When historians peel back the pages on Vermont's 2010 political season, they'll see a muddy, tattered snapshot.
The dour economy, education, the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and health-care reform top the list of difficult issues, but 2010 may be remembered for another reason - as the year politics got ugly in Vermont.
The race for governor has been a messy affair, a slugfest between Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, a Republican, and state Sen. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat.
The campaign has been rugged at least since May, when Shumlin, running in the Democratic primary, showed up late at a Waterbury forum hosted by the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger and lambasted Dubie for sending a campaign aide to videotape the event instead of attending himself.
At times, the war of words has obscured the real issues in the campaign.
Shumlin and other Democrats blame Dubie and his out-of-state consultants for bringing negativity into the race, while Dubie and other Republicans say they're only telling the truth.
At a forum Oct. 3, hosted by the Vermont Press Association at St. Michael's College in Colchester, four lesser-known candidates joined the gubernatorial debate, but their presence did little to quell the animosity between the two major-party nominees.
Just seconds into his opening statement, Dubie said that Sen. Doug Racine, who finished second to Shumlin in the Democratic primary, had called Shumlin's plans unrealistic.
Shumlin frantically scribbled his rebuttal on a notepad.
"I'm concerned about tone of this campaign," Shumlin fired back in his opening statement. "... It has never been like this before, and let's hope in Vermont it never will be again. I don't want to be governor so badly I'll discredit the integrity of my opponent, to tell untruths to be in a position to get there."
Dubie, too, scribbled on a notepad.
Negative campaigning has been a fixture in high-profile races elsewhere in the country, and now it seems to have arrived in Vermont in full force.
The four lesser-known candidates - Cris Ericson of the U.S. Marijuana Party, and independents Dan Feliciano, Em Peyton and Dennis Steele - largely kept to issues during Sunday's debate, but did scold Dubie and Shumlin for their tone.
"When you put two bull studs in a small corral," Ericson said, "what do you expect, folks?"
In the past month, relations between Dubie and Shumlin have been especially sour, fueled by television ads from the Republican Governors Association ripping Shumlin for proposing to release dangerous prisoners early. Shumlin says he would release prisoners only after they had completed their prison terms, and only with adequate treatment programs to keep them out of trouble.
Dubie "tells something that's not true and then they suggest I'm being negative," Shumlin said.
"My ads are factual," Dubie said. "I stand by them."
This month, Shumlin countered with a tongue-in-cheek ad showing Dubie's nose growing Pinocchio-style while a voice refutes the claims.
This week, Alex MacLean, Shumlin's campaign manager, wrote television stations, asking them not to run Dubie's ads because they're factually inaccurate.
"What Brian is trying to do is cast doubt on (Shumlin's) character," said state Sen. Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille, who ran against Shumlin in the primary but now supports him. She said the tone of the race is unlike anything in recent Vermont politics.
She noted that the heated race for governor in 2000, with incumbent Democrat Howard Dean and Republican challenger Ruth Dwyer fighting over the backdrop of the civil union debate,"no one was going after character assassination," Bartlett said. "It really hasn't happened before."
"Everyone I've spoken to intensely dislikes the negative campaigning," said state Sen. Bill Doyle, a Republican from Montpelier who has been in the Senate for 40 years. "No one I know is happy about the tone of the gubernatorial debate."
The political climate is more toxic than he's ever seen it, Doyle said, and yet, "all I know is that they're both decent people. If they just put their best foot forward and talked about some of their accomplishments, that's what most people are looking for. In the modern age, where people know each other and with the media, (negative campaigning) just turns people off."
Big, bad mood:
Why has the governor's race turned away from respectful, issues-based campaigning?
"I think the whole mood of the country is just much more polarized, and we're not immune from that disease, unfortunately," said Madeleine Kunin, Vermont's governor from 1985 to 1991.
Though Kunin, a Democrat, admits she has some bias politically, she does think Dubie launched the first volley, and Shumlin had to respond.
"There's always a question" in politics, she said: "If an opponent goes negative on you, do you respond or not? Most political wisdom says you do."
In her first race for governor in 1984, when she beat Republican John J. Easton Jr., "there were high-profile ads, but they were tame compared to now," Kunin said.
Kunin and others said money has a heavy, growing influence on modern campaigns, including those in Vermont.
Indeed, this year's race is shaping up as the most expensive gubernatorial contest in Vermont history. According to campaign finance reports, Dubie had spent $741,192 by the last reporting date, Sept. 15, and Shumlin had spent $573,206.82 - a total of about $1.3 million. Those figures don't include the cost of campaign ads by political action committees or groups such as the Republican Governors Association.
In 2008, Progressive Anthony Pollina and Democrat Gaye Symington challenged Republican Gov. Jim Douglas, and the three had spent just $894,253 by Sept. 25 of that year - two-thirds of it by Douglas.
In the 2000 Dean-Dwyer race, total spending by Sept. 25 was just $546,587.
Bartlett thinks news coverage has stoked the fire.
In the five-way Democratic primary for governor, Bartlett said reporters were always looking for a crack in what was a relatively respectful contest.
"The media love to have people fight," she said. "All the way through the primary, it was 'fight fight fight fight fight, why are you not fighting?'"
Bartlett did commend the Vermont press for fact-checking the ads in this year's race.
It's hard for voters to keep track of who's playing fair in this year's campaign, Kunin said.
"It's a ping-pong game, and no one knows who started it," Kunin said. "This won't work in Vermont."
(Printed with permission of the Stowe Reporter & Vermont Press Association)