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Rain, mud and an overflowing crowd for gubernatorial debate

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07/24/2008

By Lisa Loomis

Shouting to be heard over the deluge of rain, three candidates for Vermont governor fielded questions about food, Vermont Yankee, family farms and what they'd eaten for breakfast and lunch at the first gubernatorial debate of the season in Waitsfield last Sunday.

The debate was held under the wedding pavilion at American Flatbread, hosted by the Mad River Valley and Vermont Localvores, American Flatbread and the Vermont Natural Resources Council. Incumbent Governor Jim Douglas-R and challengers House Speaker Gaye Symington-D and Progressive/Independent candidate Anthony Pollina took to the podium after perennial Liberty Union candidate Peter Diamondstone was removed by Vermont State Police because he refused to leave the podium.

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SHOW RESPECT

American Flatbread founder and president George Schenk encouraged the crowd to show respect for the divergent political persuasions of those present and moderator David Moats requested that the overflowing crowd refrain from applauding or expressing approval/disapproval until the end of the debate.

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Nonetheless, Pollina was the darling of the assembled crowds who lined the open edges of the pavilion with umbrellas and raincoats. It was his kind of a crowd, the three-time contender for governor or lieutenant governor had the credentials in family farming, local and organic foods to earn the repeated applause and cheers of the crowd -- despite Moats' attempt to tamp them down.

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Candidates answered nine prepared questions and a surprise final question about what they'd eaten that day. Candidates were asked about how to improve the regulatory climate affecting family farms and organic farms, and Douglas noted that the state's first mobile processing facility for produce was online and that the mobile poultry processing facility was coming online.

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TRADED JABS

In response to a question about the success of efforts to clean up Lake Champlain, Symington and Pollina traded jabs at the governor, noting that despite the $85 million spent on the Clean and Clear program, the EPA was dissatisfied with the state's progress.

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"Even the Bush EPA is telling us we're not making progress in cleaning up Lake Champlain," Pollina said.

Regarding food labeling and preventing genetically modified seeds and plants from contaminating organic crops, Pollina said that the responsibility for seed drift lies completely with Monsanto, creator of the modified seeds. Symington reminded the crowd that the Legislature had passed a farm protection act along with a food labeling bill, but Douglas vetoed the protection act.


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FARMER AGAINST FARMER

Douglas said he does not want to see farmer pitted against farmer and said that was why he rejected a bill from the legislature to hold farmers accountable for seed drift.

Questions about Vermont Yankee revealed the differences in policy and opinion among the three candidates with Symington calling it "an obvious failure of the current administration." She chastised the governor for vetoing a bill that would have required Vermont Yankee owner Entergy to guarantee enough money to dismantle the plant after it is closed.

"The governor has done nothing to ensure that Vermonters do not get stuck with the bill for cleaning up after Entergy when it leaves town and has not made the plant safe and reliable -- or require it to close down if it does not. We need a plan showing a 5- to 10-year transition away from that power and we need to remove the obstacles to wind and solar power," she said.

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LOST OPPORTUNITIES

 "The discussion about renewable energy in Vermont is a discussion about lost opportunities. Vermont Yankee is crumbling and should be shut down. We should be investing in energy savings, hydro, wind and solar farms," said Pollina, who took the governor to task for not pushing for the state to buy the power generating dams on the Connecticut River when they were for sale several years ago. Those dams, he said, would have gone a long way toward replacing the power from Vermont Yankee.

Douglas did not let the jab go unanswered, pointing out that the decision on whether or not to buy the dams was made by an independent commission that included only one of his appointees.

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Regarding Vermont Yankee, Douglas said he was waiting for the safety assessment of the nuclear power plant and suggested looking at alternatives as part of a long-range plan that included renewables.

"Vermont has the lowest rates in New England," he pointed out.

Candidates offered closing statements and then, for the record, here's what they ate that day. Symington started her day with raspberries she'd planted and picked and followed that with Red Hen bread and cheese. Pollina started with a banana, cherries and followed that with a bagel and apple. The governor had oatmeal with maple syrup and had lunch at a chicken barbecue.

A dinner of flatbread followed the debate, allowing the candidates to mingle with the crowd.

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