By Kevin Ryan & Rob Roper
Vermont politics can often mirror those of the rest of the nation, sometimes more than we might like. One such situation arose this past week after actor Clint Eastwood held a mock debate with President Obama at the Tampa Republican Convention, having a one-way conversation with an empty chair. Meanwhile, here in Vermont, earlier that week Governor Peter Shumlin’s re-election campaign announced that the Governor would be cutting back the gubernatorial debate schedule of previous years. While twenty debates were held in 2008 between Governor Douglas and his challengers, and thirteen in 2010 between Shumlin and Brian Dubie, this year Shumlin said he would only appear at five or six.
Republican challenger Randy Brock may well have to get himself a chair.
“That has been mentioned on more than one occasion as a possibility,” said Senator Brock, laughing. True North caught up with him at the Vermont Business for Social Responsibility Forum in Burlington on Wednesday afternoon. When asked if he still planned to attend the scheduled debates even if Peter Shumlin turns them down, Brock said, “If they’ll have me, I’ll go.”
Shumlin’s campaign has cited time limitations as the reason behind fewer debates than has been the Vermont tradition, and said that the governor must prioritize his elected position. However, the “too busy doing the job” excuse doesn’t hold up under examination. For one thing, Shumlin just returned from a ten-day vacation between August 3rd and 13th. He then had time for a four-day tour of Vermont “celebrating” the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Irene, then found time to skip off to North Carolina to attend the Democratic National Convention.
As Senator Brock noted in regard to one proposed debate at the Renewable Energy Conference that will be held October 1st and 2nd at the South Burlington Sheraton Hotel, “The event is going to go on. The Governor can’t do a debate there, but he can appear there and give a speech. Now, Can you imagine that? I just find that ironic.”
Not only is that ironic, but he has all day on September 10th to visit editorial boards and then hang out at Nectar’s nightclub in Burlington for his campaign kickoff party.
According to Delany Event Management, the company handling arrangements for the Renewable Energy conference, Shumlin’s office would not be able to confirm the Governor’s attendance at the event until September 24th. The whole thing is now being referred to as a “forum.” Neither Delany nor Senator Brock made it clear if the challenger would be bringing an extra chair to the event, or if one would be provided for him.
However, it isn’t just Brock (or even primarily Brock) who Shumlin is avoiding. It’s Vermonters in general. If you look at the forums where Shumlin has agreed to show up – Vermont Public Radio, Vermont Public Television, WDEV’s Mark Johnson Show, WCAX and WPTZ television – here’s what they all have in common: small studios and no people. The debates Shumlin has declined — AARP, the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, the Williston Central School, Johnson State College, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, the Ludlow Town Committee and the Renewable Energy conference – are all town-hall style events. The kinds of places where Vermonters have traditionally had the opportunity to look their candidates in they eye, cheer or cat-call and, heaven forbid, maybe even ask a question of their own.
What Shumlin knows is that the people of Vermont do not approve of his agenda (a majority of Vermonters polled do not support his signature policy initiative, government run healthcare). They will approve even less of any plans he has to pay for it (which is why Act 48 keeps that a secret until after the election), and he does not want to give the people any chance to register that disapproval.