Sue Minter, Democratic candidate for governor, talks to Don White at the Jericho Democratic candidate forum.
A lively political debate Sunday evening took over the 1797 Jericho home where governor Martin Chittenden — a Federalist and the son of first governor Thomas Chittenden — once lived.
There, in the historic parlors of the house now owned by Bob Invancic and Dan Dixon, Jericho Democrats gathered to hear from gubernatorial candidates Matt Dunne and Sue Minter and lieutenant governor candidates Kesha Ram and David Zuckerman.
More than 100 people gave up watching the Packers-Redskins football playoff game to head out on a rainy Sunday night to sip wine and study up on which candidates they’ll choose in a primary that’s seven months away.
“This is the way it works,” Gaye Symington, a former House speaker and 2008 Democratic gubernatorial candidate who helped organize the forum, told the crowd.
Symington meant that in living rooms, town halls and farmers markets across the state, voters such as these will interrogate candidates and weed their way through their differences.
Sunday night, the candidates conducted round-robin discussions with voters who were divided into three rooms.
Invancic and Dixon, who offered their home for the Jericho Town Democratic Committee event, are unsure which candidates they’ll vote for. “I have a leaning, but I want to do more research,” Ivancic said, unwilling to reveal his leaning.
Two months after House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) dropped out of the race for governor because his wife is fighting cancer, neither Dunne nor Minter appears to be a clear front-runner.
Minter and Dunne made their cases Sunday.
“When you’re talking about who is going to be the next governor, you have to think about who has the experience to be able to deliver,” Dunne told a group that filled folding chairs in the home’s front room. Dunne, a former state legislator, AmeriCorps/Vista director and now a Google manager from Hartland, argued that was him.
Matt Dunne, Democratic candidate for governor, talks Sunday with Jen Botzojorns.
Fifteen minutes later, it was Minter’s turn. “I have seen Vermont at its toughest times and also at its best. We can make the impossible possible,” she said. Also a former legislator, she served as Agency of Transportation secretary and the state’s Tropical Storm Irene recovery officer. Minter said it is her experience the state needs most.
Questions directed at the candidates focused on many familiar issues, such as income inequality, gun control, climate change, marijuana legalization and health care.
Bill Butler posed a different kind of question. Declaring the wind turbines on Lowell Mountain a “mistake,” Butler asked Dunne, “Can’t we do this better?”
Dunne acknowledged that when he saw the turbines for the first time, it “took my breath away,” but said he would rely on the state’s energy siting commission to figure out how Vermont should handle such matters. “I’m not going to be an anti-wind person,” he said.
Later, as he mingled in the hallway shoulder to shoulder with fellow Democrats, Butler said, “I’m voting Republican.”
His wife, Susan Harritt, quickly jumped in. “Wouldn’t it be better to say you hope the Democratic candidates get a better understanding of energy creation?” she urged.
Butler said he's a 100 percent Democrat who hasn’t voted for a Republican since former U.S. senator Jim Jeffords, who last ran in 2000, “but this issue is so important to me.”
Butler declared Republican Phil Scott, the lieutenant governor who is seeking the governor’s job, a “decent man” he might be able to vote for. It might mean he'll have to sleep in another room, he quipped.
By the end of the evening, though, Butler had circled through the crowd and chatted with Minter. He was softening back toward his Democratic self. “I may be all right. She’s interested in community sized solutions,” he said.
On many issues, it seems like there's little to distinguish the Democratic candidates for governor. Gun control is one of the exceptions. Questioned about that, Minter reiterated that she strongly believes the state should adopt universal background checks, noting it's an unpopular position politically. “The background check is a measure that doesn’t undermine the Second Amendment,” she said.
Dunne was more circumspect. Saying he was “taken aback” by the shooting of a state social worker in Barre last year, he said he is open to discussing the issue. Previously, however, Dunne more explicitly opposed extending background checks to gun show and private sales, saying at the time, "I'm focused on things that will actually address the issues we're confronting today."
Rep. George Till (D-Jericho), who asked the lieutenant governor candidates about income inequality, said his decision about whom to support will come down to the candidates’ stances on a handful of issues important to him. For governor, he’d been a Smith supporter, but is now uncommitted and in no hurry. “I’ll talk to them and see who’s the most supportive,” he said.
As Eric Avildsen mingled in the parlor after hearing from the candidates, he said he hasn’t made up his mind who to support. “I don’t think I’m quite ready yet,” he said.
How will he decide? “It will be partly a judgment about who will beat the Republican,” he said. “In some ways, it’s a bit of a calculation.”
Martin Chittenden, the last Federalist governor in Vermont, who once held court in these same rooms, might have been OK with that. His party, too, went up against Republicans.