In their fifth and final debate before the Nov. 6 election, Republican Vince Illuzzi and Democrat/Progressive Doug Hoffer made their cases to become Vermont’s next auditor.
Political observers have had a difficult time handicapping a contest that, along with the race for treasurer, is expected to deliver the most suspense on election night.
In a 50-minute debate broadcast on Burlington’s public-access television station, both candidates vowed to ask the “tough questions” Vermonters should expect from the state’s top financial watchdog. Incumbent Republican Tom Salmon is stepping down after three terms.
“I have a knack for asking tough questions, questions other people haven’t asked before, or finding things that people are letting slide,” Hoffer said.
While Illuzzi this fall has lauded Hoffer’s skills as a “bean counter,” he reiterated his criticism Thursday that the independent policy analyst perhaps lacks the managerial skill set he believes the next auditor will need to excel in the position. “Numbers are a tool, but they’re to be used in conjunction with the real world and life experiences that people bring to … state government,” Illuzzi said.
As a 32-year veteran of the Vermont Legislature, Illuzzi said he has a proven track record of forging strategic alliances across party lines. As chairman of Senate committees on institutions and economic development, he said, he was able to build the consensus needed to pass key legislation dealing with telecommunications, tax policy and job creation.
Those skills, Illuzzi said, will be key to successfully navigating state bureaucracies.
“(Hoffer) does not have the management experience that I have been able to achieve over the years simply because of the role he has played,” Illuzzi said. “To get these bills passed by the General Assembly you have to marshal not only the … membership of the General Assembly, but you have to marshal the forces of advocacy groups and other interested Vermonters.”
Having spent five years as chairman of the Burlington Electric Commission, Hoffer said he has extensive experience managing complex projects. And he said his scrutiny helped save the state millions of dollars by exposing a financial boondoggle called the “financial services tax credit.”
“I wrote the memo that helped kill that program and saved the state millions,” Hoffer said.
While Illuzzi has long said he’s no ideologue — he revealed Thursday that, in light of Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” speech to donors, he’ll be voting Nov. 6 for Barack Obama — he said Vermonters should be wary of putting another Democrat in statewide office.
A conservative super PAC that has spent nearly $600,000 to support Republican candidates this fall has run television and web ads supporting Illuzzi’s candidacy. Illuzzi, who also serves as Essex County state’s attorney, has said he wished the super PAC, Vermonters First, had stayed out of the race.
“When you have a Legislature and an administration that is of one party … the auditor’s office is very important because oftentimes when you’re in the same party of the governor … you tend not to want to ask questions and ruffle feathers,” he said.
While he’s worked well enough with his Democratic colleagues to be named committee chairman in a Senate in which his party is outnumbered 23-7, Illuzzi said he’s not afraid to offend the ruling party. He said he proved as much when he spoke out earlier this year against the proposed merger of Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service Corp.
“I demonstrated that although I have a good working relationship with the governor, I was willing to call him on those two issues,” Illuzzi said.
Hoffer said he too can lay claim to being a thorn in the side of power, regardless of its political affiliation. At a recent campaign function, Hoffer said, the Democratic speaker of the House complimented him by calling him a “pain in the ass.”
“And he said that because I do ask the tough questions,” Hoffer said. “It is irrelevant that I will be of same party as the Legislature and the governor. … Voters don’t have to worry about my being anything less than an independent auditor.”
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