No room for debate: Citing busy schedule, governor begs off most forums
MONTPELIER — Being governor is so much work, Peter Shumlin said Tuesday, that he won’t have as much time as he’d like to campaign for another term.
That’s the rationale being used by the first-term incumbent to defend a campaign schedule that includes fewer than half the number of debates he agreed to in 2010.
While Shumlin said he looks forward to “spirited and vigorous campaigning” against a “worthy adversary,” he said he’ll have room for only “five or six” debates between now and Election Day. He debated Republican Brian Dubie 13 times in 2010.
“You have to draw the line somewhere,” he said during a Statehouse news conference.
His comments drew pointed criticism from Republican challenger Randy Brock, who said he wanted to know: “What is Peter Shumlin afraid of?”
Shumlin said he wouldn’t “dignify” Brock’s question with a response. Brock said Shumlin’s refusal to sign on to more debates short-circuits the democratic process.
“Vermonters deserve to hear and see up close the candidates for the highest state office, and they need to see them where they live, in the four corners of the state, so that they can ask their questions and hear their responses directly, without their questions being filtered through media outlets,” Brock said.
Shumlin said the demands of the job mean he doesn’t have as much time as he’d like for campaigning and debates.
“I work seven days a week, and I find that in those seven days I don’t have enough time to do everything a governor should do,” Shumlin said.
Unlike in 2010, he said, “I am not just a candidate, I am a person who has to run a state.”
Shumlin’s campaign manager, Alex MacLean, said last week that the governor’s re-election team opted to resolve the issue of limited time by engaging in debates run only by media organizations, and not “special interest” groups.
Shumlin has turned down one invitation to a debate hosted by AARP-Vermont and another co-hosted by the Vermont Natural Resources Council and Renewable Energy Vermont.
“I have encouraged my campaign to accept and to schedule the debates that will get us the broadest coverage across Vermont,” Shumlin said Tuesday.
However, he has agreed to participate in a forum at the VNRC-REV debate on Oct. 2. His willingness to appear at that event, Brock said, shows that Shumlin’s debate policy is more about political considerations than it is about his availability for campaign events.
“He says he’s too busy governing to have a campaign, and yet when we have an opportunity for a debate at something like the Vermont Natural Resources Council and Renewable Energy Vermont, he has time to come and make a speech but not time to engage in a debate?” Brock said.
Brock said he’s particularly troubled by Shumlin’s unwillingness to participate in the AARP debate, an event candidates for governor have attended in each of the last five election cycles. Brock said he suspects that AARP’s hard line against the $21 million bailout provision in the merger this year of Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service has something to do with the snub. The Shumlin administration suffered considerable blowback for its support of the utilities’ payback plan.
“But Vermont is the second-oldest state in the nation and there are 140,000 members in Vermont,” Brock said. “Don’t they deserve a debate?”
Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College, said political flaps over debates are nothing new. In 2006, for instance, then-Gov. James Douglas took heat from Democratic challenger Scudder Parker for refusing to debate 14 times.
“Scudder said there should be one in every county,” Davis said. “And Douglas gave basically the same answer Shumlin is now — I can’t do that many debates and tend to my job as governor as well.”
Davis said there’s good reason that it’s always the incumbent seeking to limit debates and challengers pushing for more.
“All of these challengers have been underfunded and have a challenge getting publicity,” Davis said. “Randy Brock doesn’t have as much money as Peter Shumlin, so he’s dependent on news coverage to get his message out about his campaign.”
The first debate of the campaign comes Sept. 12, when Shumlin and Brock will field questions on the economy, energy and taxes on Vermont Public Radio at noon.
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