Gubernatorial candidates take on women’s issues

MONTPELIER — All three candidates for governor shared a table for the first time Thursday at a State House forum sponsored by the Vermont Commission on Women focused on issues important to women.

It was the first time in the general election campaign that Democrat Sue Minter, Republican Phil Scott and Liberty Union candidate Bill Lee all appeared together. Scott has made it a condition that Lee be invited to all forums and debates, and he skipped the traditional debate on WDEV last week because Lee was not invited.

Candidates for governor share a moment of levity during a forum — co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Vermont, the Vermont Commission on Women and Vermont Federation of Business and Professional Women — at the State House in Montpelier on Thursday. From left are Liberty Union candidate Bill Lee, Democratic candidate Sue Minter and Republican candidate Phil Scott. (Times Argus/Jeb Wallace-Brodeur)

Candidates for governor share a moment of levity during a forum — co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Vermont, the Vermont Commission on Women and Vermont Federation of Business and Professional Women — at the State House in Montpelier on Thursday. From left are Liberty Union candidate Bill Lee, Democratic candidate Sue Minter and Republican candidate Phil Scott. (Times Argus/Jeb Wallace-Brodeur)

Scott’s presence was noted by Minter.

“I’m glad I don’t have to again debate an empty chair. It was an interesting experience,” she said.

Lee’s presence certainly had an impact, with the former Red Sox pitcher going on wild tangents during his allotted time and offering off-topic but typically humorous remarks. After the debate, Scott said he stands by his call for Lee to be included in future debates, despite Lee’s penchant for offering nonsensical monologues at times.

“I think he brought a different perspective to this forum. I think it’s fine,” Scott said. “I think that if people are going to vote for a candidate they better know what he represents and what he brings forward, and I think this was a good indication for those, my friends and others, who have said I’d like to vote for Bill Lee because he used to play for the Red Sox.”

The candidates were asked about the wage gap between men and women, which is about 16 percent in Vermont, based on median salaries for both genders. The median salary for men is $44,000 while the median salary for women is $37,000.

Minter, a former secretary of the Agency of Transportation, said she would look to address the wage gap by raising the minimum wage and encouraging women to enter different fields and expand their earning potential.

“We know that 43 percent of women who work full-time still can’t meet their basic needs, and at the current rate, the wage gap will not close for 30 years. We need to change this story. We need to do better. The gap exists for a number of reasons. Women are predominately employed in low-wage jobs … and that’s why we need to raise the minimum wage to a living wage. We also know that women are generally clustered in too few careers,” she said.

Scott acknowledged the problem and said his administration would work to fix it.

“It’s impossible to be a dad today and not see that there’s still work to do, and I look forward to working with all of you to make sure that our daughters have every opportunity, equal opportunity,” he said.

Scott began the forum on the defensive, defending his views on issues important to women and seeking to differentiate himself from Republicans in other states.

“I’m pro-choice, I support marriage equality and I support equal pay for equal work, and that’s because some of the most influential people in my life have been strong women,” Scott said.

The former pitcher, meanwhile, had a fairly simple message.

“I throw strikes. I keep the ball down … and I will bring equal rights to women in this state,” Lee said.

(Times Argus/Jeb Wallace-Brodeur)

(Times Argus/Jeb Wallace-Brodeur)

Minter said she would support a state-administered insurance program to provide paid family and medical leave because “Vermonters should not have to choose between their work, their child and people they love.” She said she was afraid to inform her employer when she became pregnant with her first child and was unsure if she would have a job to return to. During her second pregnancy she was part of a union and did not have those same fears.

“It shouldn’t have to be luck to make sure that you have a job to go back to,” Minter said. “I’m going to be working with Vermont businesses and employees to create a state-administered insurance program so that everyone can have access to paid family leave.”

Minter knocked Scott for not supporting paid family leave and for opposing the paid sick leave bill that was signed into law last year.

Scott said he was “sympathetic” to those who must make difficult choices. But he said the state must first improve its economy before offering a paid family leave program.

“I look forward to seeing how your administration is going to be paying for all of that,” he said to Minter.

Employers, Scott said, “need time to adjust and absorb” the costs of the paid sick leave law.

“I would not support changes … so soon,” he said. “I’ve said all along that my approach to every proposal will be very clear — if an idea makes it more affordable to Vermont families and businesses, I will support it.”

“We first have to live within our means. We’re going to have to get control of this economy,” he added.

All three candidates said they would not change or limit the way women access reproductive health care, including abortion.

“The answer — simple answer — is no,” Scott said, who noted he spoke out against other Republicans’ calls to defund Planned Parenthood in the past.

Scott said he would do “what is right for Vermont, regardless of what my party might say.”

Minter said she would “absolutely not” restrict women’s access to reproductive health care.

“This must remain a decision between a woman and her doctor, without exception,” she said. “Republicans across this country right now are waging a war on women. Over 400 pieces of legislation have been introduced … to restrict a woman’s right to an abortion. This cannot happen in Vermont.”

neal.goswami @timesargus.com

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