Vol. 12, No. 3,009 - The American Reporter - October 19, 2006

On Native Ground

by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
Dummerston, Vt.

Printable version of this story

DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- We still find it hard to believe, here in Vermont, that our former governor, Howard Dean, is the current front-runner for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

We find even more unbelievable his image in the national press, where he is frequently portrayed as a wild-eyed liberal.

Having seen him in action for the last decade as our governor, I can tell you that Howard Dean is a pro-business, fiscal conservative who routinely fought with the liberal wing of his party in Vermont. He's someone who always says what he believes and doesn't worry about the consequences. And above all, he is pragmatic and focused on the politics of the possible rather than on what George Herbert Walker Bush called "the vision thing."

Bob Sherman, a longtime Vermont journalist who has known Dean since they played football against other in prep school, believes people underestimate Dean at their own peril. "There are three things you have to understand about Howard Dean," said Sherman. "He's aggressive, he's politically astute and he's lucky."

But don't take his word for it. Read the new book, "Howard Dean: A Citizens Guide to the Man Who Would be President."

The book, published by Steerforth Press, was put together by two family-owned independent Vermont newspapers, the Rutland Herald and the Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus. The two papers share a three-person bureau at the State House in Montpelier and consistently produce the best and most comprehensive coverage of Vermont's state government. Given their resources and reputation, the Herald and Times-Argus are ideally positioned to produce an accurate and complete overview of Dean's political career in Vermont just at the moment when the rest of the nation is getting curious about what he's really like.

If you're looking for gossip or dirt, this is the wrong book for you. Nor is it a fawning and uncritical examination of Dean. It simply looks at his record and shows his successes and failures, his virtues and flaws.

Dean's political career in Vermont has been marked by being at the right place at the right time. When he moved to Burlington in 1978 to serve his residency at the University of Vermont's teaching hospital, he hadn't planned on getting into politics. But one of his new neighbors turned out to be Esther Sorrell, a Democratic activist who had considerable influence in the party. Dean spent Friday nights at Sorrell's house watching "Vermont This Week," Vermont Public Television's weekly roundup of the political scene, and soaking up Democratic gossip and lore.

Dean's first foray into Vermont politics was his involvement with the Citizens' Waterfront Group, a committee formed to preserve public access to Burlington's Lake Champlain waterfront. Developers were salivating over the prospect of turning what was a rundown industrial area into lakefront condos. The committee wanted a public bike path along the water's edge.

William Sorrell, Esther's son, represented the city during the ultimately successful fight for the bike path. He was impressed with Dean's enthusiasm for the project and how he managed to find time to be actively involved despite the demands of his residency. The Sorrells took note and steered him toward Democratic politics. With their strong backing, he ran for a seat in the Vermont House in 1982 and won - largely on the strength of his support for the Burlington bike path.

Vermont's part-time citizen legislature generally meets only five months of the year. Thus, even someone with a growing medical practice - Dean and his wife, Judith Steinberg, were both family practitioners who eventually shared a practice in a Burlington suburb - could get involved in state politics and still have time for a professional career.

When he moved out of his Burlington district, Dean had to make a decision about the 1986 election. Even though he was just a two-term state representative, he seriously considered taking on Jim Jeffords, then Vermont's lone congressman. But he was smart enough to realize he couldn't beat Jeffords and aggressive enough to try for the next best thing: lieutenant governor, which, unlike many states, is a separately elected office.

In a volatile election year, Dean leapfrogged over several others in the Democratic Party to win the job. He successfully ran for two more terms: winning in 1988 under Democratic governor Madeleine Kunin and in 1990, when Republican Richard Snelling was elected governor.

Up until the morning of Aug. 14, 1991, nobody in Vermont thought much of Howard Dean. Then Snelling was found dead at his home, struck down by a heart attack at the age of 64. Suddenly, Dean was the state's chief executive.

Dean walked into a seemingly impossible situation. The state was in a major recession as well as a budget crisis. Snelling had engineered a package of temporary tax increases and budget cuts to pay off a $65 million deficit, a huge amount for a traditionally fiscally conservative state. Snelling's agenda of frugality and pragmatism suited Dean, for he believed in it too. He adeptly picked up where Snelling left off.

"Howard understands economic reality," said Burlington businessman Nord Brue, founder of the Bruegger's Bagels chain. "He's economically literate. He's a guy who wants to do things. That's where his friends on the green side will be surprised. He'll make trade-offs. If they are expecting a perfectly green world - that's not Howard."

That's pretty much sums up Dean's 11 1/2 years as governor of Vermont. Despite pressures from the liberals in his own party, Dean kept a lid on spending and retired the state's deficit - and the temporary tax increases that helped pay it off - by 1994. He maintained that fiscal discipline even through the boom years of the late 1990s. When he left office in 2001, at a time when other states started to have budget problems, Vermont had a modest surplus and one of the best bond ratings in the nation.

That's not the kind of record that can get liberals excited. But that's the essence of Howard Dean. Although he could find money to support projects dear to his heart, such as buying up 470,000 acres of wild lands to preserve them from development, his first priority was to make sure the state spent no more than it took in.

Dean also understood the need to get the business community on his side. Despite his love for the outdoors, Dean actively supported several major commercial developments over the objections of environmentalists who feared their impact on air and water quality. His pro-business tilt infuriated many liberals.

Then there was the most difficult moment of his tenure as governor - the Vermont Supreme Court's ruling in December 1999 that same-sex couples could not be denied the same rights and responsibilities associated with marriage under state law.

What followed was perhaps the most divisive year in Vermont's history. The public debate over same-sex marriage was a wrenching one and put the state's politicians in a difficult spot. The court required them to come up with a solution and they were confronted with the dilemma of doing what was right against doing what would preserve their political careers.

Dean's first reaction was a natural one. "It makes me uncomfortable, the same as anybody else," he said at a news conference immediately after the court's decision was released. But he also realized that the best way to satisfy the court's demands was for the Legislature to quickly come up with some sort of domestic partnership bill.

Those that wanted gay marriage were outraged that same-sex couples might end up something "separate but equal." Many more were outraged that any step would be taken to legitimize same-sex unions.

Then-Speaker of the House Michael Obuchowski recalled Dean's advice. "'This is something we need to do, and we need to do it as fast as we can.' He never said to us, 'Don't do it, it's political suicide, it's the wrong thing, or I'm uncomfortable, or go slow, do a study.'"

For some, voting for what became known as "civil unions" was political suicide. Several members of the Legislature lost their seats in the 2000 elections and the GOP took control of the House. Dean barely won re-election.

Some attacked Dean for signing the civil union bill in private, as if he were ashamed of it. But his explanation of why the most controversial legislation in the state's history was enacted behind closed doors says a lot about the kind of man Howard Dean is.

"I can't imagine any governor in this country who would take the position that I've taken on this bill," he said. "In fact, there isn't one. But I also think its important to acknowledge that there are two very strongly divided sides in this debate, and I think sometimes signing ceremonies take on the trappings of triumphalism. That was not appropriate in this case."

The confidence and political astuteness that has marked Dean's career was summed up in that remark. He knew he had to do the right thing but he wanted to do so in a way that alienated the fewest people possible. The fact that his opponents wouldn't have a picture of the signing ceremony to use against him in future campaigns didn't hurt either.

Hamilton Davis, one of the nine journalists who contributed to this book, told Editor & Publisher Online that "once you read this book, you will realize that what you think you know about him is not true. My guess is the general public knows virtually nothing that is in this book."

However, those of us who have lived in Vermont do know - and lived through - much of it. It is a good thing that now the rest the nation will soon know what we do: that Howard Dean is not the second coming of George McGovern, Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis. He is an entirely different politician who didn't get to where he is in the presidential race by accident.

Randolph T. Holhut was a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at randyholhut@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2006 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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