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Shumlin nixes debates with interest groups, community organizations

Gov. Peter Shumlin is limiting the number of campaign debate appearances he will make this fall to media-sponsored events only. The news that Shumlin has declined invitations to appear at least five debates held by schools, business and interest groups, was first reported in the Burlington Free Press.

The governor is too busy governing, his campaign manager says, to participate in more than the five debates he already plans to attend. Three dates, so far, have been scheduled with VPR, WDEV and VPT. The governor is also talking to WPTZ and WCAX.

“The decision is based solely on scheduling reasons and the fact that governor still needs to do the job he was elected to do, which is continuing to create jobs and make health care more affordable for Vermonters,” MacLean said. “If we were to accept every debate invitation, he would be spending all of his time debating.”

In 2010, when Shumlin ran against Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, he agreed to 13 debates.

The governor and his opponent, Republican Randy Brock, a state senator, have received 12 invitations so far. The requests have come from several interest groups (AARP, the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, and a joint event event with Vermont Natural Resources Council and Renewable Energy Vermont) and several local organizations (the Williston Central School, Johnson State College, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and the Ludlow Town Committee).

“If we were to say yes to one, it would open the flood gates, so we made the decision to say yes to a number of media outlets, that way those debates will be shown to a wider audience and a larger number of Vermonters can see and or listen to them,” MacLean said.

Brock, on the other hand, has agreed to every debate he’s been invited to – with the exception of one event that presents a scheduling conflict.

“What’s he afraid of?” Brock asked. “It’s just interesting that he says he’s too busy governing to do that.”

The Republican from Franklin County says the governor just finished a “taxpayer funded” 22-town junket to mark the anniversary of Tropical Storm Irene; found time to give a speech at the announcement of the winner in the Vermont Attorney General Democratic primary race; plans to attend the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.; and will travel across the state to speak to the editorial boards of three newspapers and host a campaign launch party at Nectar’s bar in Burlington.

“He can hold an announcement party at Nectar’s, but he can’t find time to talk to Vermonters about his positions relative to his opposition,” Brock says.

That opposition includes the Vermont chapter of AARP, which Brock says is likely the cause of the governor’s reluctance to participate in debates outside the media-sponsored construct. About 15,000 CVPS electricity customers who are members of the group, which represents seniors, signed a petition calling for state regulators to require the Canadian company Gaz Metro to return $21 million to ratepayers as part of a merger deal between the Green Mountain Power (a subsidiary of Gaz Metro) and Rutland-based CVPS.

Brock said he expects some AARP members would be critical of Shumlin because of his support for the merger between Gaz Metro and CVPS.

Before other audiences, environmental groups, for example, Brock says, he would be the subject of criticism.

“I think it’s important to speak to audiences that agree and don’t agree with us, so people understand what we stand for,” Brock said. “It’s good for democracy and for our electoral system.”

MacLean says potential guff from AARP members was “absolutely not” a factor in the governor’s decision.

Nor is the specter of debating with Annette Smith, an opponent of industrial wind who is a write-in candidate in the Progressive Party primary and may win enough votes to run in the General Election (final results will be available Tuesday).

In 2010, Dubie and Shumlin, neither of whom were incumbents, participated in debates and forums held by the Vermont Press Association, VNRC and Toxics Action Center, the Burlington Free Press, Vermont Public Radio, The Mark Johnson Show/WDEV, WVMT, Renewable Energy Vermont, AARP/VPT, the Bennington Banner/Manchester Journal, Williston Central School, Vermont Chamber of Commerce/NECN, WCAX, WPTZ.

The General Election debates came on the heels of Shumlin’s appearances at a number of Democratic primary debates and forums. At the time, he was president pro tem of the state senate, which is a part-time responsibility.

How difficult would it be for Shumlin to schedule in a few more public debates now that he is governor? “Very,” MacLean says.

She confirmed that the governor’s campaign launch will consist of editorial board meetings in Brattleboro, Bennington and Rutland and a party at Nectar’s at 5 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 10. MacLean said Shumlin plans to talk to the media about his administration’s economic development record (she says he has created 7,000 jobs) and Vermont’s low unemployment rate (fifth lowest in the country). She said if he is re-elected, he plans to make “progress in education” and “reduce the cost of health care.”