MONTPELIER >> The siting of wind turbines, a divisive topic in some parts of the state, is expected to be an issue that energizes voters in the general election.
The issue paints a stark contrast between the major party nominees running for governor.
Democrat Sue Minter won handily after primary challenger Matt Dunne switched positions on wind. Dunne, in the 11th hour of the campaign, said communities should have veto power over wind projects. Previously, he supported current law, which gives communities a say in where renewable energy projects could be built, but did not allow towns to reject wind and solar farms altogether. Bill McKibben, a prominent climate change activist, dropped his endorsement of Dunne shortly afterward, and pundits have said the switcheroo was a factor in Dunne’s defeat.
Whether the state should develop more mountaintop turbine projects will likely be a factor in a close general election race for governor.
While the issue draws headlines, several pundits say Vermonters are more worried about jobs and the economy than about turbines. But if the race for governor tightens, the question of wind development could tip the balance.
The Democratic and Republican candidates for governor couldn’t have more disparate stances on the subject.
Minter supports development of industrial wind farms on Vermont’s mountaintops.
Phil Scott, the Republican candidate for governor, has said he would ban turbines on the state’s ridgelines.
Eric Davis, a retired Middlebury College political science professor, said the voters most fired up on the wind turbine issue are people in rural areas who live near existing wind projects.
Most people in the rest of the state – including populous Chittenden County – are more concerned about taxes, jobs and the economy, Davis said.
The third-place finisher in the Democratic Party primary for governor, Peter Galbraith, raised opposition to wind development as a major issue in the campaign. He said likely half of those who voted for him did so because of his strong stance against ridgeline wind projects. The half-dozen or so towns Galbraith carried were all ones whose residents feel strongly about wind development, he said.
On Tuesday, Galbraith won 9 percent of ballots cast, or 6,611 votes.
“I suppose that the issue of protecting Vermont’s ridgelines came up more than any other issue” on the campaign trail, Galbraith said. “When people said they’d vote for me, (many of them) said, ‘I like your position on wind.'”
In a close race, the small minority of voters who oppose wind projects could make a big difference, Davis said.
Galbraith said anti-wind voters are motivated to go to the polls.
“Clearly (opposition to wind development) was insufficient to make me a contender,” Galbraith said. “But it’s politically significant, because these are voters who are going to vote on that issue regardless.”
Voters might overlook a candidate’s stances on other issues in order to vote for whoever opposes wind turbines. This single-issue phenomenon, furthermore, only holds true in one direction, he said.
“There’s nobody who will vote against Phil Scott because he opposes ridgeline wind,” Galbraith said. “But there is a significant number of voters – even people who are progressive and liberal – who will vote on the basis of protecting ridgelines.”
That’s why the issue carries weight, Galbraith said. “People opposed to it will vote solely on that,” he said.
David Blittersdorf, a prominent wind developer, said some Vermonters may vote based solely on the wind issue, but he said they hold the minority view.
Polls show most Vermonters support wind power and renewable energy, he said, and the opposition “is very vocal and very organized, but they’re still a very small minority of Vermonters.”
Few Vermonters speak out as passionately in favor of wind and renewable energy because there’s no need to – they’ve already elected politicians who are carrying out their wishes, Blittersdorf said.
“It’s called the silent majority, of Vermonters that have an environmental ethic, that are self-sufficient, that care about the world,” Blittersdorf said. “Galbraith has it absolutely wrong. It was just proven in the primary. If there’s a huge population that wants to vote down wind, how come he lost so badly?”
John Brabant, the director of regulatory affairs for Vermonters for a Clean Environment, a group that opposes industrial wind development, said the subject already played a decisive role in the gubernatorial contest.
Had Galbraith not taken the anti-wind stance that he did, Dunne wouldn’t have sought to move to middle ground at the last minute, Brabant said.
“Galbraith’s presence got people talking about it and ultimately it became a major subject matter for Democrats and Republicans in the primary season,” Brabant said.
Brabant said several dozen wind opponents were so galvanized by the issue that they attended legislative hearings every day of the last session. The last time citizens dogged an issue like that was in 2010 and 2011 when the Vermont Workers’ Center was pressing for a universal health care bill.
Galbraith said Democrats may switch sides and vote for Scott on account of his stance against wind development. He added that his comments were not a recommendation for or against any candidate.
“I’m definitely not voting for Phil Scott,” he said. “I’m just describing what I observed.”
Galbraith accused his opponents of dirty campaigning, pointing to wind development supporters who donated the maximum allowable to Minter, then donated still more to political action committees aligned with her. He named Blittersdorf and the family behind a wind project near Swanton as two examples.
Blittersdorf said he donated several thousand dollars to the American Wind Association PAC, just as he did to the Planned Parenthood PAC and others.
What he donated to PACs “is nothing compared to what the fossil fuel industry and the right wing is going to dump into Vermont, and you saw that in the primary – the amount from Dunne’s friend was $200,000 or something,” he said. “So, if I donate a couple thousand to a PAC, I’m somehow the bad guy? You’ve got to be kidding.”
The super PAC Vermonters for Strong Leadership raised $140,000 for Minter right before the primary and spent $120,000 on ads. Of the total raised, about $15,000 came from a wind developer, Travis Belisle, and environmentalists, as first reported by Seven Days.
Blittersdorf has given $4,000 directly to Minter and $3,900 to a PAC called Vermont Conservation Victory Fund that supported her in the primary.
“I give to PACs because that’s the way the damn system is set up,” Blittersdorf said. “I’d love to see Citizens United overturned. I’d give money to that effort. But realistically, we’ve all got to play with what we’ve got in front of us.”
The 2016 gubernatorial primary is already the most expensive in history, topping $4.7 million. Millions more will be spent on the governor’s race, Blittersdorf said, and much of it will come from out of state.
The national Republican Governors Association on Wednesday released its first ad championing Scott, the lieutenant governor for the past six years, as a political outsider. The money came from a PAC called A Stronger Vermont.
Minter did not respond to a request for comment.
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