Debate continues over Vermont third-party debaters

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The gubernatorial candidates line up for a forum last month at the Statehouse. From left, Liberty Union candidate Bill Lee, Democrat Sue Minter and Republican Phil Scott. File photo by Andrew Kutches/VTDigger

This fall’s first Vermont gubernatorial debate was set to highlight issues important to women when, five minutes in, the event was hijacked by a man.

Make that a spaceman.

Make that Bill “Spaceman” Lee.

The former Boston Red Sox pitcher turned Liberty Union candidate sat at the same table as Democrat Sue Minter and Republican Phil Scott. But as the two major-party candidates addressed equal pay, reproductive rights and child care subsidies, Lee talked about his appreciation for his uniform number 37, his great-grandmother feeding her ex-husbands Thanksgiving dinner in the 1800s, his own childhood just outside Hollywood, his opinion that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders would be president if “The Big Short” had won this year’s Best Picture Oscar, the fact he doesn’t use a cellphone or computer and his television died a month ago, and that Vermonters recycle thanks to him and former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

And that was just his two-minute opening statement.

“Wearing a Hawaiian shirt and jeans,” Seven Days went on to report, “the former Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos pitcher broke up the policy debate with off-topic observations and off-color remarks.”

VTDigger.org said: “Lee often spoke in proverbs that had little do with women’s issues.”

And Vermont Public Radio: “The Craftsbury resident made it clear early on that he isn’t your average candidate.”

Voters soon offered their own opinions.

“Yes, it’s good for a few good laughs and sharable diversion, but …” one posted on VPR’s website. “We do need to have our press corps focused on the candidates’ policy distinctions or lack of policies altogether in order to inform voters. Vermont should not stoop to the level of the national syndrome this election and make Bill Lee our small state Donald Trump spectacle.”

And so goes the debate over third-party debaters: Is including every fringe candidate a sign of democracy or a distraction from the real issues facing the state?

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A 2014 Vermont PBS gubernatorial debate featured so many unintentionally comic moments that Time magazine deemed it “crazy” and C-SPAN, as seen here, rebroadcast it nationally.

Back in 2014, a Vermont PBS debate featured so many unintentionally comic comments from seven gubernatorial candidates (five of whom collectively would earn only 8.6 percent of the vote), Time magazine deemed it “crazy,” BuzzFeed.com declared it “one of the strangest” and MSNBC supplemented its “Vermont’s Funniest Gubernatorial Debate Moments” video with commentary from former Gov. Howard Dean.

“We’re a democracy with a small ‘d,’ and everybody gets a chance to have their say in Vermont,” Dean explained. “And not all the debates are like that. Most of them are, in fact, just the major candidates.”

But public event organizers and the press have faced a new challenge this fall after Scott won the GOP primary and announced that, other than appearing at a few previously scheduled major-party debates, he would participate only in forums that included all candidates from the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

“One of our requests to debate organizers,” Scott campaign spokeswoman Brittney Wilson said in a statement accompanying his 11-event schedule, “was to honor the great tradition in Vermont of giving every candidate’s voice an equal opportunity to be heard in the public square.”

Several event sponsors believe less is more. Waterbury radio station WDEV-AM historically broadcasts major-party debates at the Tunbridge World’s Fair. But when Scott declined to appear without Lee, host Mike Smith continued on Sept. 15 with Minter and an empty chair.

“I had 60 minutes,” Smith said recently. “The two major candidates are either going to occupy a half hour apiece or, with a third person, they’re going to have 20 minutes apiece.”

The broadcaster, former head of the state agencies of administration and human services under Gov. James Douglas, went to the “Bill Lee for Governor of Vermont” Facebook page to find such statements as “My first edict as governor shall be that ‘if the temperature falls below your age, you don’t have to go to work.’”

“Although I kind of like that,” the 62-year-old Smith said, “he isn’t taking this seriously. With all the issues Vermont faces, do I give someone who’s going to get 5 percent of the vote one-third of the time? I probably would have had my highest-rated show, but elections mean something. I said no.”

WCAX News Director Anson Tebbetts decided similarly when limiting invitations to the Burlington television station’s Oct. 18 gubernatorial debate before Scott’s call for full inclusion.

“It’s our debate, and we don’t allow candidates to dictate the rules,” Tebbetts said. “We only have an hour — that’s not a long time to cover a lot of issues. Even though it could be more entertaining, we’re in the news business. We can’t waste a second. I don’t think I’m out of bounds saying a lot of people don’t think Bill Lee is going to be elected.”

Lee did join Minter and Scott on Thursday on Vermont PBS, which is broadcasting debates this month featuring every candidate for U.S. Senate, U.S. House, governor and lieutenant governor.

“We see both sides of the argument,” said Vermont PBS spokesman Scott Campitelli, “but we feel as the statewide television organization it’s our role to invite all the candidates. We’re always aware of the debates being a caricature of quirky little Vermont, but at the same time all these people are legal candidates who are on the ballot, so why shouldn’t they get equal time?”

For Lee, such programs are the only place other than Facebook and slapstick press profiles (consider Newsweek’s “Bill ‘Spaceman’ Lee Wants To Turn Vermont Into A Sheep-Shearing, Baseball Bat-Making Paradise”) where voters can learn about him, as he doesn’t have a website or leaflets and, other than a landline, no other way to reach out.

“WCAX, they don’t want me there, Vermont Public Television, they do want me there,” the left-hander said. “I do think I should be included, but it’s not for me to say.”

Instead, Lee talked about fellow Liberty Union candidate Peter Diamondstone recruiting him to run; the fact he doesn’t prepare for debates or print out his plans to limit hydrocarbons, learn from Switzerland and tax white sugar; and finally, because he wore, as one reporter noted, “an untucked tropical shirt with a picture of a sunbathing brunette in a red bathing suit on the left front pocket” to the women’s forum, his contention that he “was the only one dressed appropriately for a warm day.”

“I am outside the box,” Lee concluded. “But I’ve never wanted to play on a team that didn’t want me there.”

Kevin O'Connor

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