Republican candidates for governor go head-to-head in primary election forum

In a primary election forum hosted on Wednesday by Town Meeting TV, Republican Gov. Phil Scott debated North Springfield resident and conservative businessman Keith Stern about Vermont issues in the race for governor.

During the forum moderated by Vermont journalist Anne Galloway, both candidates introduced themselves and then positioned themselves for the voters to decide. While health care, wastewater runoff, agriculture, immigration and other issues were discussed in passing, the bulk of the forum was aimed at the core interests of Republicans approaching the Aug. 14 primary: the economy, taxes, government waste and gun restrictions.

“Twenty years ago I didn’t have a political bone in my body, I was just a frustrated business owner,” Scott said to open. “But I finally decided that instead of complaining so much … I should be a part of the solution.”

Scott recounted his terms in the state Senate and as lieutenant governor, and said they helped form his vision for a state government “that runs efficiently and lives within its means without raising taxes and fees, while we continue to grow the economy and make Vermont more affordable — and protect the vulnerable.”

Stern, owner of Stern’s Quality Produce in White River Junction, clearly wasn’t accepting the incumbent’s claim of holding the line on tax increases and fees as a final economic solution. He said he decided to enter the governor’s race when he saw that the state budget chugged along merely by not raising taxes, adding that such an approach, without tax cuts, isn’t serious and will ultimately fail.

“We have such high taxes in this state — unaffordable for so many,” Stern said. “And then to just say ‘we’re not going to raise taxes (because) this is the solution, we’re fine,’ this is not acceptable.”

He added that “almost every day” he hears from Vermonters who are moving out of the state because of the high cost of living, and so he wants to focus on cutting government waste in the next biennium.

“I had a retired state employee come up to me and say that there are agencies and departments with more management than actual workers,” Stern said. “You walk in the office and the phone is ringing and nobody’s there to answer the phone, but there are managers sitting there. (There are) 66 more state employees in Vermont than New Hampshire who make over $90,000 a year, yet we have half the population. How is that justified?”

Stern cited what he saw at a recent state equipment auction as another example of government waste: “They were auctioning off pallets of like brand new, (lightly) used tires for pennies on the dollar. Trucks that could run for another five to six years were up for auction. They (the bidders) are going to run them with low mileage. Why aren’t we (the taxpayers) taking care of that? There are plenty of issues like this.”

Scott responded by saying that he is going to continue to govern by what he thinks is right, not what is merely easy or politically popular with the party base.

“I am going to work within our three strategic principles: growing the economy, making it affordable, protecting the vulnerable,” the governor said. ” … I established a clear line in the sand: no taxes and fees.

“Democrats tested me, led me to veto the budget three times over the last two sessions, but even with all the drama we were able to accomplish a lot. … We created a $35 million housing bond … we created more (designated) districts incredibly important for our downtowns … (and) we’ve added 4,400 workers to the workforce over the last six months.”

Picking up on Stern’s criticism about the insufficiency of simply holding the line on taxes and fees, Galloway asked Scott if keeping tax rates level was enough.

“It’s certainly a start, but is it enough? No,” Scott said. ” … But when you have a supermajority or a majority in the House and Senate … the natural reaction was, for some, that every problem that came forward (needed) raising taxes and fees to satisfy that.”

Scott said his administration has proved that Vermont can grow its economy and even grow revenues “organically” through the means of “economic growth.”

In response, Stern said “taxes have to be cut,” and he also criticized the governor’s affordable housing bond initiative.

“I live in Springfield. I know investing in downtown is really useless because there’s no parking. So what are you going to get downtown with no parking?” Stern asked. ” …If we changed the laws so investors in housing could make a profit, they would do it on their own. We’re impeding them by the property tax, by the regulations they have to go through to get permitting, and by not giving landlords any protection at all. I know people in Springfield who sold off their properties … who buys it? Slumlord types.”

Debating Scott’s flip-flop on gun control

Regarding the controversy over new gun restriction measures passed by the Legislature and approved by the governor, Stern made a strong constitutional and Second Amendment stand.

“Go where the problem is. … Taking away gun rights from law-abiding citizens is not a solution to anything,” Stern told Scott directly.

“We didn’t take away gun rights,” Scott testily replied. “These gun safety measures live within the Constitution and don’t violate the Second Amendment. … I have a gun safe full of guns (at home) … and I believe (in the Second Amendment). Mental health is a good issue, and I agree with you, but we have a long way to go.”

Galloway asked Stern if there are any gun restriction measures he would ever consider as governor.

“I would consult … the gun owners groups since they are much more informed,” he said. “ …We have two constitutions that have to be considered. You can’t pass anything that violates those constitutions no matter how much someone wants to do it. It’s off the table.”

Galloway then turned to Scott, citing that his popularity had dropped precipitously following his support of new gun control laws in the state — from the fourth highest rated governor to a negative rating on the issue, as noted by Morning Consult. The website reported that Scott suffered a 38-point net drop in public approval.

Galloway then probed Scott regarding any possible regrets over signing S.55 into law, based on his flip-flop on guns.

“Again, leadership and being governor isn’t about watching the polls,” Scott said. “ … I went into that with my eyes wide open. That was at the time of the Parkland (Florida) shooting … and we had an eerily similar situation here in Fair Haven. … I believe we would have gone from one of the safest states in the nation to one of the unsafest states in the nation (had a shooting occurred).

“I regret disappointing people, but I had to look myself in the mirror. … Watching what the governor in Florida was doing going to 17 funerals … I decided to take action,” Scott said.

Hebadded that he didn’t think gun magazine ammunition limits were necessary, but stressed that it wasn’t his idea: “What they (Democrats) wanted was an assault weapons ban, but chose the magazines instead. But there were other good aspects within the bills that were passed … it wasn’t enough for me to veto.”

Stern said that mental health, not gun violence, is the underlying problem not being addressed by the governor and Legislature.

During closing statements, both Republicans took positions that were somewhat at odds with each other. On the one hand, Stern seemed to bolster his conservative GOP base, while the governor stressed his independence of mind, perhaps appealing more to mainstream Democrats and independents.

“I hope you heard the differences,” Stern said. “There’s a lot of overspending (and) taxation. I am opposed to that. … By holding the status quo, the state is doomed.”

Scott smiled, and concluded with his plan to do things independently, regardless of the political fallout: “Leadership is (about) following through … despite the political ramifications. I will live with the consequences.”

Lou Varricchio is a freelance reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at

Image courtesy of Channel 17/Town Meeting TV

9 thoughts on “Republican candidates for governor go head-to-head in primary election forum

  1. Scott:
    “Leadership is (about) following through … despite the political ramifications. I will live with the consequences.”

    The hell you will! We ALL have to live with the consequences, and all he needs to worry about is whether his company gets any contracts.
    What a mealy mouth 6@$t@rd!!

  2. What really is RINO Scott’s desires? Kiss up to the heavily entrenched Socialists? I’ve seen NO transformation to bring back VT to what it was, business, employment, reasonable taxation, in- dependency and people owing their property, not the towns, freedom from want. Control school budgets, a major tax whirlpool of nothing, blackhole,give them money (via confiscation) and nothing comes out. Need Keith, screw Scott, he made his position paralleling and kissing up to the Socialists that ruined the state.

  3. Great fair article–but that is what Lou does every day–I’m surprised that Keith gidn’t pounce on that lie about “not taking any rights away”. Since when is restricting 18 yr old’s rights to buy a weapon not a confiscation of rights? Sounds like Keith Stern aquitted himself pretty well—and YES–we do need a non politician in that office–a man of the people.

  4. Phil Scott is a RINO or democrat light. He has dissed our republican president and thinks like a progressive on national issues. His claim to fame is holding tax increases to a minimum but taxes are too high and fees are just taxes by another name. I’m semi-retired because I can’t fully retire due to the cost of living and being a widower makes it more difficult to pay all the bills with nothing left over. I refuse to sign up for government money. Phil Scott does not deserve another term. He will not hold the ground against tax and spend liberals who have this state so over burdened with social programs that it can not do the basics required of government. The state can not house it’s own prisoners, mental health care is nonexistent, our roads are terrible, our kids aren’t getting an education and there are no jobs for them anyway. The gun control issue was a sellout to the out of state liberal agenda and a rebuke to republicans who voted him in. At this point, as Hillary once stated ” what difference at this point does it make” to let the liberals have control of everything because they already do. Do you see who they are running for governor? I’m taking my vote away from Scott and giving it to Kieth Stern. You say he’s not polished enough, well look what polished has done to Vermont! If he beats Scott then loses in the general election does it really matter? Until people wake up nothing is going to change but at least we will tell all politicians that if you lie, go back on your word and dishonor your oath to defend our constitutions you will be voted out of office. The Vermont delegation of Mo, Larry and and Curly Joe will be re-elected and Vermont will continue it’s decline toward socialism.

  5. “We created more (designated) districts incredibly important to our downtowns.” Maybe I don’t get it, just what does that really mean?

    Thriving downtowns are created by the people, not for the people by government!

    I understand the waste not want not approach of Mr. Stern, he may not be as polished but he seems serious. When the people are allowed to keep more of what they earn they will create the demand needed for growth.

  6. “He added that “almost every day” he hears from Vermonters who are moving out of the state because of the high cost of living, and so he wants to focus on cutting government waste in the next biennium.”

    I did and it was the BEST financial decision I have made in a long time.

    I get to enjoy this from the sidelines for once, instead of my wallet being squeezed to no end.

    I sympathize with our family members who haven’t been able to extract themselves yet.

  7. Mr. Stern is right on. The waste and mismanagement in Montpelier is shocking and will continue until a Stern minded individual steps up and leads the wayout ofthe morass.

  8. This was a much more fair article than what Digger did on their own face book. Thank you for being far more fair and objective than the host that put on the debate!

    • Vt Digger and fair are antithetical to each other and I agree with your assessment,fair article.

      I’ve talked with Mr. Stern and he has my vote,where as Benedict Scott should have the commendation he has justly earned for himself.

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