Douglas Cavett, John Klar, Emily Peyton and Gov. Phil Scott. Not pictured: Bernard Peters.
In his first campaign appearance of the 2020 election, Gov. Phil Scott on Wednesday parried allegations from his Republican rivals that he has been insufficiently conservative during his nearly four years leading the state.
"I'm one of the only backstops we have at this point in time," Scott said during a debate cohosted by Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS. He noted that no other Republican had won statewide office in Vermont in nearly a decade. "I'm, like, the last person standing at this point in time between common sense and some of what we're seeing in the legislative process," he said.
During Wednesday's debate, several opponents criticized his handling of the pandemic, arguing that he had violated the constitutional rights of Vermonters.
"I see other places that have handled this COVID without trespassing on our rights, and I think it's important to note that those places are doing better than Vermont," said Emily Peyton of Putney. "I think the way that Scott has handled the COVID is absolutely concerning. He has brought the state to its knees."
Bernard Peters of Irasburg said Scott had engaged in a double standard by asking many Vermonters to maintain a social distance from one another while encouraging Black Lives Matter protesters to march "elbow to elbow." He also alleged that residents had been held to a higher quarantine standard than tourists.
"If you're gonna protect the Vermont people, we're not anti people coming here, we're anti people coming here to make our people sick," Peters said.
John Klar of Brookfield, meanwhile, criticized Scott for initially setting what he called onerous restrictions on farmers markets and for failing to provide guidance to gun shops as to whether they could continue to do business. "Many local businesses were closed while Walmart and other large chains and McDonald's were thriving," he said. "There were a lot of inconsistencies in this."
Peyton also took issue with Scott's recent suggestion that he was considering requiring those in public places to wear masks. "It is up to our personal responsibility whether we want to stay home, whether we want to wear a mask, whether we think it's prudent," she said. "It's not up to government to force this on the people."
The governor has for months resisted calls for such a mandate, but at a press conference on Tuesday he said he may issue one later this week. At Wednesday's debate, he was even more concrete, saying, "I think it's just a matter of days before we do have a mask mandate here in Vermont."
Each of the candidates was given the opportunity to question other Republicans in the debate. Scott used one of his turns to tweak a potential Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, who has faced attacks from former education secretary Rebecca Holcombe for his past skepticism of vaccine mandates.
Addressing Klar, the governor said, "John, we're in the middle of a pandemic. One of the front-runners on the Democratic side has questioned the science of vaccines. Do you accept, like I do, that vaccines are essential to public health and getting us out of this economic crisis that we're in?"
"No, I'm not anti-vax," Klar responded. "But I am anti-mandatory vax, without an extraordinarily compelling case. That's our constitution."
The debate grew strange at times, particularly when one candidate's criminal history came up. Debate moderator Bob Kinzel of VPR asked Douglas Cavett of Milton to explain his 2010 conviction on a charge of aggravated sexual assault of a minor when he was a Burlington middle school teacher. "Don't you think voters deserve a full explanation from you about what happened?" Kinzel asked.
"Well, I think they deserve a full explanation about the criminal-financial system and the coercion and terrorist tactics that the courts use in order to get people to a plea deal 99 percent of the time, whether they're guilty or not," Cavett said.
When Kinzel noted that Cavett had actually pleaded guilty to the charge, the candidate said, "That's what you're forced to do, sir."
Later, when Cavett was given the chance to ask another candidate a question, he chose Scott. "How do you justify not speaking up against the [Department of Corrections] forcing people to masturbate and measure their penis size or having undocumented strip searches called the naked monkey dance?"
The governor paused for a moment. "Yeah, I don't even know how to answer that, Doug," he said. "I honestly don't know that that's the case. Obviously you've been incarcerated yourself, so you've been through that, but I have no knowledge of that."