Gov. Phil Scott (left) and challenger Keith Stern during the first Republican primary debate of 2018
In the first of four Republican primary debates, Keith Stern failed to exploit Gov. Phil Scott’s greatest vulnerability by passing up the chance to hammer him for signing historic gun control measures into law. Meanwhile, a relaxed-looking Scott touted his efforts preventing tax increases and gently jabbed his opponent on an issue of governmental procedure.
The 45-minute debate, held Wednesday in front of an intimate audience at the Channel 17 studio in Burlington’s liberal Old North End and moderated by VTDigger founder Anne Galloway, never got heated. The closest thing to a zinger came after Stern, who’s criticized Scott for not doing more to reduce taxes, suggested he could cut spending in some areas without the legislature’s approval.
“Actually, you can’t, Keith, because they appropriate [the] money,” Scott said. “You’re gonna have to work within the system. It’s three separate legs of government.”
“Oh I understand that. I don’t need a lesson,” Stern replied. “I’m just saying, if I say, ‘Here, I’ve cut $2 million, can we use it for paving roads, are they gonna say, ‘No, we’re not gonna pave roads’?”
“Yeah they will. They say that all the time,” Scott said, prompting laughter in the audience.
Stern criticized Scott for devoting resources to creating electric vehicle charging stations and said that as governor he’d do more to cut government waste. As evidence of waste, Stern cited an auction he recently attended, during which the state sold off pallets of used tires “that looked brand new” for “pennies on the dollar.”
Stern has garnered support among Vermonters who are furious with Scott for supporting gun control measures, but the political novice passed up an opportunity Wednesday to vigorously attack the governor for reneging on a 2016 campaign promise to never sign such legislation.
He criticized Scott only obliquely, stating that, “Taking away gun rights from legal gun owners, law-abiding citizens, is not a solution to anything.”
And Stern demurred when Galloway asked whether he’d consider any restrictions on gun ownership. “That’s a good question. I would consult the experts on it — the gun owners’ groups — because they’re a lot more informed on it than I am,” Stern said.
Scott sounded unconcerned when asked about results from a Morning Consult poll released Wednesday that showed his approval rating dropped 18 points to 47 percent and his disapproval rating doubled after he signed gun reform legislation in April. “Leadership and being governor isn’t about watching the polls and doing or taking action because of what the polls would be or what the political ramifications would be,” Scott responded. “I went into that with my eyes wide open.”
In response to another question, the governor conceded that he didn’t think the magazine ban was necessary and noted that it “wasn’t my idea.”
Both candidates avoided saying much, good or bad, about President Donald Trump, although Stern, inadvertently it seemed, borrowed Trump’s campaign slogan, saying in his closing statement that “We can make this state great again.”