It was, honestly, one of the best debates I’ve ever seen.
The VPR/VPBS debate (viewable online here) moved along quickly. There was quite a bit of substance, and candidates were unafraid to challenge the credentials and positions of others — which is a legitimate part of a good debate. No one interrupted anyone else, and not once did a candidate exceed their time limit or interrupt anyone else. All four candidates performed well. The 45-second limit forced them to stick to their main points, and kept the empty posturing to a minimum.
Which is not to say that it was flawless, but it showcased the quality of the candidates. Voters have four good options in the LG race.
Before I get to specifics, a note about production values. In this year of Zoompaigning, candidates need to have a handle on visual and audio presentation — as do the producers/broadcasters of such events. There’s no excuse for distracting backgrounds, bad lighting or bad sound. All four backdrops were fine; the worst actually belonged to moderator Jane Lindholm. She seemed to be stuck in a featureless closet. Sen. Debbie Ingram was too close to the mic and camera; her voice was sometimes distorted as a result.
Anyway, note to all concerned for future reference: Make sure your shit is tight.
Back to substance. I guess it’s not surprising that all four candidates were well-prepared. They’ve gotten plenty of practice in a series of lower-profile forums hosted by county party committees. They also had to be aware that, in Our Plague Year, the VPR/VPBS debate was likely the most crucial event of the entire primary campaign.
After the jump: Attacks!
And given the high stakes, the candidates made no bones about attacking their opponents. Assistant Attorney General Molly Gray, as the leader in fundraising and endorsements, drew more than her share of the fire. Which included the most controversial exchange of the night, when Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe asked Gray why she didn’t run for the House instead of lieutenant governor.
There was some basis for his question; Gray had challenged him on the Legislature’s failure to enact a paid family leave system, when in fact it was the House that failed to override Gov. Phil Scott’s veto. Ashe pointed out that the override failed by a single vote, so why didn’t Gray try to become that one more vote by running for House?
It’s a stretch, because if Gray — a resident of Burlington — had run for House, she would have been seeking to replace a pro-family leave Democrat or Progressive. Even worse for Ashe, his question came across as male condescension toward an ambitious woman, as Gray was quick to point out in her response. This is a weakness for Ashe, who is widely seen as having trouble dealing with powerful women.
Gray and Ingram biffed their attempts to attack opponents. Gray questioned Ashe on a couple of years-ago votes on vaccination; Ashe had a ready response, that his apparent anti-vax votes were tactical in nature. Ingram brought up the question of Gray’s residency, which was based on a VTDigger piece that considered the issue but ultimately concluded that there was little or no validity to it. I was, honestly, surprised that Ingram tried that line; it seemed uncharacteristic of her.
There were a lot of references to experience, both positive and negative. Ashe (and, to a lesser degree, Ingram) attacked Gray for never having run for, or held, elective office. Gray cited her own experience in the law and international advocacy — and tried to paint legislative experience as a negative. “If we elect the same leaders, we’ll get the same results” was a theme she repeated many times.
Siegel held her ground well, presenting her unique biography and strong progressive credentials. She made a case that people from non-traditional backgrounds too often have no voice in politics and policymaking. She’s a single mother who has struggled with poverty and seen opiates take a toll on her family. She’s viewed by Statehouse denizens as a troublemaker who doesn’t play by the rules. I think she’d generally accept that description. And I have to say, seeing Siegel in a largely ceremonial role with a bully pulpit and plenty of time on her hands would be damn entertaining. It might also have a salutary effect on the dry, airless process of lawmaking, by introducing unheard voices and, as they say of journalism, afflicting the comfortable. (Merely having her as a member of the Senate’s influential, insidery Commitee on Committees would itself be worth the price of admission.)
Perhaps reflecting her lack of experience in political debates, Gray noticeably faded in the second half hour. She rehashed her talking points and evaded the substance of some key questions. When the four candidates were asked if they supported a state mandate for mask-wearing to fight the spread of coronavirus, Gray was the only one who ducked the question. While the other three endorsed a mask mandate, she merely said that masks are a good thing: “We’re all on the same team as Vermonters. I’ve seen people wearing their masks, and I think we need to encourage and promote that as much as possible.”
It was an odd moment, considering that Democrats in general have been pounding Gov. Scott on his refusal to impose a mandate. Gray’s position was essentially identical to Scott’s.
Ashe and Ingram, as longtime denizens of the Senate, frequently defended the Legislature’s record — even when its performance has been underwhelming. Gray pointed out that lawmakers have often failed to deliver on key policy priorities, which is likely a winning argument with Democratic primary voters.
I hve no idea how many people tuned into the thrice-broadcast debate (noon and 7 pm on VPR, 8 pm on VPBS) or how many take advantage of its online presence. But I’d recommend it for any voter who’s undecided on the Democratic LG race.