Gov. Phil Scott won't guarantee he will participate in a debate with his Republican challengers ahead of the August primary, and said whether he takes part will depend on the state of the Covid-19 pandemic.
When Scott announced he was running for a third term on Thursday, he said he wouldn't hire staff, fundraise, or participate in campaign events until he lifted the state of emergency order he put in place in mid-March.
When pressed by a reporter during a press conference Friday, Scott said he would only debate Republican challengers before the Aug. 11 primary if the Covid-19 cases continued to drop, which he said he expected would happen.
"I'm concentrating on the job ahead of me as governor, but if we continue to move in the direction that I'm pretty certain that we're going to be and continue to see the numbers that we're seeing without having an about-face, then I can see myself participating in the debates before the primary," Scott said.
"But it's all predicated on what happens here with the coronavirus," Scott said.
Is he ducking the competition, a reporter asked Friday?
“I’ve never bowed to a challenge of any kind,” Scott said, “but this has to take priority. It just doesn’t sit well with me to think about campaigning and raising money and doing all these things but people in Vermont are suffering.”
He added: “It’s going to take all of my attention, the attention of my entire cabinet to make sure that we get through this and get through it safely. So that’s why I want to prioritize that and if I suffer politically for that, I’ll accept that.”
Scott said he would not actively fundraise but “obviously” would not return checks that “come through the door.”
John Klar, a Republican who is one of three challenging Scott in the August primary, called the governor's approach a "ploy" to avoid debates.
"Now it's like 'Well it'll depend,'" Klar said of the governor's Friday comments.
"Well, guess who gets to decide? The incumbent with all the money, who doesn't want me to have access to the electorate because he can control the airwaves and TV waves," he said.
Klar, a lawyer and farmer from Brookfield, pointed out that the Democratic candidates for governor are having regular debates on Zoom, despite the pandemic.
He said that ideally, he would like to debate the governor five times between now and August.
"He'd spend six or seven hours a week in front of the camera for the Covid crisis," Klar said. "I would think he could handle six or seven hours over the two-month period for the electoral process."
Bernard Peters, a retired Agency of Transportation worker from Irasburg who is also running as a Republican, said Scott is using the pandemic to avoid questions about his record, including his softened stance on gun control.
"He should debate. I don't care if we all have to wear a mask, but he ought to have the cojones to go up there and answer a question," Peters said.
"I mean he's getting all this free TV time right now. The rest of us can't do that," he said.
Emily Peyton, of Putney, who is running as an independent, but registered for the Republican primary, said that the governor "should be accessible to the people of Vermont through debate."
"I think it's a problem that he's not available to the people of Vermont, a big problem," she said. "And it's a big problem with our system of governance that he can remove himself so effectively from discussing the problems we're facing."
In his announcement message on Thursday, Scott said politics was "the least favorite part" of his job and said he realized that holding off on campaigning and raising money may not help his reelection chances in November.
"But, I simply cannot bring myself to campaign during the state of emergency, even if it puts me at a political disadvantage in August and November," he wrote.
Democrats challenging Scott also criticized his approach to debates.
Former Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe said there are “substantive differences” between candidates on both sides of the political aisle and that voters have a right to hear from all of them.
“To refuse to discuss that, or to engage in public conversation, I think denies all Vermonters an opportunity to hear about these ideas and develop better ideas,” Holcombe said.
“And to the extent that people want to have discussion, they can't have it if the person at the podium chooses not to discuss and that's effectively making it impossible for his Republican opponent to have that conversation,” Holcombe said.
“And I think people have a right to engage in public conversation when they're seeking the privilege of the highest office in the state,” she said.
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Progressive/Democrat running for governor, said that while keeping Vermonters healthy and addressing the economic challenges posed by the pandemic are important, “we must also ensure our democracy remains healthy.”
“I know Vermonters will want to hear from candidates before casting their ballots,” Zuckerman wrote in a statement. “I'm looking forward to thoughtful debates with Phil Scott this fall."
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