COLCHESTER — All five Democratic candidates running for governor took part in a televised Vermont PBS debate Tuesday night, but two frontrunners dominated the discussion as they traded barbs and thinly-veiled accusations of impropriety.
Sue Minter, a former Agency of Transportation secretary, and Matt Dunne, a former Google employee and Windsor County state senator, waded quickly waded into a discussion on wind energy. The issue exploded into the campaign last Friday when Dunne released a policy position calling for local communities to first approve any wind projects before they are built.
The policy announcement has cost Dunne dearly. Renowned environmentalist Bill McKibben has withdrawn his endorsement of Dunne and is now backing Minter. And on Tuesday, Vermont Conservation Voters announced it, too, was backing Minter. The organization was not planning to endorse in the primary but Dunne’s comments changed that, Political Director Lauren Hierl said.
Dunne said climate change is the “biggest threat to our world” and vowed to address it as governor by supporting renewable energy projects.
“For me, that includes, solar hydro and wind. What I believe, though, is that we need to do it the Vermont way. We need to make sure that there is community involvement,” he said. “I’ve made it very clear all along … that I believe that a community should have an affirmative vote before you go forward with a wind project.”
Minter sought to define Dunne’s policy as a new position, however.
“I have to say, I’m very surprised by Matt Dunne’s 11th-hour flip on this important issue,” she said.
Peter Galbraith, a former diplomat and Windham County state senator, seemed to side with Minter and said Dunne continued to alter his position on wind energy generation.
“I would say it was one position on Friday and a different position today,” Galbraith said.
But Galbraith was less generous to Minter as he outlined his own opposition to wind power in Vermont and reiterated his support for a ban on wind turbines because they are “destroying the most pristine and precious places in our state.”
“This is the clearest difference among the candidates. I am opposed to new industrial wind projects on Vermont’s ridge lines and I will use all the powers of the governor to stop these projects,” he said. “Sue Minter is in favor of destroying at least some of the ridge lines … and Matt Dunne’s positions have shifted with the wind.”
Dunne insisted that his position has not changed and accused his competitors of misleading voters. Rather, Dunne said his simply “wanted to get out my message” and be clear about his position “because climate change is too important to have vague positions on these issues.”
“I have not changed. In fact, what you’re hearing on this stage and what you’re hearing this last week is frankly what’s wrong,” he said.
Dunne also pushed back against outgoing Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin, who maligned Dunne in a statement released to reporters for implying their positions were the same. Shumlin did say during a Vermont PBS program several years ago that local communities should be in favor of wind projects for them to proceed.
“The governor said that I wasn’t telling the truth and within 15 minute someone posted a video with him giving the exact same message. That’s what’s wrong,” Dunne said.
Two lesser-known candidates, Cris Ericson and H. Brooke Paige, also participated in Tuesday’s debate. Ericson, who is also running for the U.S. Senate, spent much of her time urging voters to watch her videos on the website of the U.S. Marijuana Party. She also advocated for creating holograms of butterflies above solar installations to attract tourists.
Paige, who is also running for attorney general, declared his opposition to wind turbines in Vermont, saying it is “unspeakable to subject the people who live near industrial wind projects to what appear to be health hazards.”
Dunne and Minter also sparred later in the hour-long debate over a letter Dunne sent Minter on Friday asking a series of questions regarding an airport contract Minter signed when she was heading the Agency of Transportation. The letter seemed designed to tie Minter to an alleged fraud scheme at Jay Peak and Burke Mountain.
Two developers are accused by the state and the Securities and Exchange Commission of using the EB-5 foreign investor program to defraud investors and improperly use their investments. One of the developers Ariel Quiros, signed a contract with Minter to operate the Northeast Kingdom International Airport.
Minter said she would prevent another such fraud from occurring if elected and accused Dunne of trying to “smear” her record.
“This will not happen again. This alleged fraud is outrageous and we need to continue to build trust and economic development,” Minter said. “I think it is truly disappointing to me that Matt Dunne has made a deliberate attempt to misinform voters about my record. I see this as a smear campaign. Matt knows full well … that this was a contract that was not related to EB-5.”
“Frankly, I’m disappointed and surprised that we are seeing Washington-style tactics in Vermont to smear my record,” she added.
Dunne said the questions he raised, including whether the contract was properly vetted, were legitimate and should be answered.
“What we did was ask a series of questions that I think is perfectly reasonable,” he said. “I think it’s just a perfectly reasonable question and we still haven’t gotten an answer.”