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Scott's Start: Gubernatorial Bid to Focus on Vermont's Economy


Published September 9, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated September 11, 2015 at 12:31 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Terri Hallenbeck
  • Lt. Gov. Phil Scott.

Phil Scott made the long-anticipated announcement that he's running for governor on Tuesday, pinning his campaign on economic issues. His message: The people in power have been spending more than they have.

"It is time for Vermont to move in a different direction, beginning with a change in the governor's office," read the email blast from Scott, a Republican who's been lieutenant governor since 2011. "I've made this decision because I believe too many families and employers are on the economic edge."

Like other candidates who've stepped forward in recent weeks, Scott declined to offer specific policy plans. He told Fair Game he'd unveil those in late November or early December, and that his campaign will focus on containing state spending while "growing the economy."

"We have to live within our means. We can't raise taxes anymore," Scott said. "Growing the economy is something that's beneficial to all."

Scott said he would hire campaign staff in the next few weeks. So far the Barre native, who served in the state Senate for a decade before winning the open lieutenant governor's seat in 2010, has relied on volunteers. He declined to identify them.

Scott, 57, is also finalizing plans to distance himself from the Middlesex excavating business he co-owns, DuBois Construction, which sometimes bids on state contracts. "I'll be totally separating myself from the business and putting others in place," he said.

In contrast, Scott, aka #14, has no immediate plans to retire from racing cars at Thunder Road SpeedBowl in Barre, where this year's regular season just ended on Labor Day weekend. "I'm hoping to do some racing next year," he said, but he conceded that could change. "There comes a time you have to give up a hobby."

Scott, the only Republican statewide elected official in Vermont, is hoping to become governor in a state that has grown steadily more Democratic. And he'll be doing it in a presidential election year that will likely turn out plenty of Dems eager to vote for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or the next closest thing.

But Scott is a moderate Republican. Critics on the right contend that he has long avoided taking tough stands on issues, including health care and state spending, and he's been unwilling to serve as a strong voice of opposition against the Democratic majority in Montpelier.

That's worked to his advantage for the past 15 years, during which Scott has easily won elections with a broad cross section of supporters. He has more name recognition than all the other gubernatorial candidates eager to replace Democratic incumbent Gov. Peter Shumlin, who is not seeking reelection after three terms. Scott also has the most experience running a statewide campaign. He could benefit from Vermont's history of alternating between Republican and Democratic governors.

Scott has about $100,000 left over from his 2014 lieutenant governor campaign and said he's since raised another $50,000. He expects his campaign will cost in excess of $1 million.

He'll face at least one other Republican candidate — retired Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman — in an August 2016 Republican primary. Republican Randy Brock, who lost to Shumlin in 2012, said Tuesday he'll be making his own announcement about 2016 "very soon."

Two Democrats — House Speaker Shap Smith and former state senator Matt Dunne  — are also running for governor. Transportation Secretary Sue Minter said Tuesday she will announce her plans by the end of the month.

Dubie Doings

Former Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie points to the location of proposed wind turbines on land behind his house in Fairfield on the Swanton town line.
  • Former Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie points to the location of proposed wind turbines on land behind his house in Fairfield on the Swanton town line.

Five years after he lost a close race for governor, former Republican lieutenant governor Brian Dubie revved up an ATV and took off down the road, then veered into the woods next to his house overlooking Fairfield Pond. He zipped past a spur trail named after his father, Clem, and by the sugar maples his brother Mark Dubie taps every spring.

The terrain was rugged, and the path ahead at times seemed impassable, but Dubie forged through like a kid who has spent his days exploring every bog and brook of this land that's been in the family for years.

Dressed in a T-shirt and gym shorts, 56-year-old Dubie appeared relaxed and content in the hills of Franklin County, where he and his family have been spending summers since 1988 and living full time since 2011. His brothers, Mark and Mike, live on either side of him.

Now, after five years out of the limelight, Dubie is back in the public eye, taking on a new cause close to home. He's emerged as one of the most outspoken opponents of the seven-turbine Swanton Wind project proposed for the hill behind his house. Developer Travis Belisle has issued notice that he plans to apply for a project permit by early October.

The turbines wouldn't be visible from Dubie's home, but he's concluded they'd be bad for Lake Champlain and for neighbors who will see and hear them.

Dubie stopped the ATV in woods surrounded by wetlands to point out where two of the seven turbines would be built. The marshy terrain afforded no place to clear trees, build a 35-foot-wide road, blast away rock and pour concrete turbine pads, he said. All that work would send more runoff into Lake Champlain, just as state officials have reached an agreement with the federal government to dramatically reduce it, he said.

"This is the headwaters that feed into Fairfield Pond, which feeds into the Missisquoi Bay," Dubie said.

Dubie, an American Airlines pilot, and his wife, Penny, have spent hours poring over wind project documents at their dining room table. Dubie has the mechanical engineering know-how to delve into the complexities of turbine sizes and noise decibels — and the political smarts to understand property values. Proposed for up to 499 feet, the turbines could be the tallest in Vermont. One is sited to be just 1,800 feet from a home on the Swanton side of the hill — closer than any other Vermont residence sits in relation to an industrial turbine.

"This is precedent-setting," said Dubie, whose own house is 4,900 feet from the proposed wind-power generators. "Somebody is out to prove you can stick a turbine 2,000 feet from a house."

Dubie and his neighbors are among the latest in a long line of Vermonters affected by proposed energy projects who find themselves immersed in every nuance of a confounding state Public Service Board approval process.

But Dubie is different. He very nearly became governor five years ago. If the 2010 election, which he lost to Democrat Shumlin by 4,000 votes, had turned out differently, this project might not be moving forward. Dubie might have set less ambitious renewable energy goals. Does he ever think about that?

No, Dubie said: He doesn't dwell on what-ifs, nor does he harbor bitterness about what might have been. Penny confirmed that. They have been able to travel and visit their young adult children, she said, and they get to live overlooking Fairfield Pond, listening to loons. Life is good.

Even if he'd been elected governor, Dubie said wind projects on Lowell, Georgia and Sheffield mountains would probably have been built anyway. The legislature has strongly supported wind development — and so did Dubie, as lieutenant governor and as a candidate for governor.

In 2009, Dubie wrote a letter in support of the four-turbine Georgia Mountain project his friend Jim Harrison later built. A former Air Force reservist who was deployed to Iraq during the war, Dubie has often told the story of how a general stood with him on an Iraq rooftop and argued that the U.S. must curb its dependence on Mideast oil. That encounter influenced Dubie's views on renewable energy.

But Dubie has changed his mind about the best places to generate that renewable energy. Seeing the details of the Swanton project and talking to Georgia Mountain residents who are bothered by turbine noise, he concluded that Vermont might not be the right place for industrial-size wind at all. In an op-ed last week in the Rutland Herald, he called for a moratorium on such projects. "It's time to slow the rush to renewable energy of all kinds at whatever cost," he wrote.

Though he is a supporter of the roaring F-35 jets coming to the Vermont Air National Guard, Dubie sees the insidious noise of turbines as a threat — more to his neighbors than to his own family, he said, because of the geography. "This is building an airport in a rural area," he said.

Belisle, a local house builder who lives near the project, said Dubie and other opponents are exaggerating the impact. "Lots of stuff he states is emotion or opinion. I think it's unfortunate for Brian that he's chosen that path," Belisle said. "We're producing power for 7,800 homes with no carbon pollution."

While Dubie initially said the project would require clear-cutting 70 acres, Belisle says it would be about 35 acres. Dubie has since revised his estimate to 47 acres. Belisle said he has every intention of meeting state regulations on wetlands, runoff and noise levels.

Dubie isn't so sure. Green Mountain Power, the developer of the Lowell Mountain wind project, was fined $58,750 for violating its stormwater permit while building the 21 turbines there. A case is pending before the state Public Service Board to determine whether Belisle will face action for failing to obtain a permit for the Swanton project's wind measuring test tower.

Opposition to the project is mounting, noted Swanton neighbor Christine Lang. Last week, residents packed a three-town selectboard meeting on the topic. Having the former lieutenant governor on board should help, she said.

Dubie is using his extensive phone contact list. He texted Shumlin recently, inviting him up to Fairfield. The two haven't set a date, though Shumlin said he'd be willing to stop by.

They'd be a couple of native Vermont boys in their 50s riding an ATV through the woods: one who won the governor's race five years ago and now at times seems to be looking forward to moving on; the other who lost and seems to be at peace with that. Wind isn't the only thing they'd have to talk about.

Lisman's Slip

Lisman's campaign for governor didn't get off to the smoothest start last week. The retired Wall Street executive had been a candidate for fewer than 24 hours when Vermont Public Radio's Peter Hirschfeld reported that he had hired a Virginia political researcher who was investigating presumed Republican rival Scott.

"Yes, it's possible," Lisman told Hirschfeld. Then he clarified his comment to say he had hired political opposition researcher Gary Maloney to look into his own background but hadn't authorized him to look into Scott's. When he learned Maloney had submitted public records requests to look into Scott's excavation firm contracts, Lisman said, he severed ties with Maloney.

Lisman told Fair Game that he paid Maloney to delve into his own background so he "could decide whether to run or not." Lisman wouldn't say what he learned, only that it was positive enough to determine he should run.

It's common for Vermont candidates to research their opponents and even themselves, but rarely does it backfire, and so quickly. An exception: In 1996, Susan Sweetser, the Republican candidate for U.S. House, hired a private detective to look into the background of incumbent Sanders. Sanders called a press conference to denounce the move. Sweetser lost by more than 20 percentage points.

Media Note

Howard Weiss-Tisman is leaving his job as a reporter at the Brattleboro Reformer this week to become Vermont Public Radio's southern Vermont correspondent.

He will replace Susan Keese, who died in March at age 67 of complications from the flu. Weiss-Tisman's departure after 11 years with the Reformer leaves the paper with just one reporter pending his replacement. VPR news director John Dillon said Weiss-Tisman will likely file a couple of news stories a week from the region.

Fair Game columnist Paul Heintz is on vacation.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Scott's Start"