Yesterday's Democratic debate at a high school auditorium in Duxbury had a curious twist: Along with questions from the moderators and audience members, the five Democratic candidates (from left: Sen. Susan Bartlett, Google exec Matt Dunne, Secretary of State Deb Markowitz and Sens. Doug Racine and Peter Shumlin) got to pose questions to each other.
Did they blast each other over their positions on raising taxes, using rainy day funds, fixing health care and Vermont's energy future?
Hardly. It was more like a friendly game of softball. Attendees hoping for a vigorous debate to help them flush out real differences between the five might have left disappointed.
Shumlin got the first question and asked Bartlett to explain why the legislature didn't tap rainy day funds to help close this year's budget deficit. Bartlett, a master at explaining complex matters with folksy charm, knocked it out the park.
Bartlett (pictured at right) was next, and asked each of her rivals how they will counter the claim by Republican candidate Brian Dubie that if a Democrat is elected governor, and the Democrats remain in control of the legislature, it's a one-way ticket to tax-and-spend hell. Each candidate got to explain his or her theory on why there's always disagreement between a governor and lawmakers, and why one-party rule is nothing to worry about. Crack! Another homer!
Dunne's question dealt with the government reform plan called Challenges For Change, which gives the governor authority to unilaterally make cuts if expected budget savings don't materialize. Dunne asked his rivals, As governor, where would you find cuts acceptable and would you further reduce the size of the state work force? The candidates got to say how they would avoid cuts to the workforce at all costs, while slashing government "waste" that surely exists. It is high, it is far, it is........gone!
Markowitz, the only one who hasn't served in the legislature, asked the group, What about this past legislative session would you have changed? Here, we got some of the only fireworks of the day. Shumlin criticized the end product of Racine's health care bill, known as S.88, that calls for three studies into models for implementing universal health care. Shumlin said one study — leading to a single-payer system we can actually implement — was the way to go. Racine's bill, Shumlin said, was "bogged down with so much stuff I couldn't understand it and I read it 16 times." Holy cow it's a hit!
Racine's question was, "What are you going to do to stop the transfer of responsibility from state government to the local government that's driving up the property taxes?" Back, back, back...gone!
At the end, the moderators gave candidates 30 seconds to rebut anything that had been said during the previous two hours. All but Racine took a pass. There wasn't really anything to rebut. They did take some jabs at Brian Dubie, calling him a pro-life conservative out of touch with Vermont values, and saying he bears blame for the state losing jobs.
It's obvious why the Dems have their kid gloves on. They want a Democrat in the governor's office and realize that beating each other senseless will only help Dubie. Unless they take the gloves off, which seems unlikely, they'll have to rely on subtle differences in style and policy to help them pull ahead of the pack.
The moderators asked the candidates at one point, If your campaign ended today, would you endorse one of the other Democrats running, and if so who? Everyone took a pass, saying they'd support the winner of the Aug. 24 primary.
Meanwhile, Dubie, who has no primary challenger and is the presumptive GOP nominee, went on the offensive at a campaign kick-off rally at the Champlain Valley Fairgrounds in Essex on Saturday morning. In a room packed with almost 100 supporters, Dubie and his set-up man, Republican Gov. Jim Douglas, lashed Democrats for overriding the governor's veto last year and raising taxes during a recession.
Here is partial video of Dubie's speech (My camera crapped out halfway through, apologies) and Douglas's set-up.