What took place Oct. 9 in the studios of Vermont PBS in Colchester, Vermont, should be a model of political debates everywhere. Democratic Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin was not only joined on stage by Republican challenger Scott Milne and Libertarian Dan Feliciano, but also Liberty Union Party’s Pete Diamondstone and independents Cris Ericson, Emily Peyton and Bernard Peters.
“Some of you are well-known,” said Stewart Ledbetter, moderator and WPTZ senior reporter, at the outset. “Many of you, I dare say, are not.”
All seven candidates on the ballot were invited to participate, and thankfully for everyone, all seven agreed to show up. They were lined up in alphabetical order, with major party candidates sprinkled in evenly with those less-mainstream contenders.
Diamondstone, his party’s co-founder and perennial candidate, was up first. He set the tone for these outliers through his radically individualist views and appearance. Wearing glasses, denim shorts, white socks and suspenders, he pulled no punches from the start.
“I am a revolutionary nonviolent socialist,” he said. “And I am a secessionist.”
Before the night was through, he would go on to advocate for: paying students to go to college, opting out of federal income tax, taxing the wealthy of Vermont, closing all military bases and raising the minimum age for joining the military to 26.
Up next, Ericson donned a large-brimmed hat that reflected her equally expansive political ambition. Not only is she, like Diamondstone, a perennial candidate for governor, she is also running to unseat Vermont Democratic Rep. Peter Welch Tuesday. Not to be sartorially outdone, Peters sported a long, straight, “Duck Dynasty”-worthy beard, and a curve-billed baseball hat.
“I’m a candidate that is about as grassroots as you’re going to get,” said Peters, in his closing statement.
Compared to these three, Feliciano looked downright establishment. Likewise, Milne made sure to focus his attention on Shumlin’s administration, ignoring the more fringe candidates. Shumlin defended his accomplishments, which makes sense as, barring any unforeseen meltdown, he should sail easily to re-election.
One of the challenges of writing last week’s column, “Scott nearly bails over fan at feet,” involved attempting to separate the candidate’s arguments. Republican Rick Scott has been governor of Florida since 2011. This election cycle has been complicated due to the political history of his opponent and predecessor, former Gov. Charlie Crist. During the bulk of Crist’s administration, they were both Republicans. It was only in 2010 when Crist decided to run for Senate instead of re-election things changed.
Crist left the GOP and became an independent in order to run (unsuccessfully) against Republican Marco Rubio. In 2012, Crist made his transformation complete when he officially joined the Democratic Party. This means Scott’s arguments ended up sounding more those you might hear in a primary debate and not a face-off in the final weeks of the general election. Scott was placed in the awkward position of not only defending his own record, but also attacking the previous administration of his own party. The appearance of any additional candidates on stage at their Oct. 15 debate would have been a welcome addition.
In my Oct. 3, 2012, column, “Democracy? That’s debatable,” I discussed how presidential debates all but lock out third-party candidates. The Commission on Presidential Debates’ rules require at least 15 percent support in five national polls for a candidate to be allowed to debate. This is ludicrous.
Vermont PBS should be lauded for its inclusiveness. One could argue this format works best in cases like the Vermont gubernatorial race, where one candidate has a comfortable lead and therefore no worry over outsiders siphoning away precious votes. But if the major party candidates have the best ideas and express themselves in the clearest and most convincing manner, they shouldn’t have any trouble distinguishing themselves from less-polished rivals.
Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577 or via email at email@example.com.