When he announced in May that he would seek a third term, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott said he would not campaign for the job until the state's coronavirus-induced state of emergency was over. But in an interview on Monday, the Berlin Republican reversed course and said he would engage in some campaign activities before the August 11 primary election — including two or three debates.
"I do feel that I owe it to the competition, as well as to the process, to get myself involved in the last three or four weeks [of the campaign]," he said. "So it won't be a robust campaign by any stretch, but I will do some of the debates."
Acknowledging that the public health crisis is nowhere near over, Scott said he would no longer tie his campaign plans to the existence of a state of emergency in Vermont. "That could go on for months," he said. "I don't want to use that as an excuse to not campaign."
The governor first declared a state of emergency on March 13 and has extended it three times since. He said on Monday that he plans to extend it for another month before it expires on July 15.
Scott said he still plans to avoid most campaign activities for the foreseeable future. He does not intend to raise money, hire a campaign staff or put up lawn signs, for example. But in the interview with Seven Days, which he characterized as his first of the campaign season, he said he would take some questions from the press and take part in "two or three of the major debates."
Three of Scott's opponents in the Republican primary — John Klar, Emily Peyton and Douglas Cavett — are scheduled to take part in a July 22 debate cohosted by Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS. Scott said he had not yet committed to taking part in that debate but was "leaning that way."
Klar, an attorney and farmer from Brookfield, has criticized Scott as "disingenuous" for claiming he could not spare the time to campaign even though he's held lengthy press conferences several times a week since March. "I'm sure he would prefer to skip not only the debates but the primary itself," Klar told Seven Days last week. "Perhaps he's too busy for the primary."
"I don't have to answer to him," Scott said on Monday in response to Klar's criticism. "I have to answer to the people who elected me, and I intend to do my job — and that comes first. They can criticize me all they want, and I'll suffer any consequences that might arrive due to my choice to answer to the people first."
Scott said he wasn't sure exactly what would make him comfortable enough to fully engage in the campaign, but he said the decision would likely hinge on the state's coronavirus case rate and its success reopening the economy. "I can't say at this point in time when that's going to be, but I'll know it when I see it," he said.
Without a paid campaign staff, the governor said he was relying on volunteers to take care of the nuts and bolts of his non-campaign campaign. For example, he said his campaign treasurer, Glen Wright, had assembled much of his latest fundraising and spending report, which showed Scott accepting just $8,155 in contributions from 30 donors.
Even scheduling a campaign interview with the non-candidate can be a challenge. Scott's gubernatorial spokesperson, Rebecca Kelley, told Seven Days last week that she could not be involved and suggested that the newspaper email the governor directly at his campaign address. Four days later, he called without warning.
In the interview, the governor previewed his argument for a third term. "We need steady, experienced leadership right now — an experienced hand at the wheel, so to speak," he said. "So I just think that it makes a tremendous amount of sense for there to be consistency in place."