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A Forum Generates Awkward Moments for Candidates

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Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Lisman (far left with arms folded) standing to the side for a group photo - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Lisman (far left with arms folded) standing to the side for a group photo
Bruce Lisman was the only one of four candidates appearing Saturday at a forum hosted by the liberal advocacy group Rights & Democracy who didn’t invoke the name Bernie Sanders. He was the only one to call for a moratorium on wind and solar projects.

When it came time for a group photo in front of a banner reading “Jobs, Justice + Climate,” Lisman was the only candidate not trying for a prime spot. Instead, he stood off to the side and did not make into the frame of the photo that the group later posted on Facebook.

Lisman, a retired Wall Street banker who is a Republican candidate for governor, didn’t quite fit in with a crowd that had gathered for a day of political discussions that included sessions titled: “Tackling Inequality & Building a Moral Economy” and “What Would Bernie’s Political Revolution Look Like in Vermont?”

Saturday’s forum didn’t feature the full contingent of declared candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, but it made up for that by providing some deliciously awkward political moments. It is not every day you get to see
Sen. David Zuckerman (P/D-Chittenden), who is running for lieutenant governor, call for raising taxes on large corporations, then hand the microphone to Lisman.

"I have a different view than some," Lisman said at one point.

No rotten tomatoes were thrown, but Lisman is unlikely to have won over this crowd. While other candidates spoke of attending Black Lives Matter and other civil rights rallies, Lisman promised without enthusiasm, “If you elect me governor, I would spend considerable time on these issues.”

The forum also featured one of the first opportunities to see what the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor will be like between Zuckerman and Rep. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington). In a word: sizzling.

On issues, there was virtually no distance between their stances. Both pledged to work on fighting racism, raising the minimum wage, defending workers’ right to strike and lowering the cost of college education.

The signs that this race could be scintillating were more subtle. Zuckerman and Ram have, after all, run against each other before, competing in 2008 in a two-seat Burlington House district. Zuckerman, then an incumbent, and Ram, a newly graduated University of Vermont student, both won. But Ram knocked off Zuckerman’s fellow Progressive, Chris Pearson, in the process.

Now Zuckerman lives in Hinesburg and serves in the Senate. Pearson won his old House seat back, and serves alongside Ram. And Ram and Zuckerman are duking it out for a chance to be the next lieutenant governor. 

In an ever-so-polite way, it appeared Saturday that the two candidates have not forgotten the 2008 scrap. Asked how he would approach pending budget deficits, Zuckerman blamed the House leadership team for defeating efforts to raise new revenue in recent years. While he didn’t mention that Ram is a member of the House leadership team, there seemed little doubt he hoped the audience would make the link.

By the time the microphone came back to Ram, she was ready to fight back. She was indeed on the House leadership team, she said, but she was away, taking her late father’s ashes to India, when the tax bill came up. When she returned, she said, she successfully fought an effort to ban teachers’ right to strike. 

Two candidates for governor, Democrat Sue Minter and Republican Phil Scott, didn’t attend the forum. Minter had a personal conflict, campaign manager Sarah McCall said. Scott said he had expected to be out of state visiting his mother but changed those plans late last week after he learned that Gov. Peter Shumlin was going to Paris. Scott said that by then, he had forgotten about the earlier invitation to the forum. Still, it probably wouldn’t have been Scott’s crowd any more than it was Lisman’s.

Democrat Brandon Riker and Republican Randy Brock, also candidates for lieutenant governor, did not attend.

James Haslam, head of Rights & Democracy, said earlier this year when he formed the group in anticipation of influencing next year's election that he was unsure which, if any, of the current candidates for governor might get its backing.

With Minter absent, Dunne had a wide-open chance to try to win the group's support. Dunne was careful not to over-promise, saying he couldn’t guarantee passage of a $15-an-hour minimum wage but supported working toward one. Dunne hit many of the crowd's other sweet spots, promising a program to allow debt-free college graduation, support for greater racial diversity in state government and to push for universal health care.

And he took a sideways swing at his opponent. Dunne blamed the Shumlin administration for demoralizing state employees by asking for contract concessions. He didn't explicitly mention that the administration had included Minter as Agency of Transportation secretary. (She stepped down to run for governor.) But when Dunne said he would turn to state employees for help in finding budget efficiencies, he chose to single out the agency.

“If you want to make AOT more efficient, you ask someone in the garage,” he said.


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