The Moderate from Vermont
Gov. Howard Dean, M.D. is Known for Speaking His Mind
Interview and More
Photo: E.M. Appleman

[By Eric M. Appleman -- Posted August 12, 2002]  On Wednesday August 14, 1991 Howard Dean, M.D., then the 42 year-old Democratic lieutenant governor of Vermont and a practicing physician, was thrust into the governor's office when Gov. Richard Snelling (R) died suddenly eight months into his term.  Under the tragic circumstances, Dean responded calmly.  He finished with the patient he was examining then headed to Montpelier where he met with Snelling's cabinet and set up individual meetings with its members.

Cornelius "Con" Hogan, Snelling's Secretary of the Agency of Human Services, recalls his meeting with Dean.  Accompanied by Peter Profera, director of administration services for the Agency, Hogan laid out what was happening in Human Services.  "After it was over, after that 45 minutes was done and the governor listened patiently and seemed to absorb everything, I asked Mr. Profera, either one of two things happened.  Either the governor didn't understand a word I said or he understood everything I said.  And Pete said he understood every word.  And that was the beginning of a long relationship that we had.  It was a tough time."

Despite the partisan difference Dean kept Snelling's team in place.  Hogan continued to serve as Secretary of the Human Services for another eight-plus years.  Dean also carried through on the austerity program that Snelling and Speaker Ralph Wright had brokered to address the state's $65 million budget deficit.  Veteran Vermont journalist Peter Freyne says that, "He [Dean] stood right up to the Democratic liberals right away...  He was never part of the tax and spend liberal Democratic wing, ever."

Dean's intelligence and his moderate, middle-of-the-road outlook and his fiscal conservatism have thus been apparent from his first days as governor.  While maintaining fiscal discipline, Dean has been able to build for the future with programs such as the Success by Six early childhood initiative, which has helped cut the state's child abuse rate in half, and the Dr. Dynasaur program, which has expanded upon Medicaid to bring health care to virtually every child in Vermont.   He has also achieved much in the way of land conservation, most notably helping to secure 133,000 acres in the Champion land deal of 1999.  Explaining his fiscal conservatism at an April 2002 conference organized by the progressive group Campaign for America's Future, Dean stated, "I'm here because I think social justice can't be accomplished without a balanced budget."

Avoiding Extremes
Dean exhibits an almost reflexive tendency to dismiss extremes and hew to the middle of the road.  Although his time at Yale coincided with the tumult of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Dean generally avoided political causes.  He observes, "I had some sort of deep-seated suspicion of extremes on both sides.  I mean I couldn't stand Dick Nixon of course, but I really didn't trust the leadership of the left either."  That attitude has continued to the present.  Tony Gierzynski, associate professor of political science at the University of Vermont, says of Dean that, "He's not been a typical Democrat...he has a number of times gone against what his party's wanted to do."  "He's not afraid to battle with his own side as well as the other side," Gierzynski said.  Brian Vachon, vice president of communications at National Life Insurance Company, says, "What I like about him enormously is that he absolutely goes with his gut instincts all the time...he kind of does what he thinks makes sense less from an ideological point of view than just from personal instincts."  Lee Light, a Progressive, who together with her husband Bob runs the Hollister Hill Farm in Marshfield, puts it concisely: "Howard Dean's a real middle of the road kind of guy."

Asked what makes a good leader, Dean states, "I think it's a balance.  You've got to have long-term vision and then you've got to be willing to take short incremental steps to get to the long-term vision..."  "Being a leader is not always being 25 yards in front of everybody else; it's a balance of sometimes being five yards behind and making sure that they get what they need."

The clearest example of Dean's incremental approach is evident in his approach to health care.  On May 11, 1992 Dean signed a law which at the time was seen as putting Vermont on the path to universal health care by 1995.  At no point did Dean back the single payer approach favored by progressives, however.  Instead, Act 160 created a new Health Care Authority charged with developing proposals for universal access by November 1993; these would then be considered by the legislature.  Meanwhile Dean was also in the thick of the national health care debate which unfolded in 1993 and 1994.  He headed the National Governors' Association task force on health care and provided advice to Hillary Rodham Clinton's task force.  In 1994 efforts at major reform collapsed at both the national level and in Vermont.  Since then Dean has expanded Medicaid.  Today in Vermont 96 percent of children and 92 percent of adults have health insurance.

The debate over education funding, which came to the fore with the Vermont Supreme Court's ruling in Brigham v. Vermont in February 1997, has been one of the most contentious issues facing Vermont in recent years, and not a few Vermonters have faulted Dean's leadership on this matter.  For example, Vachon at National Life Insurance speaks admiringly of Dean but expresses disappointment with his handling of the education funding debate.  Dean, he said, "basically said the legislature has to come up with a proposal."   Rep. John Tracy (D-Burlington), now House Minority Leader, rebuffs these criticisms stating, "I would say that he knows the role of the legislature...  It was clear that he had some ideas as to where he wanted us to go."  "You knew he didn't want a straight income tax.  He made that clear.  Because he knew, he looked at the financial stability and the needs of the state," says Tracy.  Moving relatively quickly, the legislature passed the controversial "Equal Educational Opportunity Act," commonly known as Act 60, which established a statewide property tax with an income sensitivity provision.   Act 60 was a significant issue in the 1998 campaign, and, says Gierzynski, the UVM poli sci professor, "He [Dean] stood up and defended Act 60 very well back in 1998.  He's taken a lot of heat for that."

Perhaps no issue has brought Dean as much flack and attention as the debate over what is now known as civil unions.  The Vermont Supreme Court's ruling in Baker v. Vermont in December 1999 triggered an intense debate over gay marriage.  Dean immediately laid out his position: he opposed gay marriage, but supported guaranteeing civil rights through domestic partnerships.  Many in the gay and lesbian community were not happy with that stance, wanting to settle for nothing less than gay marriage.  Meanwhile others who opposed any initiative were advocating a "stick it in the drawer, deal with it later" approach.  Dean didn't move from his position despite entreaties to do so.  After heated hearings and debates, the General Assembly passed the bill that Dean signed in April 2000.  Dean's critics argue that because he signed the civil unions bill behind closed doors, he is a hypocrite for trumpeting the measure during his recent national travels.  However, Rep. Bill Lippert says that Dean deserves great credit on the issue.   Lippert, a Democrat from Hinesburg who was appointed by Dean to fill a vacant seat in 1994, is the only openly gay member of the House; he served as vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee during the civil unions debate.  He points out that Dean steadfastly defended civil unions during the subsequent election campaign.  Lippert says the civil unions bill was a historic gain for the gay and lesbian community, although it cost Democrats control in the House in November 2000.

In the debates over education funding and civil unions, Dean demonstrated a similar approach.  Rather than presenting a fully developed policy or position, which is the legislature's job, he set out some clear and solid markers and thereby was able to influence the direction and outcome of the subsequent debate in the legislature.  Minority Leader Tracy says, "[Y]ou always know where the governor's coming from; he may not be out there pounding his chest doing it."

Dean has a reputation for being a straight-talker, blunt and to the point.  His training and service as a medical doctor may account for some of this.  Journalist Peter Freyne, one of the most astute observers of Vermont politics, says, "Doctors by training sometimes have to tell people you're not going to live.  And all doctors have to learn that.  And the politicians don't.  Politicians are trained to tell you you're going to live forever.  So you bring that doctor thing into it.  He'll be real and he'll be straight."  Likewise, Bob Hooper, former president of the Vermont State Employees' Association, "He is not afraid to take a less than popular stand and speak candidly about his reasons for doing so.  He is a doctor of medicine, not of spin.  I have never heard him duck an issue by distraction.  He prefers to take on all comers head on to clarify his position and explain his reasoning."

Elizabeth Courtney, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council states, "I think that part of Howard Dean's success in Vermont has been his fresh candor and intelligence.  You always know where Howard Dean stands.  He is candid and honest in his communications with Vermonters, and he is appreciated for that.  He's also very bright, and he has a clear sense of his direction...  On the other hand, those very qualities that make him a strong leader also lend him to being opinionated in a way that makes it difficult to influence him."

Former Rep. Mike Flaherty, who represented South Burlington in the Vermont House from 1995-2000 and was leader of a group of about a dozen "Blue Dog" Democrats, says of Dean, "He is strong-willed and he is opinionated, but I found him willing to listen."  Anthony Pollina, the Progressive candidate who ran against Dean in 2000 and won 9.4 percent of the vote, observes,  "I say this slightly tongue and cheek--he has an imperial attitude.  I mean he has not always been the easiest person for regular folks to work with.  I think that he is a good manager in the sense that he's willing to make tough decisions and stand by them.  I think unfortunately he's not always open, or he's often not open to input from the public and other ways of looking at problems."  David Zuckerman, an organic vegetable farmer who is one of four Progressives in the Vermont House of Representatives, says "He's moderately willing to listen, but rarely changes his position."

Some of what Pollina refers to as an "imperial attitude" may stem from Dean's training as a doctor.  As Beach Conger, M.D. notes in his humorous book Bag Balm and Duct Tape: Tales of a Vermont Doctor, "Arrogance is the sine qua non, the ne plus ultra, the there-but-for-the grace-of-God-go-I, of doctoring."  Freyne opines, "All people who want to be president are arrogant...I mean there is that in them.  It's called leadership.  You want a mamby pamby?"

John O'Kane, manager of government affairs for IBM, created a minor stir when he stated of Dean in a recent profile in The American Prospect, "He's thin-skinned.  We choose our words very carefully around him."  However Rep. Tracy says, "In reading that article where John O'Kane made that comment, I thought, 'Oh, gees, I mean I don't see the governor as thin-skinned at all...he is a guy who takes he job very passionately and I think we need more passionate politicians."  Similarly, Tony Gierzynski, the UVM professor says, "I think that's a bit overblown."   "He's not not afraid to be confrontational.  He will get angry; he's got the passion.  It's never occurred to me that he's been thin-skinned," Gierzynski says.  Hooper of the VSEA states, "He seems a little gruff at times, and sometimes seems to shoot from the hip.  We should not look at this as a deficit, as when this happens you can be assured you are getting the most honest response any politician will offer you.  In fact I suspect politician is not a word that fits this man; he is a doctor who chooses to work in a political environment."

Finally, Con Hogan, Dean's former Secretary of Human Services, observes, "We had some beautiful arguments, and that's one of the neat things about this guy; he could push you to the wall behind closed doors, absolutely, and I had the privilege of being able to do the same.  But the neat thing was that once that was over you never look back; neither party ever looked back.  It was always looking forward."

Hogan also offers insights into Dean's management style.  "He finds people he can trust and he lets them do their jobs and he provides strong, large-view leadership," Hogan says.  "He's not a micromanager, although he has a remarkable memory of a physician...  He has a remarkable mind in that regard.  But people he would put around him, he gave them free reign."  Likewise Hooper of the VSEA states, "I believe he surrounds himself with people who have the capability to give him the most insightful information on a subject, which he gathers and then moves to a decision that he is willing to own and stand behind."

Republican Criticism
Reached by phone, Joe Acinapura, chair of the Vermont Republican Party prefers to talk about how well President Bush is doing, but, when pressed for observations on Dean, he eventually says, "He didn't do anything to reduce the regulatory burden."  Likewise, Mike Bertrand, a Montpelier attorney who is seeking the Republican nomination for Secretary of State, says Dean has not done enough to create good paying jobs.  Bertrand suggests much could be done in the way of tax credits, improving infrastructure, and streamlining the land use permitting process (Act 250).  To see Howard Dean's legacy, Bertrand says, "you need to go to the outer parts of the state--[places like] Springfield, Randolph, and Newport."  At the same time, however, Bertrand says, "I'll give Howard Dean credit for being a fiscal conservative."

Criticism from the Left
If Republican criticism is somewhat muted, Dean has his share of critics on the left.  Vermont, it must be noted is the home of Bernie Sanders, the socialist former Mayor of Burlington, who has served as the state's lone congressman since January 1991.  Green Party presidential nominee Ralph Nader achieved his second best showing in the 2000 campaign in Vermont, 6.9 percent (Alaska was 10.1 percent).  That same year Anthony Pollina, the Progressive candidate for governor, garnered 9.5 percent of the vote.  In short, the left is a significant force in Vermont politics.

Pollina, now running for lieutenant governor, criticizes Dean for not putting enough money into the state colleges.  "The fact is that over the last decade we have consciously underfunded or refused to fund our state colleges adequately," he says.  Pollina also offers a detailed critique of Dean's approach to doing health care through expanded Medicaid, stating, "I feel like we're kind of moving blindly toward some kind of what he would call universal coverage."  "There's no plan; there's no cost containment.  Providers are not adequately reimbursed and it becomes a sort of a political hot potato for the legislature every year or two," Pollina says.

Progressives also find much to fault in Dean's record on agriculture.  Lee Light, who with husband Bob runs the Hollister Hill Farm in the Marshfield area, states, "He's been governor for 11 years and we've lost a lot of farms, and we've also been a state that hasn't fought against the bovine growth hormone factory farms...  He has a commissioner of agriculture that hasn't bucked that trend toward bigger agriculture.  The Agriculture Department he never fully funds; he's always cutting the budget."  Likewise Rep. David Zuckerman, leader of the four Progressives in the House and an organic vegetable farmer, states, "He's done almost nothing for agriculture."  Zuckerman says that slaughterhouses have been closing, and there has been very little money to help them upgrade; that transition money is needed to help farms convert to organic; that there is a need for an organic dairy bottling plant; and that Vermont should be kept free of genetically modified organisms.

Dean has butted heads with the Conservation Law Foundation, which pursues a litigious approach to environmental issues.  Sandra Levine, staff attorney for the organization concedes, "I think he's done a good job in the area of farmland protection..."  However Levine adds, "He's fallen behind in terms of enforcement, clean up, and keeping Lake Champlain clean and promoting renewable energy, and I think his record has been mixed in terms of sprawl."

Countering the most commonly heard Republican criticism, Christopher William of Montpelier, who teaches social studies in Williamstown, says of Dean, "He wants to promote bring businesses to Vermont so badly that quite often he might give them a little bit more than is necessary."  William, who spoke during a break from playing ultimate, the frisbee game, on the State House lawn, cites the example of Husky Injection Molding Systems, Inc. which opened a facility in Milton in 1997.   Nonetheless, William says that overall Dean has "done a good job."

Respect from Most Quarters
The middle of the road approach earns Dean outright praise from some and respect from most.   At times he almost seems like a moderate Republican.  In 1999 when the state was running heavy surpluses, Dean worked with Blue Dog Democrats to reduce the personal income tax.  As a result, the rate went from 25 percent of federal income tax liability to 24 percent, and clothing costing under $110 was exempted from the sales tax.  Organized labor seems happy with Dean too.  Tom Belville, political director of the Vermont AFL-CIO assesses Dean's record thusly, "He's got a very good record as far as the Vermont AFL-CIO is concerned."  "When push came to shove he'd always come down on  our side on the very important issues, but we did have some occasional differences but they were very minor," Belville says.  VSEA's Hooper states, "We have a good overall relationship with Gov. Dean.  He does not always listen to us.  He does not always ignore us."

Even the Progressives have a few kind words.  Rep. Zuckerman states, "In general I do think he's pretty straightforward.  I just disagree with his politics."  Anthony Pollina says, "I think while Howard Dean is far from my first choice, I think a Vermonter could bring a level of common sense to the White House that the country might appreciate."

Family First
Howard Dean first got involved in politics in 1980 when he was a resident at UVM Medical Center Hospital.   He did some grunt work for Jimmy Carter's re-election campaign under the direction of State Sen. Esther Sorrell, and he was a delegate to the 1980 Democratic National Convention.  He also spearheaded an effort to build a bike path along the Burlington waterfront.  In 1982 he was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives and in 1986 he won election as lieutenant governor.

Dean and his wife, Dr. Judith Steinberg, who is a practicing physician, have two children: Anne, 18, will be starting at Yale in the fall, and Paul, 16, will be a junior at Burlington High School.  David Coates, who first backed Dean in his race for lieutenant governor and serves on Dean's Council of Economic Advisors, says of Dean, "He's always put his kids first...he just made his schedule around theirs."  Likewise, Con Hogan states, "You're never going to find a stronger family man.  He would never have a meeting before 8:30 or 9:00 in the morning because he personally took his kids to school all these years."  Dean notes, "My kids and I have canoed the entire length of the Connecticut River, which is 400 miles.  We've sailed the entire length of Lake Champlain..."  Unlike such visible political wives as Tipper Gore, Hadassah Lieberman, or Sen. John Edwards' wife Elizabeth, Dr. Steinberg has avoided the political scene, and seems likely to continue to do so.

Long Odds (Remember Jimmy Carter?  Bill Clinton?)
Howard Dean clearly faces long odds in his quest for the president.  First, he is not well known.  Indeed, for those Americans who can name any Vermont politician, the first to come to mind might be Sen. Jim Jeffords (I), who tipped the balance in the U.S. Senate by switching from the Republican party in June 2001, or Sen. Pat Leahy, who was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974, or Rep. Bernie Sanders, the socialist congressman, or even Fred Tuttle, the septuagenarian dairy farmer who starred in the 1996 independent film "Man With A Plan," and managed to gain the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 1998.  The obscurity obstacle should not prove to be a problem in the long run.  Dean is starting to gain exposure, and if his message resonates and he delivers a few strong performances, it can be overcome.

A more daunting question is whether Dean has the ability to raise the millions of dollars required to win the Democratic nomination.  Nick Baldick, a former top Gore operative, estimates $15 million will be necessary.  The prospective 2004 candidates now serving in the Congress have shown strong ability to raise money for their leadership PACs and re-election campaigns in 2001 and the first half of 2002, but Dean has thus far brought in very modest amounts.  Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, for example, will be able to gain a huge boost by transferring any unused funds from his 2002 re-election campaign to a presidential campaign committee.  Dean has made frequent overtures to the gay and lesbian community in his 2001-2 travels, based on his support for civil unions, and that could translate into some fundraising strength.  He may also be able to gain, if not money, some significant endorsements as a result of his long work with the Democratic Governors Association.

Despite these hurdles, Dean has assets which could take him far in the campaign.  As of mid-2002, he was the only governor openly preparing to enter the race for the Democratic nomination.  If prospects such as Roy Barnes of Georgia or Gray Davis of California do not get in, Dean will have the distinction of being the outside-the-Beltway candidate.

Dean's straightforwardness is a definite strong point.  He seems relatively free of the posturing, poll-speak, and propensity to generalities that some of the Washington prospects display from time to time.  Recent elections have shown that the straight-talking, truth-telling candidate can frequently attract lots of positive media coverage--recall Bruce Babbitt in 1988, Paul Tsongas in 1992, or John McCain, on the Republican side, in 2000.  The fact that Dean is a doctor may also play into this.  Journalist Freyne, recalling Dean's election as lieutenant governor, says, "We didn't know a lot about him, but he was a doctor, and doctors are good right?  A doctor's the only stranger you'll undress before on command.  Trusting is important."

Dean is smart.  "I think he is a much smarter...person than he often lets on to be.  He grasps situations quickly and is able to make decisions literally 'on the fly' that reflect fundamental understanding of the issue and the consequences of the decision," says Bob Hooper of the VSEA.

Dean is doing his homework, or, as Freyne puts it, "He's goal-oriented."  During a trip to Washington, DC in May 2002 he held his first meeting with foreign policy experts; he is also getting briefed on defense, and in July he stated that the last two books he read were defense books from the Brookings Institution.  Dean, incidentally, notes that he has visited some 50 countries.

Dean is an intense and energetic 53 years old.  Freyne's nickname for the governor, "Ho-Ho," does not refer to the dessert manufactured by Hostess ® (a chocolate cake rolled with creamy filling), but to Dean's energy and enthusiasm.  Freyne explains that the name was coined by the late state Rep. Mary Everti in the early 80's.  Upon seeing Dean, she remarked to Freyne, "It's Ho-ho-ho!" because Dean was always on the go.  Dean "on the go" is still evident today.  Wayne Roberts, president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, who has traveled with Dean on several trade overseas missions, says Dean travels with one small suitcase and goes into one meeting right after the other.  "It's all serious business," Roberts says.

Following his announcement on September 5, 2001 that he would not seek re-election Dean has traveled extensively; he has further stepped up his travels in the first half of 2002, earning some criticism from home state folks in the process. "Right now I'm just simply meeting key players around the country and key constituency groups," Dean says.  In the first six months of 2002, Dean made twice as many trips to Iowa (5 trips totaling 8 days) and to New Hampshire (6 trips totaling 7 days) as any of the other likely 2004 candidates.  Dean has done all this with very lean political operation which, until recently, consisted of Kate O'Connor, a longtime aide who is also the secretary of civil and military affairs.  In May, a Seton Hall student signed on and in June a recent UVM graduate joined the effort.

In his travels Dean emphasizes his record of fiscal conservatism, the need for investments in children (Success by Six), and the fact that virtually all children have health insurance in Vermont.  He has been strongly critical of the Bush tax cuts, stating that "President Bush has returned us to the days of borrow-and-spend Republican politics, which may sound fine on a temporary basis, but we are undermining Social Security, undermining Medicare and have not stimulated the economy."  On health care, there are an estimated 38 million uninsured Americans.  Dean proposes to take his incremental approach to the national level.  "We've learned that we cannot radically reform the health-care system, but we can take the three existing systems that we already have--Medicaid, Medicare and employer-based insurance--and simply expand them so that everybody would have health insurance.  It would cost us about half of what the president cut in taxes," Dean told Tim Russert during his July 21, 2002 appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press."  This apparently commonsense approach may appeal to citizens who have been put off by more complex or far-reaching proposals.

Still Governor
Eleven years ago, when then 42-year old Howard Dean assumed office, Vermont was in throes of a recession.  He has gone on to be elected five times, making him the longest serving governor in the state's history with the exception of the very first governor, Thomas Chittenden.  As Dean concludes his final six months as governor, Vermont is again confronting the effects of an economic downturn, as are most states.   Thus it is that a Wednesday morning in July 2002 finds Governor Dean seated at one end of a conference table with the leaders of the "money committees" from the House and Senate, while two economists at the other end of the table present a fairly sobering picture.  A report by Thomas E. Kavet, one of the economists, notes, "The period between July of 2001 and June of 2002 has witnessed the largest decline in State General Fund revenues on record."   The economists state that revenues will be down for FY 2003 as well.  As a result the administration faces the task of preparing $38 million in cuts.  Later, in a press conference, Dean pledges, "I will not cut one single person off the rolls, but we will not be able to sustain the same benefit level that everybody has."  "When I came in we had the highest marginal tax rate in the country and we had an enormous budget deficit, a huge budget deficit.  We're not faced with those problems this time," Dean says.

Transcript of July 10 Interview with Gov. Dean in his office in the Pavilion Office Building, Montpelier.

Photos of Governor Dean, July 10, 2002
1...  Emergency Board meeting.

2...  Press conference.

3...  In his office.

4...  Dean's political headquarters.

Dr. Dynasaur

Success by Six

Civil Unions (Act 91)

Act 60 (Equal Educational Opportunity)

Act 250 (Land Use and Development)

Vermont Economy

Transcripts of Some of the Interviews for this Article
Tom Belville, political director of the Vermont AFL-CIO
Elizabeth Courtney, executive director of Vermont Natural Resources Council
Peter Freyne, journalist
Con Hogan, Independent candidate for governor
Bob Hooper, former president of the Vermont State Employees' Association
Anthony Pollina, Progressive candidate for lieutenant governor
Rick Sharp, lawyer
Rep. John Tracy, House Minority Leader
Later Additions
Sen. Dick McCormack, veteran legislator
Cartoons by Tim Newcomb


Click Links Below for Pictures of:
State House
Rural Vermont

Copyright © 2002  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action