Debate continues over Vermont third-party debaters

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?

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.”

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  • rosemarie jackowski

    The bottom line is this: Campaigns should be about informing the voters – not about the Press or the candidates – they are secondary. All information available should be out there for the voters, otherwise there can be no INFORMED votes. All candidates with any chance of being elected should be included.

    Think of how different everything would be right now, if the top 4 or 5 candidates were included in the Presidential Debates. STEIN and Johnson should have been included.

  • Eric Davis

    Regardless of one’s opinion about Bill Lee, the Liberty Union is a major political party in Vermont, according to the definition used in state election law. They are organized in at least 15 towns, and at least one of their candidates received at least 5% of the vote for one of the statewide offices in the last general election.

    They may very well retain the major party status for the next two years. Democratic incumbents Treasurer Beth Pearce and Secretary of State Jim Condos are both listed on the ballot as “Dem/Rep” because they got enough write-ins in the Republican primary to qualify for both designations. The only other name on the ballot for Secretary of State is a Liberty Union candidate, and for Treasurer there are both Liberty Union and Progressive candidates.

    Mary Alice Herbert, the Liberty Union candidate for Secretary of State, will likely get at least 5% of the vote this year, allowing the Liberty Union to retain major party status for the 2016-2018 biennium.

    • Liberty Union did not qualify to be a major party this cycle and did not have a primary this August. Though they did hit the 5% threshold in 2014, they did not organize enough towns under the updated statute to qualify. The Libertarian Party and Liberty Union Party are currently minor parties:


  • Neil Johnson

    Last debate evert fringe candidate added some very meaningful dialogue. One candidate blatantly told lies to the entire state. We had people talking about cleaning up lake Champlain, the fighter jets, how we could get people together to solve the health care problems, only one candidate said they wouldn’t use secret powers & government should be open, others talked about reducing expenses, others claimed health care system wasn’t financially viable and yet others knew the problems of written documents carrying the full weight of law, that actually wasn’t voted upon.

    These were real people and combined they would have solved our problems and had actually addressed all the problems that came up the next two years. There is a difference between smooth talker and real people, real people aren’t always so good on camera, but they are often genuine and have abilities to solve problems without lobbyists.

  • Dan Carver

    During the VPR debate, Lee’s platform on health care reform is focused on having kids primarily, and adults, if possible, too be more active, get outside and breathe fresh air…

    It was the only platform presented that evening that focused on wellness. The major parties focus on how they will alter our illness repair system.

    Another plug for all candidates: Candidate Miner provided the same info I hear on commercials; nothing new.
    With less than a month to go, thankfully, comments that drive me crazy:
    “Give our kids free tuition so they can fill all the great paying jobs in the state.” News to Sue – many areas of Vermont do not have great paying jobs–open or filled.

    “I talk to lots of employers and they can’t hire people to fill their high paying jobs.” Interpretation from a well connected head hunter–if an employer can’t fill a position, then they aren’t paying enough. Seriously, how many positions paying over $ 90 k per year remain open in this state?

    • Neil Johnson

      I love it, how many positions paying 90k remain open a point well made. Companies also need to make a profit. When it’s a total dice role on getting permits those companies might not want to waste $500k and 2 years time trying to get a permit for their company to be turned down by the neighborhood salamander watch team.

      That’s a very high wage for any state, let alone our poor state. Now if we allowed inexpensive homes to be built from $65k to $100k, we could actually be comfortable with our current salaries. We Vermonters are getting squeezed from both sides.

  • Stephen Dotson

    Let the spaceman pitch! It helps us all to have a reality check, and not take ourselves too seriously through some comic relief in the midst of a sad time for the American body politic. If he isn’t allowed to debate, I say Bill the Spaceman for Moderator! Having that voice at the table keeps us real, and pushes the “politicians” to be more human, more honest, and more willing to work with the quirkiness of VT.

  • Lee’s remarks turn the debates into scenes from a play by Ionesco or Beckett and serve to remind us that politics are at least partly absurd.

  • Richard Reed

    I believe that any candidate who can garner enough signatures to be on the ballot deserves the right to participate in the debate. When we see full stages of national candidates prior to the primary elections who claim to represent one of the two big parties, most of whom were rejected by voters as unqualified, it is not acceptable that Vermonters, running for office should be denied the right to debate. It is almost elitist to state that only the major party candidates should be allowed a voice. We are none of us entirely right, nor entirely wrong.

    • I completely agree with you as this is the only way we can get to know the Candidate. I had no idea who Bill Lee was and thanks to the debate I got to see and hear him. I always think that there could be someone out there who may not have the finances, but has great ideas and would act in the best interest for our State or Country. That person would get my vote.

  • The parties are private organizations that make their own rules. Although the two main ones usually come up with competent nominees, they should not have monopoly power. The dangers of this are particularly on view with this year’s presidential election, which has produced the two most hated nominees in modern history (one more hated than the other, but that is beside the point.) Of course, it should take some effort and dedication for a third party or independent to get names on a ballot and positions at the debate table, but those who clear that hurdle should not be discriminated against by the media. Bill Lee might not have a chance of winning, but damn, with two really boring major-party candidates, he made the show much more watchable and probably doubled viewership–which is a good thing for democracy in Vermont!