Gov. Phil Scott defended his administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic at a VPR-Vermont PBS Republican gubernatorial debate Wednesday, over Zoom.
Scott's four challengers for the Republican nomination – John Klar, Emily Peyton, Bernard Peters and Douglas Cavett – all maintained that his "Stay Home, Stay Safe" executive order, signed in the middle of March, was unconstitutional and hurt the economy.
Peyton, who owns a hemp-based building materials company in Putney, said, "I see other places that have handled this COVID without trespassing on our rights."
She went on to say "I think the way that Scott has handled the COVID is absolutely concerning. He has brought the state to its knees."
He said his administration took the steps that were needed early in the pandemic to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, and said these steps have been very successful. "Without a playbook, you have to do what you think is right. And I think we've taken the right steps," Scott said.
Scott said Wednesday the drastic reduction in cases and deaths indicates that the state's efforts have had a positive impact. He added, "We're the safest state in the nation, we have the lowest positivity rate. We have the lowest number of positive cases in the country. We just surpassed Hawaii. We have a lot to be proud of here."
Since the outbreak of the virus four months ago, Scott has been reluctant to support a statewide mask mandate, but he says he will likely issue that order in the next few days as a way to help ensure that the virus doesn't re-emerge in large numbers in Vermont.
Here's what the candidates had to say on key issues during the debate:
Throughout the debate, each candidate spoke about why they’re running, and why they believe they would be the best governor.
John Klar, an attorney and farmer from Brookfield, said he is running on a fiscally conservative platform because “we need to do more with less." He has a 14-page economic plan that outlines his approach to shrinking the budget.
Klar said he disagrees with the way Scott has handled the pandemic and with his response to the Black Lives Matter movement. He said he believes having an attorney in office will protect Vermonters’ constitutional freedoms.
“I’m running because I have watched our gun rights thrown away, because I watched an abortion bill signed that was very unfair to a whole sector of Vermonters. I’m seeing in the last month even more conduct that shows a lack of comprehension of the constitution,” Klar said in his opening statement at the debate.
Douglas Cavett, a former paraeducator in the Burlington school system, said he is running for governor because Vermont has a failed criminal justice system, which he hopes to reform so that marginalized individuals can re-enter society and participate in the economy.
Cavett pled guilty to aggravated assault of a minor in 2010 and is a registered sex offender in Vermont, and was questioned about this during the debate.
When asked about the charges he pled guilty to, Cavett said, “I did not give any validation to this. I was sucked into it as a naïve bystander and now I know better, and I’m a self-taught litigant up to the Supreme Court, so I understand what is going on now."
Cavett also highlighted the need for reform in Vermont's health care system, saying the Green Mountain Care Board, which controls many health care costs in Vermont, needs to negotiate “things that are realistic for health care.”
Bernard Peters, a Vietnam War veteran and retired state employee, said he is running for governor because he is disappointed with promises he says Scott has not kept.
Peters, sporting a National Rifle Association cap during the debate, criticized Scott for his past actions on gun control legislation. Peters said Scott, “promised to help the people who were pro-guns, wanted self-defense…and in my opinion, he threw everyone under the bus.”
Peters said he is concerned about older Vermonters living on fixed incomes and wants to make sure the state is “job-friendly” for young people.
“I’ve always heard, ‘I work for the party.’ My belief is, when you’re elected, you’re not working for the party you’re working for the people who voted for you. You’re working for the state of Vermont to make it better,” Peters said.
Emily Peyton, a self-described ‘Green Libertarian’ said she is running to protect the people from corporate greed and spoke about her plan to introduce a public bank in Vermont.
Peyton, who has run for governor in the past, though never as a Republican, said she hopes to be the second female governor in Vermont. She also criticized Scott’s response to the pandemic and indicated that she would take a more laissez-faire approach.
“I’m very concerned at the erosion of our constitutional rights,” Peyton said. “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.”
Scott, who is seeking his third term, highlighted the state’s success in managing COVID-19, pointing out that Vermont surpassed Hawaii this week, as the state with the lowest number of positive cases.
“These are times that demand experience and common-sense leadership. Throughout the last four or five months I’ve listened to the experts, followed the science, watched the data. Every decision has been in the best interest of Vermonters: your health, your safety and the economic future,” Scott said in his closing remarks.
The incumbent from Berlin also said he is, “like the last person standing” as one of the only Republican statewide office holders, with an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature.
Bernard Peters criticized Scott for what he called a double standard when it came to the pandemic.
“Not only that, he talked about social distancing with this corona thing, then the next thing I know, we have a demonstration with elbow-to-elbow people… We can’t have a governor who’s going to say something and then do the opposite,” Peters said.
The retired state transportation employee also said a lot of people aren’t quarantining when they arrive in Vermont, and that there needs to be a way to check on people to enforce this rule.
“I mean you have to have checks and balances, because if you’re going to protect the Vermont people, we’re not anti-people coming here, we’re anti people coming here to make our people sick.”
When asked by Scott about his position on vaccines, John Klar said he is, “not anti-vax but anti-mandatory-vax without an extraordinarily compelling case.”
Klar defended his position by highlighting the limitations of government and noting his opposition to a mask mandate and other laws he says are unenforceable.
Klar also said he has been standing up for small businesses that were closed while big chains were allowed to open, and gun stores that were not told whether they could operate.
He criticized Scott’s decision to limit out of state travel for Vermonters. “We should not be restraining Vermonters; we should be restraining those who transmit the disease, by request, not state-imposed, police-imposed masks,” he said.
Douglas Cavett said, if elected, he wants to investigate the CEOs of Vermont’s hospitals to understand why, in his view, they weren’t prepared for the pandemic.
“We haven’t heard any discussion from Gov. Scott and those CEOs and those are the people that are being paid the most grandiose salaries in Vermont and they should be held accountable just like anybody else that’s involved in this COVID-19 crisis,” Cavett said.
Throughout the debate, Emily Peyton criticized Scott’s aggressive response to the COVID-19 pandemic and said she is concerned about the “erosion of our constitutional rights.”
“There is no way that I would ever order people to stay home from praying, to stay home from helping one another,” she said. “It is up to our personal responsibility whether we want to stay home [or] whether we want to wear a mask, whether we think it’s prudent. It’s not up to government to force this on the people.”
Peyton questioned Scott about how his stay-at-home orders affected suicide rates in Vermont, and how, while many small businesses stayed closed, Walmarts were deemed essential and could reopen.
While other candidates spoke harshly about Scott’s stay-at-home order and strict COVID-19 guidelines, the governor indicated he would potentially go even further with a mask mandate in just a matter of days.
“I think the science is real, and we know that wearing masks will prevent the spread of the infection…But as we see the migration, the return of the virus to the Northeast, I think it’s just a matter of days before we do have a mask mandate here in Vermont.”
In defending his response to the pandemic, Scott also touted that Vermont is the “safest state in the nation” with the lowest positivity rate, but said high numbers in the surrounding region warrant steps to protect ourselves.
Emily Peyton spoke about the need to establish a public bank in Vermont, a key pillar of her platform, in order to address the unaffordability of higher education.
“I’ve been trying to interest the government in the public banks but sadly, [it's] the banking lobby they listen to," Peyton said. "The state of North Dakota has a public bank and they have an excellent economy and they established it simply to pay for education.”
Peyton said she would make investing in children a priority if elected governor.
While other candidates spoke about the need for change, the Vermont governor said there's no easy answer to resolving the financial challenges the state college system faces, and pointed out that he has proposed more spending for the last three state college budgets.
Scott also spoke about demographic challenges associated with a declining young population in Vermont.
"We’ve spent a lot of money here in Vermont on education...but only 10% of that goes to higher education," Scott said. "We need to do something about investing, but we need to do it wisely."
When asked about weak financial support from the state for public universities, Bernard Peters criticized the narrative that says college is the only option, pointing out that many blue-collar jobs make more money than students do who graduate from college with huge debt.
“Whether it’s a plumber, electrician, carpenter, I’m making more money than some of the college students that are graduating with huge debt. And I think some of these colleges probably know that the money will be coming in, and are charging a little more than they should,” Peters said.
John Klar talked about Vermont’s poor economy and said Vermont needs to make technical colleges more relevant and grow our economy by involving students and farmers.
The fiscal conservative criticized high welfare benefits in Vermont, saying they are discouraging people from going out to find work, when they’re getting paid more to stay at home.
“Vermont’s is the 50th, the smallest economy in the country and the 49th worst business climate in the country. We have to be able to afford our grand utopian plans, and right now we just have COVID,” Klar said.
A strong critic of the criminal justice system, Cavett said that the excessive funding for the Department of Corrections has left no money for higher education, and said the state needs to give everyone a chance to be educated.
“It’s the marginalized sections that need the education, because education is the opportunity that equalizes things for people of all ages and all sorts and all backgrounds.”
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Vermont’s primary election is on Aug. 11, so VPR is reaching out to candidates in contested races for governor, lieutenant governor and the U.S. House to find out why they're seeking to serve, and where they stand on the issues of the day. Find our full coverage here.