BENNINGTON — Four gubernatorial candidates visited Bennington Saturday afternoon for a free public forum sponsored by Rights and Democracy Vermont.
Democratic candidates in attendance included: Matt Dunne, a former state senator who ran for governor in 2010 and has also headed the Americorps VISTA program and ran community affairs for Google out of its White River Junction office; Sue Minter, a former state representative and former secretary of transportation; and Peter Galbraith, a former state senator and U.S. ambassador to Croatia. Republican candidate Bruce Lisman, a retired banker, was also in attendance. The final major candidate, Republican Phil Scott, a former state senator and current lieutenant governor, declined to attend, with his campaign manager citing "significant concerns about [Rights and Democracy's] extreme tactics and respect for those with whom they disagree."
The event was hosted at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Bennington, and ran from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. It was followed by a meet-and-greet with the candidates.
The forum began with opening statements from the candidates. The moderators were Ken Sigsbury and Mary Gerisch.
"We appreciate your time in coming all the way south to speak to us on an individual level," said Gerisch. She noted Scott's absence, saying, "Phil Scott declined to attend this event not because he had a conflict, but because he thought he would not get a fair shot." The audience gave Lisman a round of applause for attending.
Dunne began the opening statements by saying, "As someone from south of Route 4, I can't say how happy I am to attend a campaign event south of Route 4!" He listed poverty, homelessness, opiates, and the cost of healthcare as some of the biggest problems facing Vermont. "We really love this state," he said, "but it is really struggling right now."
Galbraith said he had been chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party in the '70s, before going into diplomacy. During his time as ambassador to Croatia, he was heavily involved in the peace process between Bosnia and Croatia, and was the principal architect of the Erdut Agreement that ended that war. He also served as a diplomat in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I've handed some challenging situations," he said, "but Vermont was always my home, and I came back." He said his campaign was focused on economic justice, and he called for an immediate hike in the minimum wage, to $12.50, and a gradual increase to $15 an hour. He also called for an end to corporate subsidies and tax loopholes. "I am the only candidate here who can say I have never accepted money from a corporation or a PAC (political action committee)," he said.
"I learned from my family that hard work mattered, and that being a part of a community mattered," said Lisman, who painted himself as a candidate from outside politics, having never held any elected office. "An outsider's perspective is more important now than ever," he said.
Minter focused on her handling of Hurricane Irene when she was secretary of transportation. "We did what no one thought was possible," she said, "and rebuilt 500 miles of roads in under four months."
The first question focused on economic policies, and whether or not the liberal policies of recent administrations had driven businesses out of the state. Dunne responded that Vermont is a great place to do business, and said that in his administration, individuals would work directly with small businesses.
Galbraith said, "Who wants to compete with Mississippi on low wages? Who wants to compete with having no environmental regulations? Why do people open businesses in Vermont? Because it's a great place to live."
Minter was also skeptical about abandoning those policies, saying, "I don't think cutting taxes, and cutting services, is the way to improve the economy."
Lisman said his goal is to encourage businesses to expand into Vermont, and said arguing about liberals and conservatives was a waste of time.
All candidates agreed that they would not cut services to the disabled in order to balance the state budget. Lisman stressed that spending money more efficiently was one of his main goals. "My advice to anybody who has ever spent money on anything is, make sure you're spending it well," he said.
"Bruce, I totally agree with you," said Minter, "but I believe in the services government provides, and I think that we can do better."
Later, Galbraith expressed skepticism of plans to pay for programs by making government more efficient, saying, "Every election, politicians promise that they're going to make government more efficient, and that will solve all our problems. That hasn't happened, and it won't happen. The only way to solve our problems is with more resources." He said his plan to fund his proposed programs, in addition to ending corporate subsidies and tax breaks, is to raise taxes on the most affluent.
The candidates disagreed on whether or not they would work to implement a universal healthcare system. Minter and Lisman said no, while Dunne and Galbraith said yes.
"Healthcare is a right," said Minter, "and universal access is my goal." However, she said, her first goal is to get the Vermont Health Connect working, after which she said she would look at all available health programs and measure the pros and cons.
"We need to move quickly and implement universal healthcare," said Dunne, who said he had been hearing that the state wasn't ready for universal healthcare since he co-sponsored a bill to bring the system to Vermont in the '90s, but he said the state simply cannot afford the current system any longer.
Other topics discussed included the heroin epidemic, Act 46, PFOA, and the minimum wage. The full recording will be broadcast on Catamount Access Television, and is available on their YouTube page.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.