* updated below *
They stood just inches away from each other inside a cramped AM radio studio for their first, official gubernatorial debate, but Republican Brian Dubie and Democrat Peter Shumlin couldn't have been farther apart on a wide range of issues.
The pair debated on WVMT-AM's popular morning show Charlie, Ernie & Lisa — keeping their promise to stage their first debate at the Colchester radio station.
The spirited but mostly friendly debate provided no major gaffes by either candidate, ending essentially in a draw.
Shumlin hammered Dubie for being part of the
"Douglas-Dubie" team that has overseen large job losses and systemic deficits and proposed tax increases by shifting more costs to the education fund. Several times he claimed Dubie's economic development plan will cause deficits, which irked Dubie.
Dubie, meanwhile, blamed the Democrats' "super majority" in the legislature — Gov. Jim Douglas' oft-repeated phrase — for much of Vermont's financial ills, from relatively high total tax burdens to regulatory red tape. Several times he invoked the legislature's override of the 2009 budget as an example of how the legislature "owns" the current fiscal mess as much as the administration.
Dubie said Shumlin has a long legislative record of raising taxes, while Shumlin said his record during the Dean years was one of lowering taxes. Shumlin also pointed to tax cuts made during the 2009 session — largely fueled by closing a capital gains tax loophole.
Sounds like we'll be hearing those superlatives more than a few times in the upcoming debates. The pair have two more radio debates this week, one on Vermont Public Radio Wednesday night and another Friday morning at the Tunbridge Fair. That will be aired on WDEV-FM's "Mark Johnson Show".
Shumlin won the coin toss after he let Dubie call it. Dubie called "heads" and it landed on "tails."
"That's how this election is going to go," quipped Shumlin.
Shumlin repeatedly touted his success as a small business owner, and his experience having to "meet a payroll", also claiming he'd be the first business owner to occupy the governor's office since Republican Dick Snelling.
Dubie challenged Shumlin's business cred as a legislator, noting that the National Federation of Independent Business gave him a ranking of zero.
"The NFIB opposes the minimum wage and health care reform," Shumlin countered. "There are many business leaders who do support my campaign."
Dubie repeatedly noted that state government needed to act more like a struggling Vermont family that doesn't spend more than it takes in. Shumlin said he agreed.
Dubie continued to repeat his mantra of cutting taxes, cutting spending and cutting red tape as a way to improve Vermont's economy.
Shumlin said Dubie's plan didn't add up, claiming it would only create more deficits without providing any specifics on what would be cut.
A Joint Fiscal Office analysis of Dubie's tax cut plan estimates the proposed tax cuts would return about $248 million to Vermonters — largely to those at the upper income brackets since those are who pay the lion's share of Vermont's taxes.
"I have been lucky enough at times to be among those 1400 taxpayers at the upper level and I can tell you that I don't need the tax cut," said Shumlin, who earned nearly $1 million last year from his family's business Putney Student Travel.
If nothing else, voters will have a clear choice between Dubie and Shumlin this election.
When questioned by host Charlie Papillo, Shumlin and Dubie disagreed over how to use $19 million in one-time federal stimulus money earmarked for education spending.
Dubie wants to apply the money to help close a shortfall in the teacher's retirement fund, while Shumlin wants the money to be used as intended, which is to fund teaching positions.
"Like any family if you were to get a one-time inheritance, you wouldn't just spend it, you'd pay down the mortgage," said Dubie.
The pair also sharply disagreed on whether to cut money being spent on corrections. Shumlin said he would continue the practice of removing non-violent offenders from prison and invest any savings into his early childhood education initiative.
"I will not let people out without a good reason," countered Dubie. "I am not going to make cuts in corrections." Dubie said he agreed that people need treatment support in the community, but didn't think just letting people out of prison is the answer to bending the spending curve.
Shumlin retorted, "We need to lock up the people we are afraid of, not the people we're mad at."
When it comes to closing another $120 million budget gap next year, neither Dubie nor Shumlin were ultra-specific, but offered some guideposts to how they would trim costs in state government.
Shumlin said a more aggressive reform of the state's health care system will produce savings to state and local budgets and he said he would not support additional tax increases on Vermonters. "You have to go where the money is," said Shumlin. That is health care spending.
Dubie at first balked at providing any specific details on cuts to state government, only noting that he, too, would "go where the money is", and named entitlement programs and education spending though he offered no specifics.
When pressed by Shumlin, Dubie said he would trim "middle management" and revisit a number of proposals developed by the administration's so-called "Tiger Teams" that the legislature ignored.
Some of those ideas include cutting administrative costs at non-profit housing developers and mental health providers, as well as trimming the state's Medicaid rolls.
Dubie also said Shumlin's talk about saving money through reforming health care is just that — talk.
"Let's be realistic, Vermont can't go it alone," said Dubie. "You can't seek any federal waivers until 2017 under the new health care legislation. That's what the law says. The little state of Vermont needs to be careful about talking big."
During a "lightning round" of more light-hearted questions, Papillo asked the candidates about everything from the make of their first car to whether they have skinny dipped.
Here are those questions:
First car? Shumlin: 52 Dodge pickup truck (which he claims to still own); Dubie: 56 Dodge pickup truck.
First job? Shumlin: Picking apples; Dubie: Chittenden Bank
Favorite place ever visited during travels? Shumlin: Vietnam; Dubie: Havana, Cuba
Will you accept $61 a day meals allowance? Shumlin: With $120 million deficit, not worried about allowance; Dubie: Won't take it.
Last concert you attended? Shumlin: Couldn't recall; Dubie: Concert at Ben & Jerry's in Waterbury this past weekend
Have you ever skinny dipped? Shumlin: Yes, if you weren't skinny dipping in Putney in the 60s, you weren't swimming; Dubie: Yes, Winooski trestle bridge.
Inside the studio, Dubie and Shumlin were joined by several reporters, camera crews and photographers along with Corry Bliss, Dubie's campaign manager, and Paul Tencher, who is running the Democrats' coordinated campaign.
Outside the studio roughly two dozen Dubie supporters held up signs — some of them the size of small billboards — to greet both candidates. Shumlin had no supporters in tow and had to pass the large Dubie signs and handmade signs that read "Shumlin = Higher Taxes" and "Vermont Can't Afford Peter Shumlin." That didn't deter Shumlin from shaking hands with, or talking to, most of the Dubie supporters.
Also outside the studio stood secessionist candidate for governor Dennis Steele, who tried unsuccessfully to join the debate. Steele was joined by Peter Garritano, the secessionsists' candidate for lieutenant governor and Thomas Naylor, one of the founders of the Second Vermont Republic.
Steele had arrived at 5:45 a.m. in hopes of convincing hosts Charlie Papillo and Ernie Farrar (Lisa Nagle was out today on assignment) to let him join the 8 a.m. debate.
* update *
Brian Dubie's campaign emailed to clarify the lite gov's comments about "targeting the most vulnerable" or entitlement programs when looking for programs to cut.
Obviously that's not what Brian meant to say. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to clarify. Neither his record nor anything else Brian has ever said or done even remotely suggests he would "target" vulnerable Vermonters. He has been very clear in all of his speeches, interviews and position papers that the reason we need to promote jobs and the economy is so there is a strong enough tax base to support the things we value as a state -- a great education, a clean environment, public safety, and protection for our most vulnerable.
Brian also said this earlier in the debate:
17:35-18:05 Dubie: “What we’re going to do, Charlie, specifically, is we’re going to do what families of Vermont do. I propose in my jobs plan we put forth a spending cap of 2% going out to 2015, we’re going to make priorities, we’re going to make sure the most vulnerable are protected, and we’re going to do what every family does every year in the annual budget, what every small business does, and we can do it. State government should be no different than families and small businesses. We’ll set priorities, make cuts, reform programs, look for efficiencies, and set those priorities.”