Forum features contentious debate
Oct. 30, 2008
By Greg Elias
Candidates fielded questions and traded jabs during a sometimes heated debate held Monday night at Williston Central School.
Observer photo by Greg Elias
Candidates for the Vermont House of Representatives — (from left) Democrat Terry Macaig, Republican Shelley Palmer and Democrat Jim McCullough — appear at a Williston-Richmond Rotary forum at Williston Central School on Monday night. Republican Brennan Duffy also took part in a portion of the forum.
The event, sponsored by the Williston-Richmond Rotary, featured the four candidates seeking two seats representing Williston in the Vermont House: Democrats Jim McCullough and Terry Macaig and Republicans Shelley Palmer and Brennan Duffy.
The debate covered issues ranging from education funding to prison overcrowding. Questions were posed by moderator Mike Coates and members of the small audience during a freewheeling, 75-minute discussion that also allowed interaction among the candidates.
Some of that interaction involved attacks on McCullough — and barbed responses by the incumbent.
Duffy, who missed the first hour of the debate because he was attending a charity event, asked McCullough to explain his published statement that he would not vote for Jim Douglas if the governor fails to get 50 percent of the popular vote and the race is decided by the Legislature. Duffy said Williston voters favored Douglas by a large margin in the past two elections.
Observer photo by Greg Elias
Brennan Duffy, Republican candidate for the House, participates in a Williston-Richmond Rotary forum.
“I really felt that being a representative — not that you represented the wishes of your constituents — how do you justify saying you would never vote for somebody who obviously had much more of the popular vote in the town you represent?” Duffy asked.
McCullough said he couldn’t support Douglas after six years of “working for” the governor, and then he pointed to Duffy’s political inexperience.
“You’re new to politics,” he said. “I could give you some advice of politics: Always let people know where you stand instead of giving the doublespeak.”
Another question about a campaign flyer recently sent by the Vermont Republican State Committee to Williston residents provoked more rancor.
The flyer asserted that McCullough’s votes on issues impacting business are “dragging our economy down” and claimed Macaig “supports the same failed agenda.” The flyer was based on a low rating McCullough received from the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.
Palmer, who has also run advertisements in the Observer critical of McCullough, said he had no advance notice of the flyers. But he said pointing out a candidate’s voting record was perfectly legitimate.
“It’s fair game,” Palmer said. “It’s part of the political arena.”
McCullough hit back, calling the flyer a “Swift Boat” attack.
“It’s an embarrassment to Republican candidates that the state Republican Party would do this,” McCullough said, adding that the ratings were based in part on amendments to bills unpopular with both parties. He said the amendments were crafted so votes could later be deployed as political weapons against Democrats.
Macaig said his name was misspelled two different ways in the flyer and noted that no one asked him his views before he was linked with McCullough.
One question touched on funding for the Department of Corrections and crowded prisons.
McCullough and Macaig said dealing with overcrowding by sending inmates to out-of-state facilities was the wrong approach.
“When they come back they have learned good skills from people who are not necessarily good people,” Macaig said.
Instead of sending more people to prison, Macaig said, the state should concentrate on providing enough programs and case workers so released prisoners do not re-offend.
On education spending, Palmer said with costs now exceeding $13,000 per student and scores on standardized tests mediocre, something has to change, although he admitted he had no solutions.
“Right now I think we are spending almost more than we can bear,” Palmer said. “And we’re not getting extraordinary results for the extraordinary amount of money we are spending.”
Palmer and Macaig agreed that Vermont’s public school system was so expensive in part because of the large number of school districts. Yet Macaig said residents’ desire for local control stymies consolidation.
A question about municipal property appraisals that have resulted in a shift of the tax burden from businesses to residents prompted a discussion of the economy.
Duffy noted that Williston lost a high-tech employer last year when Qimonda moved its facility to North Carolina. He said permitting needed to be streamlined to ensure other businesses stay here.
“Actually, the town went out of its way to rezone” property Qimonda needed for a larger facility, Macaig responded.
Duffy acknowledged that the permitting process may not have been a factor in the company’s move. But he said the state needs to do more to retain businesses.
“If we don’t have employers, we don’t have jobs,” he said. “Then we’ll see what happens to property taxes.”