White River Junction – Democratic gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne on Wednesday defended his stance on the siting of large wind-energy projects, saying what critics have labeled a flip-flop was simply a “clarification” of his position.
Just days before the Vermont primary on Aug. 9, controversy is swirling around a statement Dunne made last week that some observers interpreted as a new and stronger endorsement of local control over wind siting. The kerfuffle has cost the former state senator from Hartland at least one endorsement, and has drawn attacks from those on all sides of the issue.
On Friday, Dunne released a statement in which he voiced support for community votes on wind proposals – referendums that he said should be respected.
“If a town says no to a large industrial wind project, I would use all the power of the governor’s office to ensure that is the end of the project,” Dunne said in the statement. “I will ensure that no means no.”
What, exactly, that meant is up for debate. Dunne said that his position had not changed: as he told a Valley News reporter last month, “If a town votes to not have a wind turbine in their town, I’m not going to support (the turbine).”
But others took the statement as an espousal of veto power for communities over wind projects.
The fallout was swift. On Sunday, environmentalist Bill McKibben withdrew his endorsement of Dunne, calling the policy statement an “about-face.”
McKibben, a leading voice on climate change, switched his support to one of Dunne’s two main rivals, Waterbury, Vt., Democrat Sue Minter.
Minter, the former state secretary of transportation, says wind energy is “part of the solution” and has taken contributions from a prominent wind developer.
On Tuesday, the environmental group Vermont Conservation Voters, which previously had declined to back a candidate until the general election, also endorsed Minter.
And fellow gubernatorial candidate Peter Galbraith, who offered an approving quote for Friday’s statement, had sharp words this week as Dunne sought to further clarify his stance.
Rather than a flip-flop, “it may be a ‘flip-flop-flip,’ ” Galbraith said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
Galbraith, a former state senator from Townshend, Vt., takes a hard line: he proposes to block all new ridgeline wind projects as governor.
When adding his name to the Dunne statement last week, Galbraith said, he had understood Dunne’s position to be that Dunne would use “all” of the powers available to a governor – including signing legislation – to stop a wind project when a community opposes it.
“But it was clear that he and I have a different understanding of the word ‘all,’ ” Galbraith said. “To him, ‘all’ apparently means ‘not all.’ ”
Galbraith said his and Minter’s positions were clear, albeit in opposition. As for Dunne’s, he said, “It was one way on Thursday, another way on Friday, another way on Tuesday, and (after that) – who knows.”
Dunne sought to put the matter to bed at a Wednesday news conference outside his White River Junction campaign headquarters.
He left much of the defense to his campaign manager, Thetford native Nick Charyk, who called the allegations “unfounded, unfair and outright false.”
Then, with an audible sigh, Dunne took the podium.
“We’ve been at this for over a year,” he said.
It has been a long campaign, one that he purposely began with a listening tour, Dunne told the crowd of supporters and reporters. Montpelier isn’t hearing local communities’ concerns, he said, and he hopes to correct that.
“And that’s how we need to embrace moving Vermont into the next era,” he said. “Because if we are going to actually make Bernie (Sanders’) vision a reality here in the state of Vermont, it’s going to take having a governor who’s not going to always tell you what you want to hear, who’s willing to further and further clarify as people ask more and more questions about where you stand, and it’s got to be someone who you know will listen, to their core.
“That’s the governor that I want to be.”
Speaking to reporters afterward, Dunne lamented the confusion surrounding his policy, and said that he was “absolutely in favor of wind.”
“I did not deliver that message in the way that I would have liked to, in retrospect,” he said.
Early voting already has begun, and Dunne also expressed regret about the possibility that some people who cared about this issue might have cast ballots for him without understanding his stance.
“I feel badly about that,” he said. “I think that it is unfortunate that my position wasn’t made clear – clearly, even after I tried to make it clear, it wasn’t completely clear.”
He added that he was “glad” the clarification had happened before the primary, giving voters whose top issue is wind siting the chance to know his views.
He responded to Galbraith’s criticism, saying he had made clear to his fellow candidate that his stance did not include legislative initiatives against wind.
And he struck back against outgoing Gov. Peter Shumlin, a fellow Democrat who on Monday accused Dunne of not telling the truth when he said his stance was the same as Shumlin’s.
“I found his comments to be incredibly unfortunate,” Dunne said of Shumlin, adding later, “maybe he has flip-flopped or gone someplace else on that particular position.”
Shumlin this spring signed a bill that gives towns greater voice in where wind projects might be sited, but still leaves the final say to the quasi-judicial Vermont Public Service Board.
Pointing back to prior interviews, Dunne said he had been clear that he does support wind power but that it should go forward only if a local community takes an affirmative vote.
“And you know what?” he added. “I had not been aware that it suddenly was a litmus test as to whether or not someone was committed to tackling climate change.”
Voters will decide the gubernatorial primaries on Tuesday. In the Republican field, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and former Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman are jockeying for their party’s nomination.
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