Facing off at a debate Wednesday night in Burlington, Republican Gov. Phil Scott and his Democratic challenger, Brenda Siegel, offered voters two dramatically different narratives of Vermont’s political and economic trajectory.
“In the last six years, things that matter most to Vermonters have not gotten better,” Siegel said of Scott’s tenure. “They’ve gotten worse.”
Throughout the hour-and-a-half debate, which was hosted by VTDigger, Siegel alleged Scott’s administration had mismanaged funds and slow-walked — or outright smothered — progress on issues ranging from carbon emissions to the state’s housing shortage.
While Scott nodded to ongoing affordability and demographic challenges, he countered that the state was, in fact, making progress and should stay the course, arguing that the policies he had supported over his nearly six years in office needed time to fully ripen.
Though the incumbent governor offered a robust defense of his record, he did not come armed with new ideas. Asked to name one policy proposal he hadn’t previously pitched but would pursue in a fourth term, Scott demurred. “We’re talking about a lot of different initiatives,” he said. “But I think you can count on some of the same initiatives that we’ve had over the last few years.”
Asked about his approach to combating Vermont’s overdose crisis, Scott doubled-down on his veto of a bill last spring that would have commissioned the state’s third study of overdose prevention sites. Such sites, which are currently operating in New York City and elsewhere, are places people can use illicit drugs without being arrested and with medical assistance in the case of an overdose.
“I think we need to be focused on things we know work,” he said. “And what we were doing pre-pandemic, we’re finally seeing the curve, that trajectory, bend in the opposite direction. So we’re on the right path.”
He argued that state government should continue with its existing hub-and-spoke system of substance use treatment.
Siegel, who has spoken often about family members she lost to substance use disorder, instead argued that Scott’s veto demonstrated he was reluctant to embrace new ideas, particularly harm reduction policies.
She said the state should have gone forward with the feasibility study outlined in the bill.
“We might have found out something that you were not ready to hear,” Siegel said, “But we aren’t in drug war policy anymore.”
In a series of spirited rebuttals — a pattern throughout the evening — Scott challenged the practicality of an overdose prevention site, or safe injection site, in Burlington. Would Vermonters from Barre, St. Albans or other corners of the state really drive all the way to Burlington to use illicit drugs?
“I think not,” Scott said, adding that his administration had supported other harm reduction policies in recent years, such as increasing access to Narcan and needle exchanges.
On housing, too, Siegel criticized what she saw as inadequate action, particularly on emergency and transitional housing for Vermonters experiencing homelessness. Siegel recounted a widely publicized protest last fall during which she slept 27 nights on the Statehouse steps to demand Scott’s administration fully reinstate the motel housing program.
She alleged Scott’s solution to the ongoing housing crisis was “to throw our hands up and say ‘there is no solution.’”
She said Vermont’s current general assistance program, which houses Vermonters in hotels and motels throughout the state, was insufficient. She alleged Scott’s administration had mismanaged rental assistance funds, causing the program to abruptly ramp down months earlier than anticipated. (Last week, the administration changed course again, and announced they had found an extra $20 million to keep the program running for some low-income Vermonters through the spring.)
“People are sleeping in tents in the winter, sometimes behind your office,” Siegel said.
Siegel proposed the state promote home ownership across low-, middle- and upper-middle income households, extend renter protections and expand transitional and emergency housing, such as pod-like structures similar to ones underway in Burlington, or converted dormitories.
Scott again asked voters to keep the faith on housing.
He listed initiatives during his tenure that invested hundreds of millions of public dollars toward expanding the stock of affordable homes, but he added, “it isn’t instantaneous.”
“It does take time. Permitting takes time,” Scott said. “And all the infrastructure and the construction takes time as well. So we have a long ways to go, but we’re on a path that I think is sustainable.”
Workforce, workforce, workforce
Scott argued that the housing shortage — and nearly every other political challenge addressed Wednesday night — came back to one common root cause: the state’s supposedly shallow labor pool.
It’s a talking point he’s repeated throughout the year, whether to the Legislature or at his weekly press conferences. At Wednesday’s debate, he reiterated his support for education in the trades.
Scott answered that the state’s shrinking pool of young workers was the state’s most pressing challenge. Siegel named housing as the most urgent dilemma.
Asked about public safety and this year’s increased gun violence in Burlington, Scott cited 65 open positions in Vermont State Police, and tied the issue to a scarcity of labor.
Siegel said public safety should focus on collaboration with the community and address the root cause of crime by increasing mental health supports and substance use treatment.
When the candidates were given the opportunity to question one another, Siegel’s rhetoric was sharpened to slice at Scott’s record: Alleging that his administration had mismanaged unemployment claims and rental assistance funds, and had yet to allocate retention bonuses to child care workers, she asked, “How can you justify asking Vermonters to bear the burden of those mistakes?”
Scott said those depended on federal dollars, with the federal government’s often-tangled strings attached.
“The Treasury isn’t clear on what you can spend it on and what you can’t, but they are very, very strict in terms of when they decide you can’t spend it on something that you can’t,” Scott said. “So keeping up with that has been difficult.”
Both candidates touted their rural-living bonafides, and nodded to concerns in Vermont’s more remote regions that state policy overwhelmingly benefits Chittenden County and denser towns. According to Scott, state emissions goals have to prioritize electric vehicles, “or hydrogen vehicles, we don’t know,” he said, because public transit just isn’t practical in all rural areas.
As part of her response, Siegel mentioned she has, at times, been without a car. And throughout the debate, she often sought to differentiate herself as the candidate who had directly experienced Vermont’s social challenges: poverty, skyrocketing rents, the grief following a death due to overdose.
Sexual harrassment in the Vermont National Guard
Asked about reports of pervasive sexual harrassment in the Vermont National Guard, Siegel described an unnamed member of her campaign staff who, according to Siegel, experienced sexual harrassment and retaliation while in training.
“She was forced to stay in her barracks, to read only religious books, and treated absolutely terribly,” Siegel said.
She added that the woman was “basically kept a prisoner in her barracks for speaking out.”
Scott denounced the alleged behavior as “unacceptable,” and said he was collaborating with Maj. Gen. Gregory Knight, the Guard’s adjutant general, to reform the Guard’s culture.
“The good news is, if there is any good news, is that people are coming forward,” Scott said. “And we need to track these down and we need to eliminate this from the National Guard in its entirety.”
But Siegel didn’t waver, and placed responsibility squarely on Scott, as the Guard’s designated leader.
“In my opinion, the commander in chief is absent from the solution,” Siegel said.
The debate finished with a lightning round, during which candidates were asked to answer narrower questions in just a few words.
Should Vermont have a year-round, professional Legislature?
“Hell no,” Scott said.
Siegel dodged: “I think this is a really complicated conversation that has too much nuance for me to give you a two-word answer.”
And for the night’s final question: When was the last time you lived in rental housing?
Scott took in a deep breath.
“It was probably,” he said, then exhaled after some thought, “Thirty-five years ago.”
Siegel smiled and replied, “Right now.”
Read the story on VTDigger here: Brenda Siegel challenges Phil Scott’s record at VTDigger gubernatorial debate.