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Eleven candidates are on their respective parties’ primary ballots, including incumbent Republican Gov. Phil Scott (upper left). Top row: Scott, Douglas Cavett (R), John Klar (R), Bernard Peters (R). Middle row: Emily Peyton (R), Ralph “Carcajou” Corbo (D), Rebecca Holcombe (D), Pat Winburn (D). Bottom row: David Zuckerman (D), Cris Ericson (P), Boots Wardinski (P).

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Governor’s seat attracts 11 candidates in state primaries

Four Republicans, four Democrats, and two Progressives, all running in their respective gubernatorial party primaries, believe they have a shot at unseating an incumbent governor seeking re-election

BRATTLEBORO—Five Republicans, four Democrats, and two Progressives are running in their respective gubernatorial party primaries on Tuesday, Aug. 11.

It’s an unusually crowded primary field, but in an unusual year filled with uncertainly on every front, anything could happen.

Republican incumbent Phil Scott, seeking his third two-year term as governor, is seen as the prohibitive favorite in his party’s primary. He is being challenged by Douglas Cavett of Milton, John Klar of Brookfield, Bernard Peters of Irasburg, and Emily Peyton of Putney.

The Democratic primary has Ralph “Carcajou” Corbo of Wallingford, Rebecca Holcombe of Norwich, Pat Winburn of Bennington, and David Zuckerman of Hinesburg.

And the Progressive Party has Cris Ericson of Chester and Boots Wardinski of Newbury running for a spot on the November ballot.

The Republican candidates

Gov. Phil Scott, 62, entered 2020 with a 65 percent approval rate, according to the polling and political data firm Morning Consult. He remains one of the most popular Republican governors in the country.

That support became even stronger with the outbreak of COVID-19 in late February. He and his administration’s cautious and steady approach to dealing with the pandemic has won him praise across the political spectrum, especially with Vermont’s low infection rate compared to the rest of the nation.

Scott has done very little campaigning. He said in his formal candidate announcement in May that he “will not be campaigning in the traditional way while we are in the midst of our response to this pandemic. Facing, fighting and defeating this virus — and rebuilding a stronger, more resilient economy — are my top priorities.”

While he says that he will not have a campaign staff or office, is not doing fundraising, and is not participating in normal campaign events, Scott’s critics point out that he hasn’t had a need to do any of these things.

Scott’s thrice-weekly COVID-19 briefings, now cut back to twice-weekly, are carried on statewide television and radio and have given Scott the sort of visibility that has made the other candidates envious.

And, as it has in Scott’s last two campaigns, the Republican Governors Association has provided $126,000 this year to its Vermont SuperPAC, A Stronger Vermont, for Scott to use for ad expenditures in the fall.

John Klar, 53, is Scott’s main rival. A farmer and former attorney, he has lived in the Northeast Kingdom for the past 20 years.

Klar believes Scott has become too liberal and has abandoned the conservatives who helped elect him in 2016 and 2018.

“The biggest thing that separates us is that Phil Scott has no innovative ideas at all,” Klar told The Commons, adding that Vermont “needs to be more self-reliant and more frugal” if it wants to get out of the many crises that the state faces.

Klar thinks that growing the state’s agricultural economy will in turn improve the rest of the state’s economic sectors. His “2020 Vermont Farming Manifesto,” which can be found at klar2020.com, calls for cutting taxes and regulations on farmers.

Emily Peyton, 61, is a perennial candidate for governor, with unsuccessful runs as an independent in both 2010 and 2012, as a Republican candidate in 2014, and as a Liberty Union candidate in 2018.

In a letter announcing her candidacy, Peyton said that, as governor, “I will organize people’s assemblies and neighborhood councils under the authority of Article 7 of our Vermont Constitution and set us on a new path, one that rebuilds our state with the common sense, wisdom and insight of real Vermonters.”

As in her past campaigns, Peyton said she wants to turn toward “peace, prosperity, more small businesses, more peace officers rather than militarized police, restorative justice and protection to pursue happiness and maintain safety, more small farms, more freedom of education than compliance-based schooling, more money through new systems of exchange, and more power in the people’s hands.”

Douglas Cavett, 54, is a former paraeducator in the Burlington school system. He pled guilty to aggravated assault of a minor in 2010, served time in prison, and is now a registered sex offender in Vermont.

The main plank in his campaign platform is abolishing the Vermont Department of Corrections and remaking it into what he calls the “University of Wellness and Equity,” which would focus on rehabilitation of offenders.

He calls the current system a “criminal financial system” that employs coercion and abuse to get results.

Bernard Peters is a Vietnam War veteran who is retired after working 36 years for the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

He says his main reasons for running for governor is his disappointment over promises Scott has not kept, particularly on firearms laws, and his belief that the level of Vermont’s taxation makes the state unaffordable for most people.

Peters ran as an independent candidate for governor in 2014 and received 1,434 votes.

The Democratic candidates

Rebecca Holcombe, 53, was the first Democrat to announce she was running for governor. Last fall, her biggest obstacle to overcome was her lack of name recognition statewide, except in the Vermont towns affected by Act 46.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, making the prospect of a difficult challenge against a two-term incumbent — should she prevail in the primary — that much more difficult.

She has praised Scott’s leadership during the pandemic, but she told The Commons that the governor’s performance “was like running around a house with a leaky roof putting pots and pans under the leaks.”

Holcombe said Scott “hadn’t done the hard work to make sure that our state government is funded to do its job. We’re going to have the same problems after the pandemic if we haven’t got a plan.”

She said her time as education secretary makes her the only candidate for governor with state-level executive experience. That, and her many years of experience as an educator and school administrator, makes her uniquely qualified to handle education issues, she said.

Holcombe has taken heat for being the education secretary during the initial implementation of Act 46, the state’s controversial and contentious education-reform legislation.

“Windham County has lost a lot of students,” she said in a May online debate. “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 will work with communities affected by Act 46 should she be elected, she also cautioned that the COVID-19 crisis has left the state with a huge — as much as $500 million — budget deficit.

She said the first responsibility of government is “to protect people when something terrible happens.” Effectively dealing with climate change, improved access to affordable health care, enacting paid family leave for workers, and improving broadband access are all issues that Vermonters are bringing up during this pandemic, Holcombe said.

David Zuckerman, 48, is counting on his many years as a Progressive Party activist, and his many friends and supporters around the state, to win the Democratic nomination.

Zuckerman served seven terms (1997–2011) in the House and two terms (2013–2017) in the Senate. He is finishing his second term as the state’s lieutenant governor as the first Progressive Party candidate to win statewide office.

Zuckerman told The Commons that Scott “deserves the accolades” for his administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, “but he was doing what any sane, rational leader would do.”

However, Zuckerman said, Scott’s accomplishments should not distract people from realizing that “he’s never had a vision for Vermont.”

To Zuckerman, “the job of public service and politics is to promote ideas that we believe are right.” Those ideas include taking concrete steps to deal with climate change, investing in broadband expansion to help the rural economy, raising the minimum wage, and addressing systemic racism.

“We should be trying to create a more affordable and better life for Vermonters,” he said.

Zuckerman said he tried to use his office as lieutenant governor to dispense information and to serve as “an ambassador for democracy to bring more Vermonters into the political process.” He would like to continue that role as governor.

“I have a longer track record on the issues, and it’s a positive one,” he said.

Pat Winburn, 64, has been the most aggressive of all the candidates in linking Scott to President Donald Trump.

“People have to understand that Scott is a Trump Republican,” Winburn told The Commons. “He opposed civil unions when he ran for state senator. He vetoed paid family leave and raising the minimum wage. He’s still signing contracts with private prisons and still underfunding higher education.”

“Scott may be a nice guy, but re-electing Scott will be the same as re-electing Trump,” Winburn asserted.

Like Holcombe and Zuckerman, Winburn supports enacting paid family leave, raising the minimum wage, and providing health care for all.

There is a lot of agreement on the issues between the three, but Winburn believes his experience gives him the edge, citing his work as as a trial lawyer “representing the powerless against the powerful in court for 40 years.”

“I bring a different perspective to this race, and I can help give southern Vermont a voice at the State House,” he said.

Ralph Corbo, who is also running for Congress against U.S. Rep. Peter Welch in the Democratic primary, worked for the U.S. Postal Service as a rural carrier associate until he was fired in 2019 in (by his account) a dispute over employee rights.

His main issues are reducing defense spending so more money can be devoted to domestic needs in Vermont, and raising taxes on the wealthiest Vermonters to fund state social services in the wake of the current recession.

The Progressive candidates

Cris Ericson, 68, of Chester, has run for governor in every biennial race since 2002 under the backing of various third parties. Starting in 2004, she has appeared on the ballot for U.S. senator or U.S. representative in every major election.

This year, she is also running as a Progressive for lieutenant governor, attorney general, state auditor, secretary of state, state treasurer, and U.S. Congress.

Boots Wardinski, 77, is an organic farmer, maple syrup producer, and horse logger. He served in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War from 1963 to 1967. He is a member of Veterans for Peace and has participated in civil disobedience protesting the country’s involvement in foreign wars.

As a Liberty Union candidate, he twice ran for lieutenant governor in 2010 and 2016, and for Secretary of State in 2006.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #573 (Wednesday, August 5, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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