What if they held a debate and nobody came? It wasn't quite that dire last Wednesday when a coalition of women's organizations held a candidates' forum at Burlington City Hall. But it sure didn't turn out the way they'd planned. Problem was, the Republicans -- Gov. Jim Douglas and Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie -- didn't show up.
"Scheduling conflicts" were cited as reasons for both incumbents, according to Jessica Oski, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, one of the sponsoring groups. "We found out Dubie wasn't coming the day of the event," Oski says. That was also when she learned Vermont Sen. Peg Fleury would represent the lieutenant governor.
Oski had heard from the governor's office "a week to 10 days prior" that Douglas would not be able to come, and was told two days before the forum that his campaign chairman, Neal Lunderville, would be there in his stead. Both representatives read written answers to forum questions that had been provided in advance.
"Disappointing" was the general response from organizers, audience members and the candidates who did attend: gubernatorial hopeful Mayor Peter Clavelle and lieutenant governor candidates Cheryl Rivers, a Democrat, and Steve Hingtgen, a Progressive.
"I was hoping to hear directly from the candidates of the three parties about their commitments and vision working for the needs of women and girls in this state," says Celia Cuddy, executive director of the Women's Rape Crisis Center in Burlington, another of the 11 forum sponsors. The Republicans' non-appearance, Cuddy adds, "gave us a very unclear message about these two candidates as to the issues that impact women and girls."
Burlington attorney Sandy Baird has a harsher assessment. "In my mind the Republicans didn't come because they know they can't face women on these issues," Baird says. "It's a totally unreported story that there has been so little done for the women of the state of Vermont. I was hoping we could get some attention."
Some attending the forum, including Mayor Clavelle, suggested the governor and lieutenant governor might be avoiding a potentially unfriendly audience, but Oski insists the coalition "generally is a nonpartisan group. We were looking forward to having an open dialogue on the issues important to women," she says. She notes that all the candidates had the questions in advance and could come prepared. "They weren't going to be thrown any curveballs," she says. "And it was open to the public, so anyone could come. It was actually a pretty mixed audience, I thought." In fact, two of the women who questioned Clavelle were impassioned pro-lifers. The mayor is staunchly pro-choice.
The original plans for rebuttal and closing statements at the forum were scrapped "because the candidates that were there didn't want to rebut the representatives of the Republican candidates," Oski says.
According to B.J. Rogers, communications director for the Clavelle for Governor campaign, there were almost 40 election-season debates or forums two years ago when Jim Douglas, Democrat Doug Racine and Independent Con Hogan vied for the seat vacated by Howard Dean. There are half as many this year, says Rogers, suggesting, "It's a different situation when you have an incumbent and a challenger."
Rogers also notes that Clavelle "hasn't turned down" any of the debates during this campaign. "We've attended several that were not really debates because Douglas didn't attend," he says.
Douglas' Campaign Manager Ian Grossman says the governor will attend a total of 18 debates or forums prior to the election. "The governor wants, as much as possible, to bring his message to Vermonters," Grossman says. He verifies that Douglas had "a pre-established commitment long before the women's forum," and notes that the governor will appear at a League of Women Voters-sponsored debate in Ludlow this Thursday.
Meanwhile, organizers of last week's forum suggest that women voters educate themselves on where the non-attending candidates stand on issues such as reproductive freedom, domestic violence, sexual trafficking, welfare and equal pay. Last Wednesday, says the WRCC's Cuddy, was "a missed opportunity."