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Valley News - Multiple Choice in Vermont Gov. Race

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Valley News - Multiple Choice in Vermont Gov. Race

Jim Kenyon

As Vermonters get ready to elect their next governor, it might be helpful to look at the contest as a multiple-choice question. Who will it be?

A. Jim Douglas. The three-term Republican incumbent seems to be running on a platform of "Stick with me. Things could be worse." He argues that Vermont's economy is still performing better than that of most other states. He also emphasizes that his experience (25 years in statewide office) makes him best suited to lead during hard times.

B. Gaye Symington. The speaker of the House contends that Douglas has had nearly six years to prove his effectiveness, but has come up short. As a go-to Democrat since entering the Legislature more than a decade ago, she maintains that she's in touch with issues, such as reducing home energy costs and rebuilding roads and bridges, that matter to middle-class Vermonters. The challenge is to persuade voters that her low-key leadership style will work in light of the severe economic challenges facing the state.

C. Anthony Pollina. The independent candidate stresses that he's not just looking to play the spoiler role, but has a legitimate shot at winning. He points to the endorsements of major labor unions -- including the Vermont-National Education Association and the Vermont State Employees Association -- as proof. He also doesn't have to spend time at debates or candidate forums defending his record in office, because he doesn't have one. As a Progressive, he lost bids to become governor in 2000 and lieutenant governor in 2002.

In addition to the three major candidates, four others are on the ballot: Peter Diamondstone, of Brattleboro, of the Liberty Union Party; Cris Ericson, Chester, independent; Tony O'Connor, Derby, Cheap Renewable Energy; and Sam Young, Glover, independent.

So which candidate will prevail on Nov. 4?

There's a strong possibility that Vermonters won't have the answer until well after Election Day. If none of the three major candidates reaches the 50 percent mark, the 2009 Legislature will pick the winner in January. With Democrats expected to keep its large majority in both the House and Senate, Symington figures to benefit. Unless, of course, lawmakers opt to vote by secret ballot, which is an option.

History shows that Vermonters rarely reject a sitting governor seeking re-election, the last time being in 1962 when Democrat Phil Hoff defeated Republican incumbent Ray Keyser Jr.

In 2004 and 2006, Douglas cruised to double-digit victories over his Democratic opponents. But with the national economy foundering, Symington and Pollina are banking on Vermonters being in the mood for change.

"He (Douglas) can't blame it all on Washington and Wall Street," said Symington, noting that Vermont's unemployment rate of 5.2 percent in September was the state's highest in 15 years.

"The governor pretends things are going well, when they are not," said Pollina.

During a debate with his two challenges at Johnson State College in mid-October, Douglas argued it's unfair to compare Vermont with most other states. And to a certain extent, he's right. Vermont has escaped the flurry of mortgage foreclosures plaguing much of the country. In a September gubernatorial debate, Douglas said that economic growth has resulted in 10,000 more Vermonters having jobs since he took office. "We have moved things in the right direction in a difficult time," he said.

On the campaign trail, Douglas has focused on what he considers his administration's economic successes. He described this summer's two-day sales tax holiday as a "wildly popular" initiative that was good for both Vermont consumers and retail businesses.

If re-elected, Douglas has said he would "initiate tax incentives to create housing" in Vermont's downtowns. The second and third floors of retail buildings could be used for housing while shuttered factories could also be refurbished. Noting that Vermonters have invented everything from the electric motor to the snowboard, Douglas favors giving tax incentives to help companies develop new products.

But when it comes to re-energizing the economy, there is only so much that can happen at the state level, he said. "We can't control the price of a barrel of oil in Montpelier," he told the Johnson State audience.

Conventional wisdom says Douglas will reap the benefits of Pollina's entry into the race. Pollina, who worked as a policy adviser to Bernie Sanders in the early 1990s, has developed a solid following among longtime backers of Vermont's independent U.S. senator. That popularity with liberals lends credence to the idea that a vote for Pollina is a vote for Douglas.

In an interview, Symington downplayed the impact Pollina is having on her first campaign for statewide office. "I have to find people who have voted for Douglas in the past," she said. "That's the key."

On the major issues, Symington and Pollina sometimes -- but not always -- are in agreement. Both oppose mandatory minimum sentences for sex offenders and the so-called "think-twice" law requiring taxpayers to vote twice to approve school budgets above a certain threshold of spending. "They are birds of a feather," Douglas said in an interview. "I don't see a lot of difference between the two."

Apparently, however, the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association does. In September, the board of directors for the state's largest union voted 17-1 to "recommend" Pollina to its 11,500 educators. NEA-Vermont President Angelo Dorta said his union's decision to support an independent gubernatorial candidate for the first time was partly because Symington "still tends to talk about our schools in terms of cost containment as opposed to investment."

In 2007, Symington supported the "think-twice" proposal as a compromise with Douglas, who argues the law is needed to curb school district spending at a time when enrollments are declining. This year, under Symington's leadership, the House overturned the law, but it was not brought up for a repeal vote in the Senate.

Along with having the unions that represent teachers and state employees behind him, Pollina has garnered the support of the 3,000-member Gun Owners of Vermont. The endorsement signals his broad based appeal, Pollina said. "He's staunch pro-gun, and he goes out of his way to keep in touch with us," said Ed Cutler, the group's president. "He's showed us that he cares about (gun) issues."

In a questionnaire sent out to candidates, Pollina supported efforts to allow children to carry guns for hunting and opposed a ban on assault rifles. The group had previously endorsed Douglas. "The endorsements are making a difference," Pollina said. "People are responding. They want change."

Pollina needs the help of outside groups more than his two opponents, because he can't compete with them on the airwaves. In campaign fundraising, Pollina is a distant third, which means he can't advertise on TV and radio nearly as much as his two opponents. In the latest campaign finance reports filed with the Secretary of State's Office, Pollina had raised a total of $167,650, compared with Symington's $350,499. The two combined could not come close to matching Douglas' fundraising efforts, which totaled $942,776.

The Issues

Since the murder of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett in Randolph this summer, Douglas has been among the elected officials seeking higher mandatory minimum sentences for convicted sex offenders. In calling for a "Vermont-styled Jessica's Law," Douglas said, "people want violent offenders locked up."

But Douglas acknowledges that Vermont's eight jails are already overcrowded, which will require the state to either add more costly prison space or incarcerate fewer offenders of nonviolent crimes.

Symington and Pollina both oppose enacting laws that would create longer mandatory minimum sentences.

"The emphasis needs to be on getting convictions, not the length of sentences," Symington said. "To be tough on crime, you have to be smart on crime."

Conversations with police and prosecutors have convinced Symington that tougher mandatory minimum sentences will do more harm than good. More victims, including children, will be forced to testify in open court because there will be fewer pre-trial plea agreements. Faced with longer mandatory minimum sentences, people accused of sex crimes will have no incentive to take deals. Also, prosecutors may have to reduce charges to assure convictions.

Pollina said the sex offender issue needs to be looked more as a "cultural problem."

The situation won't improve until society figures out what is causing the crimes. With Vermont spending roughly $48,000 a year for every criminal behind bars, the state can't afford to continue on its current path, he said. "It's a lot cheaper to send people to college than to keep sending them to prison."

Vermont Yankee

The next governor will be faced with what to do about the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon. Vermont Yankee's owners are seeking re-licensing, which would keep it open until 2032.

Pollina has made it clear about what he wants to see happen when the plant's current license expires in 2012. "We need to move away from nuclear power as soon as possible. I don't think it's safe or clean," Pollina said.

Vermont Yankee produces about one-third of the state's electricity, which keeps Vermont's utility bills lower than most New England states, Douglas said. He favors keeping Vermont Yankee open if an independent assessment determines it to be safe. In an apparent dig at his challengers, Douglas said, "Building a few windmills doesn't constitute an energy plan."

Symington has been noncommittal on Vermont Yankee's future, a position one Upper Valley supporter, state Rep. Margaret Cheney of Norwich, said shows why she is the right choice. "To say, ‘just shut it down,' is too simplistic," said Cheney. "How we replace the power and how much it will cost will have to be looked at first."

The Economy

Vermonters have heard a lot from the candidates on their plans to jumpstart the economy. Tightening the laws regarding Vermont's capital gains tax is one possibility.

By closing tax "loopholes," on investment gains from the sale of such things as stocks, bonds and real estate, Pollina said, the next governor and lawmakers could plug holes in the state budget. Originally, Pollina estimated that Vermont could bring in an additional $20 million to $30 million a year.

"It's the easiest way to raise significant money in Vermont," he said.

The money could be used to "put Vermonters to work" fixing crumbling bridges, building affordable housing and developing energy-saving programs, Pollina said.

Symington and Douglas are not nearly as optimistic about how beneficial tightening the state's capital gains tax laws would be. "Given what's happened on Wall Street, I don't think it would generate much," Symington said.

Pollina's plan "relies on revenue that simply doesn't exist," Douglas said.

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