more efficient tax policies in a system that is currently disorganized.
“We cannot just raise tax revenues to get out of this (budget) problem,” said Bartlett. “We have to do it in a way that is sustainable.”
Middlebury College junior Ben Wessell, one of the founders of the Race to Replace Vermont Yankee campaign, came forward to ask how each candidate would fill the state’s energy needs once the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant is decommissioned in 2012 — the plant currently fills 33 percent of the state’s energy needs.
Shumlin began with words of caution, saying that the decommissioning is not yet a given — with the plant’s owner, Entergy, still pushing for license renewal. He said the state will need a governor to insure the plant’s license is not extended.
The candidates offered a variety of solutions, from in-state biomass-burning plants, increased energy efficiency programs to a deal to buy energy from Hydro Quebec.
The candidates all promised to continue the current movement, both in-state and federally, toward health care reform. In the wake of the new federal health care law, they agreed, it was time to make Vermont’s progressive system more universal and financially sustainable.
Dunne said that the state has a responsibility in the coming years to continue setting an example for Washington, D.C., in the field of health care.
“We need to deliver on our promise,” he said.
Each candidate stressed the importance of Vermont’s agricultural systems.
“I used to think educational funding was confusing,” said Bartlett, who has served on the agricultural committee for four years. “But dairy pricing is the most complicated thing in the universe.”
“We need to create new jobs (in agriculture),” said Dunne, “and the infrastructure to compete on the global marketplace. We need to leverage Vermont’s brand as an environmental leader.”
As the primaries draw closer and the legislative session ends, the candidates will become much more active in campaigning. But the debates across the state have started a dialog that Davis said will continue in the coming months.
“It was a thoughtful and informed discussion,” he said.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at email@example.com.