While most candidates had 15 minutes to give their best labor-oriented stump speech, the five Democratic candidates were given an hour to answer five questions.
All five attended: Sen. Susan Bartlett (D-Lamoille), former Windsor County Senator Matt Dunne, Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, Sen. Doug Racine (D-Chittenden) and Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin (D-Windham).
Republican Lt. Governor Brian Dubie was invited to the all-day forum as well, but he declined.
Dubie had a pre-existing scheduling conflict, said Corry Bliss, Dubie's campaign manager.
The pre-existing conflict? It's called a five-way Democratic primary.
Seriously, all five gubernatorial candidates who did show up were asked to take stands on: closing Vermont Yankee, the state's economic development plan, cutting unemployment benefits and single-payer health care.
All five, once again, said Vermont Yankee should be closed down in 2012. At two environmental forums late last year, all five said Vermont Yankee shouldn't be relicensed.
This time, however, the candidates took pains to point out that planning for the decommissioning of Vermont Yankee sooner, rather than later, to not only plan to replace the power, but to retrain VY's 650 workers. About one third of those workers live in Vermont.
"When they close VY, we need to be sure they don't just put the plant in SafeStor, but we need to make sure they really go through the decommissioning, because there are a lot of jobs that go along with decommissioning," said Bartlett.
Of the five, Dunne was the first in recent weeks to come out forcefully to call on either the Legislature or the governor to show more leadership and push for the orderly shutdown of Vermont Yankee. Markowitz followed a week later with a call for lawmakers to "vote no, vote now."
Four of the five candidates said explicitly they do not support reducing unemployment funds as a way to keep the state's trust fund solvent in the coming years. Markowitz didn't directly answer the question, but talked about how the state faltered at not raising employer contributions for years.
Shumlin said the proposal offered by Gov. Jim Douglas, and supported by other Republicans, was to "tell the folks who can't eat right now to eat a little less."
But, it was Racine who caught fire during this question. The usually quiet Racine, who is often criticized for being too cautious, offered a reason why the unemployment fund is in such dire straits.
For the last six or seven years, the reserves in the unemployment trust fund were allowed to dwindle. If Jim Douglas were the head of an insurance company, he'd be fired," said Racine. "I think it was a cynical move on their part — and this is pure speculation on my part — but now we're in this crisis and now we have to find a balanced approach. I think they've allowed this to develop to make this argument to cut benefits."
Racine added, "I'll be damned if we're going to cut benefits for unemployed Vermonters."
On single-payer health care, Racine and Shumlin were the only ones to unequivocally say "yes" when asked if they supported one of the two bills in the legislature that would create a single-payer system in Vermont. The other three candidates all expressed support for universal health care; Markowitz talked up the idea of Vermont self-insuring to cover everyone; Dunne talked about health care as a human right, and Bartlett stressed the need to include global budgeting for health care providers as a long-term solution to keeping costs down.
All five said the state needs to do a better job at economic development, as well as pay more attention to in-state employers, and provide more education and job training programs for workers.
While, on the surface, the five Democrats seem to be nearly alike policy-wise, they are beginning to differentiate themselves. Check out this week's "Fair Game" for a rundown of the gubernatorial primary.
Other candidates who spoke to the labor leaders were: Democrat Dan Freilich who is challenging U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy in the Democratic primary, Republican Len Britton, who will face the winner of the Freilich-Leahy race and Republican Mark Snelling, who is running for lieutenant governor, along with State Sen. Phil Scott (R-Washington). Democratic Rep. Steve Howard (D-Rutland) was also scheduled to address the group. Howard is running for lieutenant governor.
"If you aren't excited by any of these five candidates running for governor," Snelling urged the crowd, "consider picking up a Republican ballot and voting for me in the Republican primary."