Race for Governor May Be Decided By Vermont Legislature With No Incumbent, a Three-Way race Could Leave Vermonters out in the Cold

By Middlebury Campus

Author: Tim McCahill

With elections less than two months away, Vermont’s three candidates for governor are in the full swing of campaigning and debate. The candidates, Democrat Doug Racine, Republican Jim Douglas and independent Cornelius “Con” Hogan, are traveling across the state to spread their views on the key issues in this year’s race: unemployment, improving Vermont’s economic climate and education.
Douglas, a Middlebury alumnus who currently serves as state treasurer, has been a mainstay of Vermont politics since 1972. The Republican, who announced his candidacy in June, has centered his campaign on making the state friendlier to private business.
Like most Republicans, the treasurer supports Act 250 — Vermont’s Land Use and Development Law, passed in 1970 — but believes the legislation would benefit from revision. Douglas has strongly advocated changing the appeals and permitting process of Act 250 to quicken the pace that businesses can receive permission to build or expand.
An improved regulatory climate, the treasurer has argued, will help create more jobs in a state recently devastated by a series of layoffs and business closings, first at IBM in early June and, more recently, at 12 Ames stores across Vermont.
Democrat Doug Racine, who some commentators term “Silent Doug” because of his low-key style of campaigning, has adopted a stance quite similar to Douglas’ on modifying Act 250.
Racine, who currently serves as Vermont’s lieutenant governor, has espoused a vision of the state where hi-tech jobs in computing and information technology assume a larger role than more traditional businesses in the manufacturing sector, which has been hardest hit by national recession and changing global trends.
Revamping Act 250 by streamlining its permitting process would help lower unemployment, which stands at 3.9 percent across the state.
Neither Douglas nor Racine differ widely on how the state’s foremost economic law needs to be improved, and both agree that changes should not be made at the expense of Vermont’s natural environment.
Independent candidate Con Hogan, however, has faulted the “machinery” of the law for being antiquated, and pressed at a gubernatorial debate aired Monday on CCTV for a complete overhaul “from scratch.” No stranger to state politics — Hogan served prominently in the Vermont Department of Corrections and worked for most of the 1990s as commissioner for the state’s Health and Human Services department — the Republican-turned-independent candidate also has extensive experience in the private sector, and is a primary shareholder in the Montpelier, Vt., company International Coins and Currency.
Though not the hot-button issue here as in other states, national debate on school choice has caused the gubernatorial candidates to speak out on the issue. Douglas supports the student’s right to switch schools, as does Hogan, who in January proposed a system of “universal school choice” for students throughout the state; Racine, in contrast, voiced strong opposition to school choice in the last session of state Legislature, a move that in early August won him the endorsement of the Vermont charter of the National Education Association.
Financing for public education is more of an issue than school choice, primarily because there are fewer schools in Vermont listed as “failing” under the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” program of enhancing the quality of public schooling nationwide. Under the system, a “failing” grade would merit a students’ switching schools.
Act 60, or the Equal Educational Opportunity Act, was passed in 1997 to link property taxes to spending on schools in an effort to equalize education costs and quality among the state’s towns and cities. Controversial since its passage, in recent weeks the law has come under greater scrutiny by lawmakers and candidates because of the methodologies used to collect taxpayer dollars and spread them evenly among Vermont schools. All three candidates for governor agree that Act 60 should be changed, and that its methodology is antiquated and highly complex.
As the gubernatorial race draws closer to the Nov. 5 election, political commentators have noted marked differences between this year’s candidates and those running for governor in 2000. That year witnessed intense debate around the granting of civil unions to same-sex couples, an issue that sharply divided the contest for governor between then-incumbent Howard Dean and the outspoken and sometimes controversial Republican candidate Ruth Dwyer. Though somewhat less exciting than the 2000 race, this year’s election signals the first time since 1984 that neither an incumbent or former governor is campaigning for that office. Furthermore, if none of the three candidates receives more than 50 percent of the popular vote, the Vermont Constitution requires that the Legislature — which most predict will be majority Republican — will choose a governor by secret ballot in January 2003.
An undecided electorate of approximately 30 percent remains a factor for the Democrat Racine, who currently leads in the polls but may have to concede the popular vote to Douglas, the Republican, if the Legislature decides who will assume the governorship at the beginning of its next session.
A decidedly more tepid race than the one in 2000, the greatest controversy to emerge this election season involves not the campaign for governor but rather for state treasurer. In late August, then-candidate for treasurer, Democrat Ed Flanagan, failed to disclose an additional $100,000 that he spent on his bid for the office. The financial indiscretion generated much bad press for Flanagan, and may have contributed to his losing to contender Jeb Spaulding, a Democrat, at the polls Tuesday.