SOUTH BURLINGTON >> Lt. Gov. Phil Scott officially started the engine on his campaign for governor Tuesday, with a revved-up, well-organized kickoff that felt more like a celebration on Victory Lane for the part-time race car driver than the beginning of an almost year-long, lap-after-lap political campaign.
Hundreds of supporters, including some Democrats and a Who's Who of former Republican state officials, mobbed Scott's launch event, held in a large ballroom festooned with balloons and campaign signs at the Sheraton Hotel in South Burlington and surrounded by touchstones of Scott's career, including his trademark green #14 race car and his bicycle.
The kickoff included a well-honed message reiterated by several speakers, a high quality video of Scott's life and a campaign speech by the candidate.
Speakers contrasted Scott's "humble" style with the "soundbites" coming from Democrats. They emphasized the lieutenant governor's thoughtfulness and his consensus-building approach to leadership.
"There aren't many candidates who will listen more than they speak," said Cathy Lamberton, one of the lieutenant governor's supporters.
Scott said he wanted to hearken back to a time when fierce independence, self-reliance and resourcefulness were the hallmark values of Vermont. "Vermonters yearn for that again," he told supporters.
Scott said his core priority as governor would be improving the quality of life of Vermonters by "fixing the basic functions of government" He said property taxes should be lowered, investments in education and infrastructure should be prioritized and the cost of living for Vermonters should be decreased.
He also criticized the Shumlin administration's management of the state budget, which is facing a $58.5 million revenue gap in fiscal year 2017. And a deficit of $40 million in the current year's budget.
"State government must have the discipline to live within its means, just like families have to do," Scott said, adding he would not sign a budget "that grows faster than the average wages or the underlying economy."
"Some folks have said the state's economy is struggling so much that the next governor could easily spend their entire administration reforming state government and getting us back to the fiscal fundamentals," Scott said before adding, "If that's the case, that's OK with me."
Scott, 57, of Berlin, highlighted his blue collar background during the 20-minute speech, and promised to focus on the "everyday jobs that need to be done." He argued the state's woes could best be solved by "someone who's been in the shoes of the people who are struggling, and who has not forgotten — who will never forget — where they came from."
Scott's mother, Marion, introduced the candidate, and both spoke of the struggle of raising a family after Scott's father, who lost his legs during the D-Day invasion, died of his injuries when Scott was 11. He has two brothers.
The lieutenant governor defended parts of Act 46 — a school reform law he has said needs clarifying — and criticized Gov. Peter Shumlin's work on the Vermont Health Exchange, declaring he would "pull the plug on Vermont Health Connect," a line which drew loud applause.
The online exchange has run into a number of bumps in its rollout. Last week, VTDigger reported that "up to 1,660 customers were dropped from the rolls of Vermont Health Connect at the end of October for nonpayment, even though many users say they paid their bills."
Phil Scott with his mother, Marion, right, at his campaign launch on Dec. 1, 2015. Photo by Mark Johnson/VTDigger
Scott said the recent woes were "just another reminder that what Gov. Shumlin called a 'nothing burger' has turned out to be a big old McWhopper."
Scott suggested the state could save significantly by switching to the federal health exchange, or by piggybacking on another state's online platform.
Scott's launch event — which took place last in line of the (declared) gubernatorial campaign launches — was the most organized and well-attended of the season. A group of volunteers, decked out in bright green "Phil Scott" shirts, waited at the doors to the Sheraton holding clipboards — ready to collect contact information from potential supporters and signatures to get Scott's name on the ballot.
Hundreds poured through the doors despite slick, rainy road conditions. Scott's impressive audience was likely bolstered by members of the Associated General Contractors, a trade association that held a conference in the hotel Tuesday.
Scott is the co-owner of Dubois construction, a building company based in Middlesex. He has received donations from big state construction companies during previous election cycles.
Inside the ballroom was a cash bar and tables of hors d'oeuvres, as well as Scott's shiny green race car he runs at the Thunder Road Speedbowl in Barre. Guests drank and snacked on broccoli and bruschetta before the main event.
The audience included a number of political heavyweights, a signal of Scott's widespread support in the party. They included former Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, House Minority leader Don Turner, R-Milton, and Senate Minority leader Joe Benning, R-Caledonia.
Former Republican Gov. Jim Douglas officially endorsed Scott during the kickoff event, as did Sen. Dick Mazza, a Grand Isle Democrat, and close ally of Scott's.
"Phil is one of the most respected people under the Golden Dome," Douglas said. "He reaches across the aisle to get good ideas passed and to resist bad ones. Phil scott doesn't care about credit, he cares about getting things done."
Douglas pooh-poohed the idea that Scott would have difficulty winning in Vermont, which tends to vote Democratic in a presidential year, explaining that he won two races — one in 2004 and 2008 — when Democratic presidential candidates dominated the top of the ticket.
Scott Milne, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2014 who came close to defeating Shumlin, was also at Scott's event. He said he thought Scott's moderate brand of conservatism would allow him to win the race in what is a heavily Democratic state.
"Granted, some people would like Phil to be more conservative who are in our party," Milne said. "But I think the times are right for a moderate, George Aiken type-of-Republican, and that's what Phil is."
While Scott was tough on Shumlin throughout his speech, he also highlighted his willingness to work with Democrats, proclaiming "no leader, no special interest group and no one political party has all the answers. We must listen to each other."
Scott's only other competitor in the Republican gubernatorial primary race is Bruce Lisman, a former Wall Street executive who kicked off his campaign in October.
On the Democratic side, Google Executive Matt Dunne and former transportation secretary Sue Minter are running. House Speaker Shap Smith dropped out of the race for governor in November to care for his wife, who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer.
While no polls have been released directly assessing the race, Scott notched the highest favorability and name recognition of any candidate in a recent poll from Castleton University. Smith had the second highest rating in the survey.
A slick promotional video highlighting Scott's family history in the Green Mountain State played before the lieutenant governor's remarks. It featured old photos, an interview with Scott and an archetypically uplifting song.
"We gotta work hard, in order to survive," Scott said in the video, the "H" barely present in his classic Vermont cadence. "We all have a responsibility to give back to society in different ways. We all have a pathway to do that, we just have to find it."