BRATTLEBORO—Like so many other events in the age of COVID-19, the first Democratic gubernatorial debate of the 2020 campaign on May 11 got moved into the virtual realm.
For 90 minutes, former Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe, Bennington attorney Pat Winburn, and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman discussed the issues and took viewer questions in an online forum presented by the Windham County Democratic Committee.
County Committee Chair John Hagen was the moderator, and the questions directed to the candidates covered health care, education, and economic development.
While all the candidates praised Republican Gov. Phil Scott in their opening statements for the job he has done in responding to the COVID-19 crisis, they also agreed that he is not the person who should be leading the state after the crisis passes.
“Vermonters are struggling,” said Zuckerman. “They were struggling before the COVID-19 epidemic. We had 100,000 Vermonters living paycheck to paycheck and that’s been exacerbated by this pandemic as well as by the unemployment [insurance] system, which has been a complete fiasco.”
In Zuckerman’s view, Scott hasn’t provided the needed leadership on issues from climate change to health care reform. “We have a successful reactionary governor who does the right thing when problems are presented, but doesn’t do much to cut them off at the pass and have a vision for Vermont — where we are going to go and how are we going to tackle the many challenges we face.”
Winburn was even blunter, comparing Scott to President Donald Trump.
“I’m running because I want to see things get done,” he said. “[Scott’s] a nice guy, but re-electing Gov. Scott will be the same as re-electing Donald Trump.”
Calling Scott “a Trump Republican,” Winburn said that Scott vetoed a raise in the minimum wage as well as paid family leave. “I think it’s time to get rid of him,” said Winburn. “Do we want another two years of a Trump/Scott government?”
“We need a new governor right now,” Holcombe said.
In talking with Vermonters around the state, Holcombe said they tell her that “COVID-19 changed us, and changed this election. It has left many of us scared, and it presented us with a whole world of uncertainty. It lay bare the struggles of so many to make ends meet and our failures to lead in Montpelier over the past 20 years.”
She said that “this race will be about the next governor, and how that governor will keep people safe and confront our public health crisis while managing our economic recovery.”
Health care, vaccines, and COVID-19
“One of the hardest truths we’ll have to face is that we’re not going to be back to normal until we have a [COVID-19] vaccine,” Holcombe said.
That statement led directly to an attack by Holcombe on Zuckerman for his past statements against vaccination.
“David Zuckerman used the word ‘disputed’ to describe well-established science on the benefits of immunization. He said vaccines should be a matter of individual choice, even when that choice put other people’s children at risk. Public health experts aggressively disagree with this stance, and so do educators, and so do the vast majority of Vermonters.”
Zuckerman responded that “I’d like to see my opponent stop distorting my record on vaccines” and that Holcombe’s attacks are “not how we’re going to beat Phil Scott.”
He said that he supports making a COVID-19 vaccine available to everyone, without cost, and that “I will trust the scientists when the vaccine comes out.”
A short time later, Holcombe asked Zuckerman whether he would support requiring vaccination for COVID-19 before children are allowed to return to school.
Zuckerman said he supported the state’s current vaccine legislation, which requires immunization for schoolchildren but allows exemptions for religious or medical reasons.
Returning to the theme of health care, the candidates all agreed that the COVID-19 crisis illustrated the need for affordable health care for every Vermonter.
Holcombe said access to health care was the top issue she heard about from people in Windham County.
“COVID-19 is a terrible public-health-care crisis,” she said. “We hear it from people who are afraid to go to the doctor because they can’t afford to pay the bills. We hear it from people who say a third of the revenue from their business goes immediately out the door to pay for the double-digit increases in health care premiums.”
“These are all Vermonters who want the dignity and respect of supporting themselves, but are slowly being strangled by a health care system that is inadequate and too expensive,” she added. “As governor, my first job will be to make sure this never happens again.”
She said the first responsibility of government is “to protect people when something terrible happens and, right now, that means fixing our broken health care system.”
Repairing it is not just a public issue, Holcombe said, but an economic development issue — especially when it has come to investing in the training of more health care workers. She said that it was cheaper to fund the cost of a two-year nursing degree for a Vermonter than it was for hospitals to hire per diem nurses from out-of-state.
Zuckerman said that continuing economic inequities fueled the health care crisis — inequities that the COVID-19 crisis exposed in full.
“Many of us have been fighting for universal health care for a long time,” he said. “We need a governor who will invest in health care in rural communities.”
Winburn said he supports “health care for all,” and that the pandemic has shown the need for it. In his self-described “mom-and-pop law firm,” he said all of his employees have health insurance, but it can be a struggle.
Education and Act 46
Since this was a Windham County debate, Act 46 was an inevitable issue to be addressed. The candidates were asked about the education governance law and what changes they would like to see.
Winburn said the state “needs to hit the pause button” on Act 46. “There is still a need for local control, and there is still a need for people to feel they are not being left behind,” he said.
He added that the stress that communities are feeling about school board mergers and consolidated governance have been magnified by the stresses of the COVID-19 crisis.
Zuckerman reminded the audience that Act 46 was put together by both the Legislature as well as the Scott administration, with then–Education Secretary Holcombe, and that everyone worked together on the bill.
He spoke of his support of the original bill for alternative education structures, which gave smaller school districts a way to avoid consolidation if they could meet the financial and educational outcome goals.
Zuckerman said that providing social services to students and the increased demands on school staff to deal with a myriad of issues were the chief driver of rising education costs in districts large and small in Vermont.
He said the remedy would be to shift the focus of education and remake schools into community centers that serve Vermonters of all ages.
Holcombe has taken heat for being the education secretary during the initial implantation of Act 46.
“Windham County has lost a lot of students,” she said. “You have 1,600 fewer students than you had 25 years ago. Act 46 didn’t create the problems. It did provide some schools and some communities with the tools to provide a better, brighter, and more resilient future. Was it a perfect law? Of course not.”
While she said she would work with communities affected by Act 46 if she was elected, she also cautioned that the COVID-19 crisis has left the state with a huge — as much as $500 million — budget deficit.
At the same time, she agreed with Zuckerman on the need for schools to become social-service hubs, and she said that this vision could save families money with health care and day-care costs.
Zuckerman said he was the candidate who could beat his Republican challenger in November.
“I actually got 7,000 more votes than Governor Scott” in the 2018 election,” he said.
Holcombe returned to the topic of vaccination and said that Zuckerman’s views were a liability “in the middle of a deadly pandemic.”
The Democratic, Republican, and Progressive party primaries are set for Aug. 11.
Scott has not yet announced that he is running for re-election, but if he does, he will face a Republican primary challenge from John Klar, a self-described “agri-publican” from Brookfield.