Republican Gov. Phil Scott and his Progressive/Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, may be vying to lead the state through the coronavirus crisis, but their first one-on-one debate on Thursday hardly touched on the pandemic.
Instead, the two gubernatorial candidates largely focused on hot-button social issues — such as gun rights, abortion rights and criminal justice reform — as well as their respective approaches to addressing climate change. The hourlong debate was cosponsored by Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS.
Days after the legislature overrode Scott's veto of the Global Warming Solutions Act, the governor again criticized the new law as unconstitutional and ineffective. "From my perspective, this just felt political, in order to check the box," Scott said. "It's like the 'easy button' from Staples. You know, you just press it. 'We've finished ... We solved climate change here, and let's move on.'"
But Zuckerman defended the law, which requires the state to reduce its carbon emissions and sets up a panel charged with doing so. "The climate crisis is real," he said, pointing to droughts across the state and a recent forest fire in Killington. "This issue has been mounting for years, and there has been inaction at the governor's level."
Given the opportunity to ask one another questions, both candidates raised environmental concerns. Zuckerman asked Scott why he hadn't taken a more aggressive approach to addressing climate change, arguing that it would take 160 years to get enough electric vehicles on the roads at the current rate of adoption. Scott said it would take technological advancement to meet the state's climate goals and accused the legislature of obstructing his own climate initiatives.
"I don't remember turning down any proposals from the legislature in this regard," he said. "Any. Zero. Except for the Global Warming Solutions Act, which was unconstitutional, from my perspective."
Scott, a longtime opponent of industrial wind projects, attempted to put Zuckerman on the defensive, asking whether he supported "the destruction of our ridgelines." Arguing that round silos were once viewed as "an abomination of our landscape," Zuckerman said he saw a certain beauty in solar fields and wind turbines — and supported industrial wind in appropriate locations.
"I think about how these are symbols about how we care about our future for our families, for our children and for our grandchildren," the lieutenant governor said. "If we only think about our moment and the need now, we will fail the future for the next generations."
The state's firearm policies first came up when Zuckerman criticized Scott for vetoing legislation that would have established a 24-hour waiting period for handgun sales. Scott took the opportunity to note that he was "the only governor in history to sign major gun legislation, at least here in Vermont."
Scott said he was open to improving the 2018 laws he signed, which mandated background checks before most gun sales, banned high-capacity magazines and raised the minimum age to purchase guns to 21, but he questioned whether a waiting period would be effective. "Being governor isn't about a knee-jerk reaction to every single issue," Scott said. "It's about tempering and a thoughtful approach."
Later in the debate, moderator Jane Lindholm read a question submitted by a Brattleboro high school student who asked whether family members receiving firearms from other family members should also undergo background checks. Scott and Zuckerman both said they would oppose such a change.
"From our perspective in working with the legislature, we felt that passing firearms from family member to family member was just fair," Scott said. Added Zuckerman, "You know your own son or daughter, or grandson or granddaughter, as you are transferring those."
The candidates also addressed Proposition 5, a proposed state constitutional amendment that would guarantee the right to an abortion. Scott called himself pro-choice and noted that he had signed a law guaranteeing abortion rights, but he argued that governors play no role in amending the constitution. (The measure passed the legislature last year; it must pass the legislature again next biennium and then be approved by voters in the 2022 election.) When Lindholm pressed him on whether he nevertheless supported the idea, Scott again dodged.
"I've supported pro-choice laws in the past," he said. "I'll continue to do so in the future."
Zuckerman, on the other hand, fully embraced Proposition 5. "I think this constitutional amendment is critical, particularly at this moment in time with the recent passing of [U.S. Supreme Court justice] Ruth Bader Ginsburg," he said. The lieutenant governor added that he was glad the governor had called on Congress to hold off on appointing Ginsburg's successor until the next president takes office, but he suggested Scott wasn't doing enough to oppose President Donald Trump.
"We need Republican leaders to stand up every single day to the destruction of our democracy that is going on in Washington — not [make] passive statements that are gonna allow women's reproductive freedoms to go by the wayside for the next 30 or 40 years," Zuckerman said.
The lieutenant governor again came under fire for a speech he gave in 2013 questioning the role the Vermont Air National Guard played after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Scott told Zuckerman he had made clear his "lack of support for the Vermont National Guard" and questioned how he would "mend that fence that was vastly destroyed."
Zuckerman explained that he had been expressing concern about the basing of F-35 fighter jets at Burlington International Airport but fully supported the Guard. Asked whether he would still oppose bringing F-35s to Vermont, the lieutenant governor said, "No, the planes are here. They are doing their work, and they will stay."
Asked about policing reforms and racial inequities in the criminal justice system, Zuckerman and Scott both voiced support for better training for law enforcement and more mental health services. Zuckerman also said he would work to end cash bail, as State's Attorney Sarah George recently did in Chittenden County. Pressed on whether he would reduce funding to the Vermont State Police, Zuckerman demurred. "It's not about reducing the funds, but it is about reprioritizing those funds," he said.
Scott noted that the prison population had declined over the past year, largely due to the pandemic, and he highlighted his support for fair and impartial policing policies.