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Vermont Lieutenant Governor candidates debate in Rutland

Vermont Statehouse  (file photo)
Pat Bradley/WAMC
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Vermont Statehouse (file)

All of Vermont’s constitutional offices are up for election this fall and the lieutenant governor’s features a number of candidates vying for the position. The Democratic and Republican candidates debated in Rutland Wednesday evening.

The second highest seat in state government is open because current Democratic Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray is running for Vermont’s at-large U.S. House seat. Two Republicans and four Democrats are hoping to replace her.

Online investigative newspaper VT Digger hosted an in-person debate in Rutland Wednesday. Managing Editor Paul Heintz noted it is an historic election year for the state, making it critical to hear from the candidates.

“Two-thirds of the incumbent statewide office holders are leaving their posts for retirement or to run for higher office and about one-third of the Vermont House and Senate are doing the same. That means that we're bound to lose some institutional knowledge and some clout in Congress. But it also means that we'll have the opportunity to hear from new voices with new ideas and new experiences.”

The debate was split in two parts. Democrats first faced off and then the Republicans took the stage. Most of the questions from the moderators to the two groups were the same.

The candidates were asked what they believe is the number one challenge facing the state and what policy issues they would advance to address it. Woodstock House Rep, Charlie Kimbell said everything comes down to the state’s housing crisis.

“We're talking about housing all different ranges: low, middle, and upper middle income. So what I would do is make sure that we don't lose focus and that we look at building new and renovating existing homes, and then also readapting commercial structures that aren’t residential into housing units.”

Danville House Rep. Kitty Toll said when she began her campaign she would have pointed to three aspects of the economy, but as she talks to Vermonters another has emerged.

“They are worried about climate change. The Clean Heat Standard needed to have happened before the end of the session from the administration. Now we will be two more years behind trying to meet our goals. But putting lots of money into electrification and weatherization and we can be a model in this state for other states in addressing climate change.”

While former Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman agreed with Kimbell that housing is the key issue, he sees it as a more expansive problem.

“Housing encompasses many other things. Housing is such a symbol of the income inequality that we face in the state and ultimately our housing stock is also part of our climate crisis. Thirty-four percent of our carbon emissions are from heating in our homes. We've never invested like we need to into weatherization.”

Vermont Council on World Affairs Executive Director Patricia Preston says one issue cannot be pinpointed to be a single priority.

“These issues are intersectional and we cannot approach them in a silo. For me I think that we could build a green economy, which ties back to another priority. I think that we need to strengthen our rural communities, helping develop our workforce. I also think affordability. We have an affordability crisis on our hands.”

On the GOP side, Caledonia state Senator Joe Benning said the state faces an affordability crisis.

“The number one problem is still the same problem that we were facing back when Phil Scott first got elected governor. There is an affordability crisis here today.”

Former Rutland city Alderman Gregory Thayer agreed.

“It's the cost of living and I lay the fault on the Democratic leadership. There are some items, there are some things that are definitely on the federal level. But I firmly believe that we need to look at different solutions.”

The GOP candidates had a difference of opinion over the 2020 presidential election. While Thayer acknowledged Democrat Joe Biden is the president he questioned the legitimacy of the results and stood by his decision to be in Washington on January 6th.

“I'm proud I was there. You know I did not go into the Capitol. I was on the lawn after we heard the President speak. But yes, I do stand by my decision to be there and I think President Trump did a great job. I wasn't a Trump supporter to start, but I became one.”

Moderator Michael Dougherty turns to the other GOP candidate: “Senator Benning.”

“I do believe that the election was legitimate,” responds Benning. “And it is unfortunate that every election from now on is going to be challenged by the loser in such a way that they're going to claim fraud. My party has got to wake up and recognize we have to move on from the 2020 election.”

Vermont’s primary is August 9th.

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