Christine Hallquist and Gov. Phil Scott at Thursday's debate.
Republican Gov. Phil Scott and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Christine Hallquist held their final debate Thursday night, and it was marked by a lively pace and frequent clashes between the two candidates. The event took place at Saint Michael's College in Colchester before a student audience, and was broadcast live on WPTZ-TV.
Both candidates pivoted quickly to their preferred talking points, and each took numerous opportunities to poke at each other. At times, they even talked over each other at some length, each seeking to get in the last word.
Hallquist repeatedly characterized Scott's first term as a repeated "failure of leadership" and accused him of lacking a long-term vision. The governor, meanwhile, strongly defended his record, criticized Hallquist for going negative and repeatedly called for civility in political life.
In her opening statement, Hallquist immediately went on the offensive, contrasting what she sees as Scott's shortcomings with her own positive "vision for the future." Scott referred, as he always does, to the three founding principles of his administration: growing the economy, making Vermont more affordable and protecting the state's most vulnerable.
Scott, unbidden by a question, brought up the recent downgrade of Vermont's bond rating by Moody's Investors Service and put the blame on the state's unfunded pension liability. Hallquist turned the tables. "I see a person not taking responsibility for leadership," she said. "A leader is responsible for the credit rating."
Scott, in turn, blamed Democratic lawmakers who "brought us to the point we're at today."
"You're the leader," Hallquist replied. "Take responsibility."
Both candidates called for reducing public school costs, but they had very different solutions. Scott has pursued initiatives aimed at forcing school districts to rein in spending and again referred to broadening priorities for education spending.
"We have to invest more in early childhood and post-secondary education," he said, noting that 90 percent of education spending pays for K-12 schools. (He did not mention that the bulk of those dollars are raised through property taxes for the express purpose of funding K-12.)
Hallquist asserted that a "collaborative" approach with local school leaders is better than "dictating from above."
Just before the halfway point of the debate, Scott and Hallquist got into an argument over which of them was fomenting fear and division. Hallquist pointed to "negative attacks by the Republican Governors Association and Phil." The RGA has recently paid for statewide mailings and TV ads labeling Hallquist as a tax-and-spender.
"You're using fear," Scott retorted, "attaching me to national Republicans."
The two engaged in some undecipherable crosstalk, which led into the only commercial break of the debate.
Afterward, both candidates were asked what they most and least admired about President Donald Trump. "I don't appreciate his style," said Scott. "Leaders should unite, not divide." As for what he appreciates, Scott said, "I'll think about it and get back to you."
Hallquist had no qualms about the question. "There is nothing to admire," she said. "He has serious psychological issues. I'm ashamed that the national Republican Party hasn't done anything about him."
Hallquist, a transgender woman, then referred to the Trump administration's plan to redefine gender based solely on a person's anatomy at birth and noted that, "He wants to eradicate my community. I'm very afraid about the future of our country."
When asked about racism in Vermont, Scott acknowledged it's a real issue. "We'd like to think we're insulated, but we're not," he said, referring to former state representative Kiah Morris' decision to resign in the face of racist threats. "We need more diversity in the state," he concluded.
Not good enough for Hallquist, who noted, "I didn't hear a plan in there." She promised to have people of color in her transition team and administration, and an independent commission to eradicate systemic racism.
"We're doing a lot already," Scott retorted. The two briefly argued over Scott's veto of a bill to establish an independent commission with a cabinet-level administrator. Scott defended the veto as a constitutional matter and noted that in the end, he and the legislature worked out a mutually agreeable solution.
The two clashed on many issues. Scott favored the basing of the new F-35 fighter jets at Burlington International Airport, while Hallquist said she has "serious questions" about the move. Hallquist supports full legalization of marijuana, while Scott remains opposed.
Hallquist expressed support for safe injection sites as part of her plan to fight the opioid crisis. "I'm not in favor of that," said Scott. Hallquist defended paid family leave as "the civilized thing to do," while Scott — who vetoed a bill to establish paid family leave because it included a payroll tax — said that he was "not averse" to paid family leave, but that "it should be voluntary."
Their final debate was, by far, the most contentious of all. It was Hallquist's last chance to directly confront Scott and try to put some dents in his Teflon.
The broadcast itself underscored the disadvantages she faces in defeating Scott: the RGA's TV ad was broadcast before, during and immediately after the debate. There has been no television advertising at all by Hallquist or by any independent group that supports her candidacy.