Gov. Peter Shumlin and Republican challenger Randy Brock traded by far the sharpest barbs of the campaign season as both candidates used their final televised debate to try to inflict damage on the opponent.
From questions about Shumlin’s recent land deals to thinly veiled allegations of pay-to-play politics, Brock assumed an aggressive posture previously unseen in what has been a relatively staid race at the top of the ticket.
The Democratic incumbent, meanwhile, ridiculed a much-talked-about component of the GOP challenger’s economic development platform that envisions what Brock calls a “business in a box.”
As a means of reducing the state’s jobless rate, Brock has proposed giving unemployed Vermonters packaged business plans for which they would seek financing from private lending institutions.
“What unemployed Vermonter has the resources to be eligible for credit from a lending institution?” Shumlin asked. “What do you know about business that I don’t know that you’re able to get a loan when you’re unemployed?”
As Brock tried to respond, Shumlin jumped in to criticize him as not offering any specifics.
“Now you sound like Mitt Romney,” Shumlin said.
Shumlin also said Brock would dismantle an income-sensitivity provision in the property tax code that would result in tax hikes for middle-class Vermonters.
“All I can say, Vermonters, is watch out,” Shumlin said. “Randy is willing to reduce income sensitivity on property taxes, the one thing that’s making property taxes affordable.”
But the most pointed attacks of the 60-minute debate, broadcast live on WPTZ from a makeshift studio at the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington, came from Brock.
Given the opportunity to direct his own question to Shumlin, Brock asked the Democrat to explain a recent land deal in which he was able to acquire a parcel of East Montpelier farm land at a below-market price.
As he has explained to this newspaper, Shumlin said he and some friends bought the land together and that in exchange for finding the property and securing purchase rights, they gave him a portion of the tract at a good price.
“They got a great deal and are very happy,” Shumlin said. “I got a great deal and am very happy.”
Brock wouldn’t let it go.
“On a per-acre basis you got a heck of a deal,” he said. “If you can do that, you ought to be doing that for the state of Vermont, because you’re a heck of a real estate investor.”
Brock also tried to ding Shumlin for a $2,000 campaign donation from Hewlett-Packard, a company both men say is to blame for a failed IT project into which the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles has poured $18 million.
Shumlin visited the company in February to discuss, he said, problems with the contract. “Is it appropriate where we have a major problem with a vendor — is it appropriate to visit them in California and come away with a campaign contribution?” Brock asked.
Shumlin said he resented the insinuation.
“I find it insulting you would suggest that on state business I asked for contributions,” Shumlin said.
Shumlin said he thought it was important to meet directly with HP executives to try to remedy problems with a contract signed under his predecessor’s watch.
“The taxpayers did not get the value for their dollars they should have. … I said, ‘We’ve got to find a way to get Vermont taxpayers’ money back,’” Shumlin said. “I am an ethical person. I would suspect you know that.”
The candidates will square off once more in a nontelevised debate hosted by The Burlington Free Press at noon Wednesday, Oct. 24.
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