NEW HAVEN — The five Democratic candidates for governor squared off at Addison County Fair and Field Days last Thursday evening, in what will be one of their last meetings before the primary elections on Aug. 24.
In the televised debate, reporters from WCAX-TV, WDEV radio and Vermont Business Magazine took turns questioning the four current or former senators and current secretary of state on their proposed policies and experiences.
The candidates agreed on many points — all spoke of their plans for bolstering the economy, alleviating the state’s budget problems, improving education funding and encouraging the growth of in-state renewable energy.
But it was the questions submitted by WCAX viewers, directed at individual candidates, that set each candidate apart. The first was for Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, who, WCAX anchor Kristin Kelly pointed out, is the only candidate with no legislative track record. Viewer Jamie Perron asked what Markowitz would do to curb drinking and driving in Vermont.
Markowitz began by mentioning one of the foundations of her campaign: her role as a mother.
“As a parent, that terrifies me,” she said. “We need to continue to invest in education … to educate our kids about the dangers of drunk driving. And we need to crack down on drunk drivers.”
She suggested implementing harsher punishments for repeat DUI offenders, as has been done to great effect in other states.
Jim McGarry’s question for Lamoille County Sen. Susan Bartlett, centered around Pete the Moose and the 200 tame deer that live on a property in the Northeast Kingdom. The animals came under scrutiny from the Department of Fish and Wildlife as at risk for chronic disease, and the department recommended they be killed to minimize the risk to the wild animals with which they came in contact. Legislators — led by Bartlett — stepped in and wrote an amendment to the budget sparing the life of Pete and the deer, without the knowledge of the Department of Fish and Wildlife. A viewer questioned the ethics of this decision.
“It was the result of a fish and wildlife department that refused to do anything except be extreme,” said Bartlett. “We disagreed with that. We were working with the administration, and it was the administration that made the choice to not include the fish and wildlife Department.”
Chittenden County Sen. Doug Racine has received endorsements from several labor unions, including the Vermont National Education Association and the Vermont State Labor Council. Arthur Hamlin asked Racine if he would make a pledge to stop the layoffs of state workers that have been characteristics of the Douglas administration.
“I don’t believe we should have the layoffs we’ve seen in recent years,” said Racine. “When I talk to state employees, I’m finding that they are having a very difficult time providing the services that Vermonters are expecting to see. So the blanket layoffs are over.”
He said he believed that state departments could still be more efficient, through better use of information technology and restructuring, but this would likely entail moving employees around, not firing them.
“I pledge that we will not do the blanket layoffs that Gov. Douglas has done in recent years,” said Racine.
To Matt Dunne, who currently manages community affairs for Google, Mike Pieciak asked whether his administration would support the creation of a department or agency of youth affairs to address the issue of young people leaving Vermont.
Dunne said he has been impressed by the number of people who have returned to the state and stayed in order to work on his campaign, but demurred on the topic of creating a department specifically geared toward this issue.
“I’m not sure creating new offices is the answer,” he said.
Instead, he returned to a familiar trope of his campaign: the need to encourage the growth of technology and high-tech business in the state.
“It’s making sure that we focus on creating an economy that works for all Vermonters, making sure we have high-speed Internet and cell phone service the last mile, and making sure we have more business startups … That’s the answer for bringing people back.”
Peter Shumlin, the Windham County senator and Senate President Pro Tem, was the last to receive his question, which was from viewer Mary Edson. She asked how Shumlin would make up for the loss of more than 800 jobs and the substantial tax revenues flowing into the state if the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant closes, as planned, in 2012.
“I think we’re going to replace the jobs by moving to renewables, wind, solar, biomass and implementing my plan of having the most aggressive efficiencies in the country. That’s how we’ll replace them,” said Shumlin.
He spoke of the work he has already done to encourage wind, solar and biomass as sources of energy in the state.
“Those are jobs that can’t get shipped to South Carolina or Louisiana. They’re right here,” he said. “Small, community-based and -generated power … is the way of the future. We’re going to create jobs and put Vermonters back to work.”
The debate could not come to an end without some discussion of Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, the lone Republican candidate for governor. All five were clear on one thing: Dubie’s policies were radically different from any of theirs.
Dunne pointed out that Dubie’s social conservatism contrasted with the voting record of the majority of Vermonters.
“He is radically conservative, particularly on social issues,” said Dunne. “He was against civil unions, he was against gay marriage. He’s just out of sync with the majority of Vermont.”
“We haven’t had a governor who wants to repeal Roe v. Wade, is anti-choice, for as long as we can remember,” said Shumlin.
“(Dubie) has an eight-year record of not really accomplishing a lot,” said Markowitz. “We need someone who can, on day one, be ready to go.”
And Racine said that the difference was in the very basic outlook on the state’s affairs and future.
“(Dubie) is a real pessimist about the state of Vermont,” he said. “Vermonters are optimistic. The people I’m talking to are very hopeful.”
Bartlett was sure that the contrast would be very clear once the primaries were over and Dubie and the Democratic nominee came face to face.
“Whoever wins this primary,” she said, “as soon as we begin having those public conversations with Brian, I think Vermonters are going to see that there’s a real lack of substance.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at firstname.lastname@example.org.