Trail mix: Rhetoric, recriminations and the political fringe at the VPR debate

Editor's note: Trail mix is an occasional campaign news analysis column by Anne Galloway.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, the incumbent Democrat, handily bested his three rivals in a debate on Vermont Public Radio on Tuesday night.

Shumlin used rhetoric to sidestep tough questions and successfully deflected criticism of the bungled health care exchange website among other issues. He used the forum as a platform to reiterate rhetoric about his record. In questions and responses, the governor stayed focused on his message that his administration has kept unemployment low, created jobs and improved the state’s economic environment in the past four years.

Shumlin also maximized the positive and minimized the negative. He touted his accomplishments, including raising minimum wage and providing funding for pre-K and higher education, and spoke as little as possible about the dysfunctional $100 million Vermont Health Connect website and his tax plan for financing his single payer health care initiative.

And in perhaps the cleverest move of the debate, Shumlin gave Republican Scott Milne’s opponent in the primary, Libertarian Dan Feliciano, an opportunity to talk at length about his platform and how his positions differ from Milne’s.

The major party candidate, Republican Scott Milne, used disparaging remarks to attack Shumlin from a variety of angles. He described the governor’s administration as “radical” and accused Shumlin of putting his plans for financing single payer in a lockbox. In another answer, he said he found from personal experience that the Department of Labor of failed to provide adequate job training.

But as in the previous WDEV debate, Milne did not take the opportunity to talk much about his own stances on the issues. He expounded on Shumlin administration positions he opposed, but spent little time outlining his own vision for state government.

Dan Feliciano, the Libertarian candidate, and Peter Diamondstone, the Liberty Union candidate, represented the extreme ends of the political spectrum.

Feliciano, who is expected to siphon votes away from Milne in the general election, believes the free market solutions can fix most of the state’s problems. Government should play a minimal role in education, health care and the economy, in his view.

For Diamondstone, all the world’s evils come down to one thing: capitalism. A firm believer in socialism, Diamondstone said workers should reap all the profits from their labor, and government should own utilities and provide health care and free higher education for all.

VPR hosts Jane Lindholm and Bob Kinzel started off with tough questions for each of the candidates in the tightly controlled 90-minute debate. The forum included a half hour back and forth between the candidates (most of the questions in this segment were directed at Dan Feliciano) and then a lightning round of questions at the end.

health care

Kinzel started off the debate with the issue of health care. Kinzel asked Shumlin if the failures of the Vermont Health Connect website were the result of his failure to keep tabs on the project or just the result of poor performance.

Shumlin gave the answer he has repeated on the campaign trail and in public appearances for months: the health exchange website is his “biggest frustration” as governor.

“We are determined and I am accountable for ensuring that we have a website that works, we want it to be work well by enroll time Nov. 15, and we will take steps to make sure that’s happening,” Shumlin said.

Shumlin said it was “prudent” for state officials to take the website down last week because of security concerns and the need to repair portions of the site. “It’s hard to fix a car when it’s running,” he said.

Kinzel asked if the governor plans to unveil a single payer financing plan in January. In reply, the governor avoided the question and launched into an explanation of his administration’s health care cost containment measures.

When Milne took his turn at the mic, he aimed a hit at the governor’s single payer initiative. He said it is “implausible” to move to the new system in 2017. “There’s no way it’s going to save money, no way there is the data that it’s going to increase access, there’s no way it’s going to encourage choices to stay the way they are,” Milne said.

“The way the state of Vermont has managed this health care boondoggle is not only terrible for people that think single payer might be good because it’s ruined any chance of it happening,” Milne said. “It’s even more important for voters who are concerned about rising taxes and out of control spending in state government. The way the Shumlin administration has managed the health care system is an insight into the mismanagement of the people’s money in other parts of the government.”

Feliciano argued the government should ease up on health care regulations and allow the free market to take over. “Opening up the market will bring in niche players who provide coverage,” Feliciano said. “It doesn’t have to be a free-for-all, but right now we have a system where everybody is getting charged the same. I think that’s driving costs up for the young people.”

Diamondstone took aim at “elite” health care plans for members of Congress. The rest of us get “garbage” insurance, in his view.

“The Liberty Union platform believes the role of government is to provide a materially secure life for everyone on the planet that includes socialized medicine specifically -- it’s right there in your face,” Diamondstone said. A mason that puts up a wall pays Social Security tax on $100; while people who collect $100 from stock market windfalls pay no Social Security tax, he said.

“Do you think people who get $100 on dividends pay any Social Security tax?” Diamondstone said. “No, all that money is out there and the rich get away with not having to pay it. Let’s collect it in Vermont and pay for not just Medicare for everyone, we should also have education at society’s expense from beginning to end.”

Jobs and the economy

In order for the economy to function properly, government needs to “stay out of the way,” according to Feliciano. He advocates for cutting state spending, cutting taxes, modifying the state’s Act 250 environmental law and offering school choice as a way of lowering property taxes. “We need to de-hassle government and provide different solutions and have businesses thrive,” Feliciano said.

Otherwise, he said, “the cost of doing business is going to be prohibitive.”

The state also should not provide incentives for companies because government isn’t smart enough to pick “winners and losers.”

Milne disagreed with Feliciano. “I think there is a symbiotic relationship between good government and a good economy,” he said. “We clearly need good government to have a good economy.”

“We need to focus on getting our government working right in Vermont, which is not having a rate of spending increase at three times the rate of growth of the economy,” Milne said.

Milne said under his administration the state will “slow down a little bit and not take risks and not be first on too many things that are going to cost a lot of money.”

He then went on to slam Annie Noonan, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Labor. Milne said the agency didn’t help him with workforce training for 35 employees at Milne Travel, his company, and he said his experience was typical of the businesspeople he has been talking with.

Diamondstone said he’s “not much in favor of creating jobs.”

“The first one (job creation opportunity) that comes to mind is the Republican Dubie brothers, Sanders, Leahy and Welch saying we need to convert the Burlington Airport into Bagram 2 in order to create 100 jobs in Burlington,” he said.

Jane Lindholm grilled Shumlin about the economy, which she said the governor has a mixed record on. More Vermonters are living in poverty in 2012 than in 2013 and median household incomes have dropped, she said, for example.

Shumlin blamed the national economy.

“Let’s remember we’re part of the other 49 states,” Shumlin said. “And the USA is having a huge challenge as we go out of this recession. We’re seeing that the folks who already had are doing quite well, that the middle class is getting kicked in teeth and that low-income Vermonters and Americans are continuing to lose ground.”

Shumlin said he made jobs, the economy and middle class wages the central issue of his administration “because that’s really what we need to do.” He insisted that he is proud of the state’s progress, and began to cite statistics -- the creation of thousands of jobs and low unemployment rates -- and recite a litany of initiatives that he says have led to improvements to the overall economy such as broadband expansion, investments in renewable energy, early childhood education, higher education and workforce retraining initiatives.

“Vermont is one of the states that has more jobs than at peak in 2005; a lot of states can’t say that,” Shumlin said.

He held up the Northeast Kingdom as a shining example of how his initiatives have benefited the whole state.

“We have the fastest growth rate on jobs in Vermont’s history in the Northeast Kingdom because we’re up there, creating jobs,” Shumlin said. “I’ve worked hard to bring capital into the state to grow those jobs."

None of those statistics mean a “darn thing,” however, to Vermonters whose wages have gone down, he said.

“My point is, we shouldn’t let off the gas we’ve got more work to do, there’s still too many middle class Vermonters hurting, but we’re headed in the right direction,” Shumlin said.

Milne kicked off the 20-minute back and forth between candidates with a question that ended with a thud. He wanted to know if Shumlin had an “emergency” meeting several weeks ago in Windsor County with Democrats who work for the state and who are associated with advocacy groups.

“I’m totally unaware of what your’e talking about,” Shumlin said. “The meeting you’re referring to did not happen.”

“My bad, thank you,” Milne replied.

After that, the spotlight was on Feliciano. Shumlin thanked Feliciano for running an “articulate” campaign and then asked him why he ran in the Republican primary and why he thought he was a better choice over Milne.

Feliciano said he ran a write-in campaign because “this election is about the issues, and it’s not about party or politics.” He is a “small government guy,” he said, and his platform is based on four basic ideas, he said, namely: stopping single payer; reduced state spending; lower property taxes; school choice; and the protection of the 2nd amendment. “Those things resonate with many people,” he said.

In a spicy back and forth, Shumlin and Milne accused each other of flipflopping. The issue at hand was the GMO labeling mandate the governor signed into law this year.

Shumlin called on Milne to name the “radical and progressive” policies that his administration has pursued. He then ticked off a list of issues he has “successfully fought for just the past two years,” including pre-K, college tuition subsidies, minimum wage increase, funding for downtown revitalization, GMO labeling and curbing opiate addiction.

“Which of those policies do you disagree with, and which would you push to repeal?” Shumlin asked.

Milne started his response with a comment about the debate. “Since you used all my time asking the question, I’ll try to be brief. I also want to do a shout-out to Peter Diamondstone. For those who are listening on the radio, Peter and I are doing this without notes, Dan’s reading questions from a paper, as is Gov. Shumlin, so I’m happy to answer questions with my brain, not things I wrote down ahead of time.”

He then went on to cite GMO labeling as a good example of a “radical progressive bill” before he launched an attack on single payer.

“I find it hypocritical that you’re holding Monsanto, Unilever and the big food companies to a higher level of transparency than you are willing to hold your own administration,” Milne said. “You’ve got a plan locked up on the Fifth Floor of the Pavilion office building of how you are going to fund health care allegedly, and you’ve gone to court to not tell people about it.”

Milne said that as governor he would have vetoed the bill, then he appeared to change his mind.

“So of all of that list, you would repeal GMO labeling?” Shumlin asked.

“I didn’t say I’d repeal it, I’m not even positive I would have vetoed the bill if I were I in your shoes,” Milne replied.

“You’re against it, but you’re for it?” Shumlin asked.

“No, no, you know I could do the flip-flop thing on you,” Milne said. “I’m running a debate on ideas, I’ve got some great ideas and I’m not doing soundbite flip-flop stuff.”

“So of all of that list, you would repeal GMO labeling?” Shumlin asked.

“I would have vetoed the bill were I in your shoes,” Milne replied.

“You’re against it, but you’re for it?” Shumlin asked.

“You know I could do the flip-flop thing on you, but I’m not into that,” Milne said. “I want to debate ideas, I’m running a campaign of ideas, I’ve got some great ideas and I’m not doing soundbite flip-flop stuff.”

“If you want to do the soundbite kind of campaign, we can do that,” he continued. “What I said quite clearly is, you managed that bill in a radical, progressive way, and you would have gotten the same results in a much more business-friendly way that would have done great things and contributed to a business-friendly climate which would be good for government because government is funded by business.”

In a lightning round in the last 30 minutes of the debate, Kinzel and Lindholm asked candidates about their stances on climate change, legalizing marijuana and the Vermont Gas pipeline extension.

Editor's note: Story was updated at 8 a.m. and 9:10 a.m. A quote from Milne on GMO labeling has been corrected.

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Anne Galloway

About Anne

Anne Galloway is the founder and editor-at-large of VTDigger. Galloway founded VTDigger in 2009 after she was laid off from her position as Sunday editor of the Rutland Herald and Times Argus. VTDigger has grown from a $16,000 a year nonprofit with no employees to a $2.8 million nonprofit daily news operation with a staff of 32. In 2017, Galloway was a finalist for the Ancil Payne Award for Ethics, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the Investigative Reporters and Editors FOIA Award for her investigation into allegations of foreign investor fraud at Jay Peak Resort.

Email: [email protected]

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