Scott facing primary challengers for reelection
MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott is the only Republican presently holding a statewide seat, and the only GOP candidate to win a statewide election since 2010.
So why is he facing four primary challengers on Tuesday?
Among those, farmer and attorney John Klar poses the most significant challenge to Scott seeking a third two-year term. When asked why some in the party want to unseat their only statewide office-holder, Klar replied with a rhetorical question: "Phil Scott's a Republican?"
Some Vermont Republicans are still angered by Scott's support of gun regulations in 2018, following what police said was the narrow aversion of a school shooting plot in Fair Haven. Others say he hasn't done enough to follow through on his pledge of making Vermont more affordable, or are put off by his repeated criticisms of President Donald Trump.
But Scott remains popular. A recent poll conducted by Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS shows 83 percent of Vermonters approve of his response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And there's the historical power of incumbency to consider: Not since 1962 has a sitting Vermont governor of any party lost a re-election bid.
With two terms under his belt, Scott is taking a calculated risk by declining to actively campaign for reelection, saying managing Vermont's pandemic response is more important.
"As our state and nation continue to navigate a once-in-a-century challenge, Vermonters need and deserve a full-time governor who is focused on leading Vermont through the public health and economic crisis COVID-19 has created," he said May 28.
Since then, he's softened that stance somewhat, taking part in a debate hosted by Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS.
"Every decision I've made has been in the best interest of Vermonters, your health, your safety and the economic future," Scott said during the debate. "Vermont needs a strong, steady and measured hand at the wheel to weather this storm and emerge stronger as a state."
"So, again, I'm like the last person standing at this point in time between common sense and some of what we're seeing in the legislative process," he said.
In March, as the pandemic took hold, Scott issued a "stay home, stay safe" order that closed schools and most businesses, and said the state would reopen the economy a little at a time depending on science and public health data. While some criticized his reliance upon encouragement rather than a mandate for masks — a mandate didn't come until August 1 — the state went 30 days without a COVID-19 death, and its retransmission rate has been among the lowest in the U.S.
In his second term, Scott has vetoed a pair of bills that were priorities for the Democrat-controlled Legislature — mandatory paid family leave and an increase in the minimum wage. The Legislature narrowly overrode his veto on the minimum wage, increasing it from $10.96 per hour to $12.55 by 2022. But his veto of mandatory paid family leave — he instead instituted a voluntary program — was sustained by one vote.
Scott also signed S. 219, a bill addressing systemic racism and police use of force in Vermont, while requesting the Legislature make several adjustments to the bill.
During a Republican debate hosted by VPR and PBS-Vermont, Scott said systemic racism exists throughout the U.S., and in Vermont.
"For 250 years I don't think any of us can say that Blacks have been treated equally in this country. So we have to take the time to listen to Black Americans," he said.
While Scott committed to the state upholding the Paris Climate Accord when the United States announced it was leaving the deal, two issues remain unresolved: The Global Warming Solutions Act, which awaits a final vote in the state House, and the Transportation Climate Initiative, on which a decision was pushed back to fall due to the pandemic. Scott has stated his opposition to a carbon tax, but has supported the transition of transportation infrastructure to electric vehicles.
"There are many of us that feel Phil Scott has betrayed us," said Klar, a farmer, lawyer and former pastor of the First Congregational Church of Westfield.
"I set out last spring to help conservatives identify issues that can appeal to voters and help us to find ourselves instead of being labeled environment-destroying racist rapists," he said. "And so we need to focus on three issues, or we need to find the issues that are important to voters. And then we'll unify. This is what that looks like."
Those issues, he said, are strengthening the economy through cutting taxes and bolstering agriculture, strengthening schools by repealing Act 46, and confronting the opioid epidemic.
Thirty-five candidates are now running under Klar's "Agripublican" banner, he said. "We're focused on issues most pressing to Vermont, most challenging to Vermont and should be respectfully allowed a voice at the table," he said. One of his key criticisms of Scott is that he hasn't helped build the party's base in the Legislature, where the GOP has six seats in the 30-seat Senate and 43 members in the 150-member House.
"Paying $10,000 payments for out-of-staters to live here seems to be [Scott's] entire salvo of economic solutions," Klar said. "He hasn't put together a team of people to do so. And the entire Legislature has spent the last six months demonstrating that they have no intention of fixing economic problems they've created."
The key elements of Klar's plan, a 14-page "Vermont Farming Manifesto," include property and income tax credits for food-producing farmers, to increase food security and take advantage of the state's agricultural brand, savings through shortening the legislative session, pension reform, and downsizing government. On his website, Klar says "It is folly to shift Vermont's economy from agriculture to tourism."
With the Vermont State College System struggling financially and studying its future, Klar supports a renewed emphasis on technical training, especially in nursing.
"We need to look at a revamp of assets in a way that there's return on investment both for taxpayers and for the students," he said, adding the state could shift resources to make the schools "more trade school oriented" and lower tuition costs.
On education, Klar said in pushing for a repeal of Act 46 he'd allow districts that want to keep their mergers to do so. He said he'd be open to schools using proficiency-based learning to combine grades.
"There are some public schools that have accomplished some very good efficiencies with mergers," he said. "But we lost 25 percent of our students in the last 45 years. We haven't lost any superintendents. We have 53 superintendents making an average of $153,000 a year."
The state's healthcare system is being made unduly expensive by administrative costs and bureaucracy, Klar said. He'd like top see more free-market access to health care.
"If you work for the state, you get free health care. Well, if you're on welfare, you get free health care. But if you're in the middle, you might be paying $1,500 or $2,000 a month for that huge deductible There's an imbalance right there and just one more place where it puts the squeeze on the people in the middle."
Klar said too much focus has been placed on climate change and not enough on man-made chemicals that pollute the environment and cause cancer.
"We spill an estimated 16 million gallons of refined gasoline on the ground each year rolling our stupid lawns," he said. "Why don't we pass a law against that? Why don't we put pollution control devices on their lawn mowers? Why don't we do something where you're actually going to reduce pollution?"
Individual conservation and increased weatherization are better ways to reduce emissions, he said. "The Global Warming Solutions Act and transportation Climate Initiative are both not only unconstitutional, but they're not actually even helping the environment and they're certainly not going to help the economy."
On systemic racism, Klar said he does not see racism in Vermont and was critical of Scott signing a bill into law banning restraints such as those used in the killing of George Floyd, saying those restraints are already not taught or used by Vermont police.
"Vermont's issues have to do with the economy and other things. I'm not saying that doesn't mean there's racism here. Is that our paramount problem? I'm not aware that it is and I've been living here for a long time," he said.
"All we've done is weaponized race and white people are in Vermont are screaming at other white people holding Black Lives Matter signs. And it's a huge misunderstanding because nobody wants to go backwards generationally," Klar said. "I have a Martin Luther King attitude. So I still say we should judge people by the content of the character rather than color their skin."
In a debate hosted by Vermont Public Radio and PBS-Vermont, Cavett, a Milton resident and former paraeducator in the Burlington schools, called for health care reform, saying the Green Mountain Care Board, which is charged with controlling many costs, needs to negotiate "things that are realistic for health care."
During the debate, he said he is running for governor because Vermont's criminal justice system has failed. He wants to reform the system so that marginalized individuals can re-enter society and participate in the economy.
Cavett was convicted in 2010 on two counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a minor, the Burlington Free Press reported in 2015. A jury ruled against Cavett in a civil suit brought by the survivor in 2015, awarding a judgement of $1 million, the newspaper reported.
When asked about the charges during the VPR-Vermont PBS debate, Cavett did not address the charges directly, but said he was "sucked into" the criminal justice system as a "naive bystander." He said voters should be made aware of "the criminal financial system, and the coercion and terrorist tactics that the courts use in order to get people to plea deal 99 percent of the time."
A retired Agency of Transportation employee living in Irasburg, Peters ran for governor as an independent in 2014. He's critical of Scott for supporting gun regulations in 2016.
"We're a very high-tax state. We have a lot of rules and regulations. Take people that are making minimum wage or on Social Security - they can't quite make ends meet," Peters told Vermont Public Radio. "And what bothers me is the state keeps spending more money, sometimes, than it takes in. Well, there's no law against saving money."
Peters said his motto is that it's time to put a working person back in the Statehouse.
"A lot of people down there, and no disrespect to them, are lawyers and real estaters, and people with money," Peters told VPR. "I grew up poor, you know, and you had to save money. And I think it's time that somebody should go back the old-fashioned way, and say, let's look it over before we spend it."
During the VPR-PBS Vermont debate, Peters criticized Scott for failing to enforce the state's 14-day quarantine rule to prevent the spread of COPVID-19.
"We're not anti-people coming here, we're anti people coming here to make our people sick," he said. "There should be a way to check on them to make sure they were going by what they were supposed to do."
Peyton, of Putney, is also running for attorney general as a Republican. She previously ran for governor in 2014 as a Republican in the primary, where she finished fourth of four candidates, and as the Liberty Union candidate in the general election, finishing fourth overall. She also ran for governor as an independent in 2012, finishing third overall.
On her website, Peyton, who owns a hemp-related business, blames Scott for devastating the state's economy with the COVID-19 shutdown.
"COVID didn't decimate our economy, Scott decimated our economy. COVID is a cover for total surveillance and greed," the website says. It also claims that masks are unhealthy and that the pandemic is a cover for vaccines, which "have a secondary agenda, and that is to inject everyone with nano-techonology connecting humans to the Internet of Things."
"I am comfortable managing the socio-political and economic transformation needed at this precipice," Peyton says on her website. "I will not stand for the undermining of anyone anywhere, likewise incivility, dishonesty or greed. I am stalwart before corruption. I have first hand knowledge of the disenfranchised, and first hand knowledge of criminal justice corruption, and of the innocence and yearning by most for truth, justice, and well-being for all. I have deep working knowledge of net-zero practices, a just economic system, health through organic food, love, excitement and well-being."
During the VPR-PBS Vermont debate, Peyton expressed her support for a state public bank.
"I'm very concerned at the erosion of our constitutional rights," she said during the debate. "I've seen other places that have handled this COVID without trespassing on our rights and I think it's important to note that those places are doing better than Vermont."
Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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