Primary day in Vermont is just days away. Thursday evening, the Democratic candidates for governor debated a number of issues.
The five Democrats running for Vermont governor are James Ehlers, Christine Hallquist, Brenda Siegel, Ethan Sonneborn and John Rodgers. They agreed on most issues but there were occasional bouts of disagreement.
VTDigger moderator Xander Landen began the forum asking why the candidates believe they are qualified and can beat first-term Republican Governor Phil Scott in light of polls showing few Vermonters are familiar with them. Plus, four of the five lack legislative experience. For Brenda Siegel, an activist and founder of the Southern Vermont Dance Festival, it was an opportunity to criticize the incumbent Republican’s leadership style. “Phil Scott had 17 years in the Statehouse and is a CEO and does not seem to understand leadership. He doesn’t negotiate with anyone. My career has been in executive leadership. I think what we need right now is to have all of our voices at the table and until we do that we’re not going to see the changes that we want and need. We need to see a different kind of leadership if we want to see new outcomes.”
"Just because someone has the title doesn’t mean they have the capacity or the skills.” James Ehlers, an activist, environmentalist and head of Lake Champlain International, repeatedly referenced his early career as a naval officer to reinforce the need for leadership change. “Leadership is about values and it’s about principles and it’s about leading through example. And so people are tired of the status quo. They’re tired of entrenched special interests.”
The candidates tended to favor moving to an income tax rather than using the property tax to fund education. Christine Hallquist quit her position as president of Vermont Electric Cooperative to run for governor. She mirrored the other candidates’ responses. “If you look at the idea of a property tax funded mantra for education it’s been flawed from the beginning. I do believe we need to take a deep dive and look how we’re funding it. And we really need to move to community-based solutions on this.”
A flashpoint in the gubernatorial election is expected to be the new gun restriction laws Governor Scott signed this year. Most of the candidates praised the moves and felt the three bills were a good start, but state Senator John Rodgers, who is mounting a write-in campaign in the primary, disagreed. “I actually supported two of the safety bills. I did not support S.55. That is a bill that does take away Vermonters’ Constitutional rights. If we truly want safety then let’s look at the First Amendment. Maybe we should give the government and law enforcement access to everybody’s phones and computers and license plate readers and facial recognition and that would make everybody safer. But I don’t think we’re willing to give up our First Amendment rights for that. And I think all’s we did is turn law-abiding citizens into criminals.”
14-year-old Ethan Sonneborn was a legislative page. On his second day, the Parkland school shooting occurred. On his last day, Governor Scott signed Vermont’s gun control legislation. Able to run because there is no age restriction in Vermont to campaign for or serve as governor, he passionately argued that greater firearms safety is crucial. “We always forget about the part in the Second Amendment that says that well regulated militias have the right to bear arms. School shooters are not well regulated militias. People who are stockpiling assault weapons are not well regulated militias. And I think we have to move to a system where we put safety first. And I think it means we tackle mental health issues. I think it means we tackle school safety issues. And I think it means we tackle gun issues. Because we know that as much as the person pulls the trigger the trigger pulls the person.”
Audio from the Democratic Governor Primary Election Forum is courtesy of VT Digger and Channel 17 Town Meeting Television.