Democrats seek support for gubernatorial run

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BRATTLEBORO — The three Democratic candidates for governor turned on the charm Friday morning, trying to convince about 60 people over breakfast that they were the right person to defeat Republican Gov. Phil Scott in November.

Any big differences between Democrats James Ehlers of Winooski, Christine Hallquist of Hyde Park and Brenda Siegel of Newfane were hard to find, with all three saying health care was a human right, although they disagreed on the details of how the state could pay for it.

The three took turns answering questions about education funding, school consolidation, health care and climate change over breakfast at the Gibson-Aiken Center.

All three agreed that the current education funding system was flawed, but they didn't voice support for a specific plan to replace the current system.

"It's been a flawed system from the beginning," said Hallquist, referring to the largely property-tax funded formula.

Ehlers said he supports shifting more of the burden to the income tax, with the state's wealthier residents picking up a bigger share of the burden.

"Now is not the time to under fund education," said Siegel, pointing to the opioid crisis as a source of increased burden on local schools.

With the Vermont primary scheduled for Aug. 14, in little more than a month, they made compelling personal arguments when moderator Bob Oeser asked them for their final 'lightning round' answers. Oeser urged people to go vote by absentee ballot after the breakfast.

That is when the political breakfast got personal: Siegel reminded the gathering that it was the overdose death of her nephew this winter that convinced her to run for political office for the first time.

Businesswoman Hallquist, who stepped down from being head of the Vermont Electric Cooperative earlier this year, said while she supports the concept of "Medicare for all," she said the payroll tax proposed during the administration of former Gov. Peter Shumlin would have added $10,000 a year to the average workers' tax burden.

But Ehlers and Siegel said a way needs to be found to fund health care.

"I'm not going to make promises I can't keep," she said. "I'm signing up for improved Medicare for all," she said.

Siegel, a dancer and dance festival organizer, said she was a survivor of a life-threatening illness, and she would have died if she hadn't had private insurance. She said that Medicaid would not have paid for the treatment that ended up saving her life.

"We have to figure out a way," she said, noting that on key issues such as abortion and gay marriage, real change started with the states.

"We have to fix it in our state," she said.

Ehlers, the executive director of Lake Champlain International, an environmental group, said the state should "invest in Vermonters rather than $10,000 gimmicks," a reference to the plan, which gained national attention, to pay people who move to Vermont to telecommute.

The first request Oeser had for the candidates was to give an example of how they had worked - successfully - with people in an adversarial situation.

Hallquist said that when she first arrived at Vermont Electric Coop the small utility was in a financial crisis. But, she said, she talked with employees directly about her concerns, and pledged to take the same raise they did in their negotiated contract.

The candidates were unanimous in their unhappiness with Act 46, which calls for consolidation of Vermont's smaller schools.

Siegel said the small schools are often the unofficial community center of their towns, and closing them has no real or lasting advantage.

"I'm absolutely opposed to that," Ehlers said of forced consolidation.

The fourth Democrat, Ethan Sonneborn, a eighth-grade student from Bristol, did not attend.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.

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