The scene was familiar: Five Democrats who want to be Vermont's next governor debating before a key group of constituents.
This time, however, was different: The debate was broadcast live on statewide television, and on the internet.
All five Democratic candidates for governor took part in a debate last night at Barre's Old Labor Hall, aired live on Vermont Public Television. The event was also simulcast on the web, featuring a live chat moderated by myself and Anne Galloway of vtdigger.org.
The most we had in the chat room at one time was 15, although other people did come and go throughout the evening.
The moderator of the “Working Vermont’s Democratic Primary Debate” was Marselis Parsons, former news director at WCAX-TV. The 90-minute forum was being sponsored by Working Vermont a coalition of the state’s largest labor unions, including the Vermont NEA and the Vermont State Employees Association.
(Pictured above: Vermont NEA communications director Darren Allen, right, explaining the rules of the debate while Marselis Parsons looks on)
The first half of the debate included questions asked by Parsons; audience members asked questions during the second half. The conversation proved less lively than those at other forums. The five Democratic gubernatorial candidates are starting to put their sharp elbows to use to challenge each other during debates.
At a February debate in the same venue, Sens. Doug Racine (D-Chittenden) and Peter Shumlin (D-Windham) seemed to win over a small group of 50 labor leaders, with former State Sen. Matt Dunne also garnering praise from attendees. Secretary of State Deb Markowitz and Sen. Susan Bartlett (D-Lamoille) didn’t seem to get a lot of traction with the pro-labor crowd.
Last night's forum did little to change that order, though all five candidates drew applause by stressing they would give labor a "seat at the table" when evaluating major changes in public policy, such as changing the pension and retirement systems.
"State workers, teachers, people who work for non-profits and other people working with tax dollars have not been treated with respect, and that's the first thing that's going to change," said Racine.
The candidates, not surprisingly, widely agreed that Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican, has created an "us versus them" atmosphere between the public and public employees.
"I don't believe they have been well treated by this administration," said Bartlett, when asked if she would add more employees to state government. "Only time is going to tell what kind of economy we're going to have, but I do hope we can get them back to pay increases rather than layoffs and wage freezes."
Several candidates believe that state government is understaffed at the moment, as cuts have been made too fast without much forethought.
Parsons asked if the legislature should share some of the blame. Bartlett said, yes, in some instances, but the legislature has no seat at the table when it comes to negotiating a contract with VSEA.
Bartlett, and others, said the state is going through a financial crisis and doesn't have the money to pay for everything. That said, she added, the Challenges for Change effort is designed to help find efficiencies in state government.
On that controversial topic, the candidates agreed the legislature should reject some of the Douglas proposals contained in Challenges for Change. The legislature is now vetting the proposals in various committees.
None of the candidates — at this debate — talked about how they would fund new staff, or pay increases. At past debates, Racine has been the only candidate to openly say he was willing to consider raising taxes as a way to help close the budget gap and spare some state employees their jobs. He made no such claim during the televised debate.
The candidates didn't just criticize Douglas, however; several — most prominently Shumlin — pointed to the "Douglas/Dubie team", hoping to connect some of Douglas' anti-labor policies to that of Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, the putative Republican candidate for governor.
Several candidates criticized Douglas for cutting federally-funded jobs, which has meant, in some cases, that federal stimulus funds are being returned to Washington, DC — or never drawn down in the first place.
"We're sending back money for a federal nutrition program for children," said Markowitz. "That's ridiculous."
As a result of staff reductions at the Department of Education, nearly 125 program sites ready to serve kids supper went unused last year. The sites were waiting for state approval, according to officials with the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger. The campaign estimates Vermont has missed out on $1.3 million in federal funds for child nutrition through a pilot program secured by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
The DOE recently announced it had re-staffed the program and would be able to sign up sites to draw down the federal funds.
At the opening of the debate, Parsons asked each of the candidates if they had ever been a union member. Only Bartlett shook her head yes, the others no. Parsons then added that Dubie, ironically, was a union member — a member of the national pilots union.
"Yes, that it is ironic, isn't it?" added Racine, to great applause.
Racine got another dig in at Dubie at the end of the debate during the candidates' 90-second closing statements.
"Brian, if you're watching this at home, you should come out next time and try it," said Racine, looking into the camera. "It's not that hard."
This dig also generated a good laugh from the crowd of more than 200 union members, politicians and campaign staff.
Candidates were also asked about whether they support a protective labor agreement as part of the construction of a new bridge over Lake Champlain. The agreement, which ensures workers are paid federal prevailing wages and hires union staffers, is estimated to save as much as $3 million over the life of the construction.
Vermont officials, led by the Douglas administration, oppose the plan saying Vermont contractors will not be able to compete for the work if they have to pay higher wages and hire union workers.
All five candidates said they supported the PLA.
"The Douglas-Dubie team is trying to divide us," said Shumlin, who said he's working on the a Senate plan that would allow the PLA to be enacted on the Vermont side of the project. To date, Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Chittenden/Grand Isle) has opposed it, but Shumlin said he hopes to reach an agreement between Mazza and Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans), who supports the concept.
A hearing is scheduled today in Montpelier on the topic before the Senate Economic Development Committee, which Illuzzi chairs.
Other issues the group tackled included the closure of Vermont Yankee, and the potential loss of union jobs at the plant, as well as how to address health care reform.
A bill in the Senate is currently ping-ponging back and forth between the committees chaired by Racine and Bartlett.
Shumlin said his vision for a new health care system is simple: "One plan, one family, one state."
While the candidates didn't challenge each other during the debate, an independent candidate for governor — Dennis Steele — did.
Steele, who is one of about a dozen secessionist candidates running for statewide and local offices in Vermont, interrupted the candidates early on. First, he shouted a comment from the back of the room, asking why they weren't addressing what he claims is Vermont's $1.5 billion share in a "failed foreign policy."
He was asked to be quiet by organizers, and many attendees, but later walked right up the center aisle to the front of the room and shouted again, "Why aren't you talking about the $1.5 billion that is our share of a failed foreign policy? Why aren't you addressing it?"
He was then asked to sit back down by Parsons, and refused. Two Barre City police officers escorted Steele out of the building.
"Am I under arrest? Am I under arrest?!" Steele repeatedly asked as he resisted being removed.
Indeed, Steele was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, he told Seven Days today. He was able to go back later, after the debate, to collect his equipment. He was recording the event for his online radio station, Free Radio Vermont.
Steele was not invited, said organizers, because this debate was intended for candidates taking part in a primary. Although, Parsons did say at one point during the debate that Dubie had been invited, but declined to attend.