Candidates for statewide office showed their stuff Wednesday afternoon during the first cattle call of the general election season.
At a policy forum hosted by Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility at Burlington's Main Street Landing, all but a handful of candidates set to appear on November's ballot showed up to deliver three-minute elevator pitches and answer a few questions each. (Okay, that's a long elevator ride.)
While a couple of the state's top elected officials skipped the event — Gov. Peter Shumlin and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch were at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders was in New York City taping Moyers and Company — most everybody else attended. That gave the sparse crowd of just 40 to 50 people, including candidates and their staff, a helpful sneak preview of campaign themes to come.
Here are seven things we noticed during the two-hour forum:
1. Progressive state treasurer candidate Don Schramm was the most honest guy on the stage. Asked whether he was as qualified as incumbent Democrat Beth Pearce, who has spent her life working in municipal and state finance, Schramm said that "the best qualification to be the state treasurer is to have been the state treasurer," noting that even Republican challenger Wendy Wilton, the Rutland City treasurer, had more experience than he. More Schramm: "My two opponents are much more qualified for the job than I am. I can assure you I could do it really well. I know that Beth is doing a good job right now."
2. True to form, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott left the red meat at home. The lite gov managed to avoid mentioning a single substantive policy issue during his three-minute pitch, preferring to focus on what a swell guy he is. He did touch on the following hard-hitting subjects: voting's great, "respect and civility" are important, he's a father and a businessman, buying local is rad, Tropical Storm Irene sucked, Vermonters rule. The one time he addressed an issue of substance — when an audience member asked him whether he supported a single-payer health insurance system — he dished out blue meat, not red. "I'm breaking away from some of my Republican friends, and I think we should give the Affordable Care Act a chance to work. I think it's passed Congress, it passed Supreme Court muster, and now it's before us and we should implement that and try and make that work first." And then he'd be down to think about single-payer.
3. Scott's Democratic challenger, Cassandra Gekas, may be young, but she's been at it for a while. In her introductory remarks, the ex-VPIRG health care reform lobbyist said, "I've spent the past decade really working on the ground and behind the scenes on some of the biggest issues we face." But given that she's just 30 years old, we assume she must be including some college internships in that tally! To be fair, unlike her opponent, Gekas actually outlined the issues that matter to her: universal health care, renewable energy, affordable childcare, domestic violence and access to transportation.
4. Republican gubernatorial candidate Randy Brock raided former governor Jim Douglas' Middlebury College recycling bin. Listening to Brock outline his campaign themes made me feel like I'd blacked out and stumbled into a time machine that took me back to the Douglas glory days of, say, 2006. Everybody thinks Vermont's a bad place to do business? Check. "If I'm elected governor, the first thing I want to do is I want to go to every entrance to the state of Vermont and put up a sign that says 'Vermont is open for business.' There's a perception that we're not. And that perception is wrong and it should be wrong and we should emphasize that." The solution to everything is permit reform? Check. "We want Vermont to be Vermont, but we also want our permitting to be fast, to be understandable, to be clear, to be transparent, to be quick and to be certain." And then Brock concluded with this line, which may speak volumes about his campaign: "I know I have three minutes. My three minutes are up."
5. Republican candidate for attorney general Jack McMullen might not be Sorrell-haters' only option. While Progressive AG candidate Ed Stanak has pretty much been ignored or relegated to the fringe by the lamestream media (myself included!), the pony-tailed Prog (no, not that one) gave a strong pitch outlining why he should be taken seriously. The former Vermont State Employees Association president and Act 250 administrator said he believes the state "requires an activist attorney general." Arguing that he's been an active anti-nuclear advocate since 1978, Stanak said, "I'm no Johnny-come-lately when I say, 'Shut Vermont Yankee down now.'" Fans of recently-vanquished AG candidate T.J. Donovan, take notice.
6. That campaign cliche about Democratic and Progressive state auditor candidate Doug Hoffer being the boring-but-serious candidate is kinda true. Because Hoffer was feeling under the weather, Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington) read a speech penned by the candidate: a really boring speech about reports, performance reviews and externalities. I almost fell asleep. Republican auditor candidate Vince Illuzzi, on the other hand, took the Phil Scott approach — mostly just spinning yarns and trying to mesmerize the audience into forgetting he's a Republican. Illuzzi (pictured at top) kept talking about Lola Aiken, which was just kind of weird.
7. Perennial candidate Emily Peyton will not be silenced. The independent gubernatorial candidate exploited a rather obvious loophole to maximize her fleeting exposure at the forum: after her three minutes were up, she and her campaign manager popped up during each of the other candidates' Q-and-As to, well, talk about their own wacky ideas.