Excerpts from Interview with Peter Freyne
Peter Freyne spoke with DEMOCRACY IN ACTION on a bright summer day in July 2002 after he had finished reporting on an event at the INS facility in South Burlington.  He writes the Inside Track column for the Burlington weekly Seven Days and is also news correspondent for WDEV (AM 550 and FM 96.1, Radio Vermont in Waterbury / Montpelier) as well as WKDR (AM 1390 Newstalk in Winooski).  Despite his penchant for wearing Hawaiian shirts, Freyne is one of the most astute and "plugged in" observers of Vermont politics today.  He arrived on the scene in Burlington in November 1979 after having driven a cab in Chicago for the previous five years.  During Gov. Dean's weekly press conferences, Freyne regularly peppers the governor with all manner of questions, thus giving Dean invaluable training for his presidential run.
QUESTION: When did you first run into Gov. Dean?

FREYNE: It would have been around 1980.  The 190-81 era, back in there things started happening really fast because March of '81 Bernie [Sanders] got elected mayor and Burlington, Vermont woke up from a very, very long sleep and Howard Dean was around as background, just a guy in the background, you know little guy, used to have one of these [backpack].  So he was a young doctor type, and he was interested in the waterfront and he got together and started a group, Citizens' Waterfront Group, and they wanted to have a bike path on the Burlington waterfront--the Burlington Waterfront was a total #$*! back then.

QUESTION: Was he a leader in that effort?

FREYNE: He was a co-chairman of that group with a fellow named Rick Sharp, who's a lawyer, who's still around but pretty much beneath the radar since.  Rick ran for the State Senate eventually in the '80s and got creamed.  But Howard went and became chairman of the [Democratic] county committee, which he did.

QUESTION: When did that happen?

FREYNE: That would have been around 1980...  It's the party job.  Perfunctory thing.  You run a meeting.  There's not a whole lot of activity on it.  You get together at election time...  They're always looking to find someone for those jobs--who wants to do it?  But then I guess he went to the Democratic Convention, became a delegate, the whole story about him and Esther Sorrell...has already been written up.  Billy Sorrell's now the Attorney General; Howard tried to appoint him Supreme Court Chief Justice but it didn't fly.  Sorrell didn't get through the committee.  They had set up a mechanism for judicial review of some kind and Sorrell didn't make the cut.

QUESTION: How long was he county Democratic chair? 

FREYNE: Just that long and then '82 he running for the legislature. 

QUESTION: Who was he running against?  Oh nobody probably.  It's a Democratic ward, that became a Progressive ward.  There were no Republicans running.  I don't know if there was a primary or not at that point.  The old North End of Burlington, he was Ward 2 in the middle; always the Democrats had the old North End; it was the working class party of town.  So he ran and he got in and in the second term he became the whip, Democratic whip, which is the number two post...

QUESTION: Do you remember anything from his first term, second term?

FREYNE: Howard Dean in the '80s was just a guy in the background--a nice guy, seemed not necessarily a light weight, but not really a heavy weight either; you know  he has the doctor thing, and you thought he was dabbling in politics...

The Speaker of the House was a fellow from Bennington named Ralph Wright, a legendary figure in Vermont politics in the last two decades.  [ed. note: Wright served as Speaker from 1985 to 1995; he was one of only three Democrats since the mid-1850's to hold the post].  He won the speakership as Howard became the whip, that election, even though the Democrats were the minority, they cut enough deals that Ralph became the Speaker, and that was ....a good education for Howard Dean in politics because Ralph Wright was a real [inaud.] politician.  He was from Somerville, Mass., the ex-Marine, his mother was a waitress--stood up for the little guy kind of a thing...

He had to learn from Ralph, because Ralph was all about power.  Hardball.  Ralph Wright of Bennington, still alive.  Served for 14 years?  The Republicans despised him, went all out to defeat hip, and they eventually did defeat him in must have been the '96 race, '94 race.

QUESTION: Where'd he go from there?

FREYNE: In '86 he ran for lieutenant governor, because the lieutenant governor, who was Peter Smith, ran against  Madeline Kunin and lost.  And Dean won that race.  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.  You know he's only 5'9" so he doesn't come on like a big bully, but he was ambitious, certainly ambitious...

I don't even know who he ran against.  Howard Dean was not big on the radar.  Lieutenant governor's a lightweight job.  All they do is preside over the Senate.  You've got to know parliamentary procedure.  Essentially that's it.  They get an office and a secretary.  And in this state the governors don't cut them in on the action even if they are of the same party...

He played it as a part-time job.  He used to drive a pickup truck, a little blue pickup truck back then, be parked in the lieutenant governor's spot. 

Here's a guy whose grandmother had George Bush's grandmother in her wedding party driving the little blue pickup.  He's always played down that patrician blue blood past, and now we learn about it.  He never showed it.  He didn't drink, no fancy restaurants, his wife was like the hippy generation, no make up.  So Howard was just being a doctor and being lieutenant governor and learning the lay of the land.  Learning how it works.  The '80s he spent really as a student of Vermont politics.  And how government works and how deals are made and he learned not by reading about it; he jumped into the pond and started swimming, and learned by mistakes, but learned.

QUESTION: Four years as lieutenant governor.

FREYNE: He was into his fifth when the guy ahead of him died.  August of '91 Dick Snelling has the heart attack, Howard Dean's at the doctor's office seeing a patient and boom, boom.

QUESTION: Is he different now as governor than he was back then? 

FREYNE:  Sure he's much, much more confident.  He's peaking on confidence right now.  He comes back from traveling, he's really peaking... 

He stood right up to the Democratic liberals right away.  We started to see what he was about.  That's when I started to notice the Howard Dean of Park Avenue and East Hampton and Yale University.  He was never part of the tax and spend liberal Democratic wing, ever. 

Peter Welch was this Democratic Senator, also from Windsor County--very ambitious--and Peter Welch stepped forward to run for Governor in 1990, and Dick Snelling--open seat.  Well Dean being lieutenant governor, Howard's next in line kind of.  But he decided no, he wouldn't go there.  People thought, ah, he's not hungry enough.  But it wasn't he wasn't hungry enough; he didn't think he could win, I would suggest.  And Peter Welch ran, ran with the liberal Democratic message and got beat.   Now, after six years of Madeline Kunin, Vermont trusted Dick Snelling, because people trusted Dick Snelling with their money; he was a Republican... 

[When Dean became governor] they [liberal Democrats] were all thinking, oh we got a Democrat back in the governor's office.  And all of the sudden they find Howard Dean's worse on spending [than Snelling].  The state was headed into a recession at the time.  And Snelling before he died, he and Ralph Wright cut a deal on raising the income taxes and [inaud.] the deficit--a few years of austerity.  Howard stuck with the plan.  And as Dick McCormack [Democratic Senator from Windsor] will tell you of the meeting where he [Dean] met with the Democratic Caucus and told them then, and this might have been before, when he was still lieutenant governor, and told the Democratic Senators, you're never going to win because people don't trust you with their money.  None of your great and lofty goals and plans and aspirations will ever be achieved because people don't trust Democrats with their money.  We got to prove it to 'em.  And that was key.  I mean his political enemies for the first three terms were Democrats at the State House, not Republicans.  Republicans loved his budgets.

QUESTION: Earlier on you said he learned by mistakes.

FREYNE: He learned on health care.  He tried to put in a big health care thing, must have been '94ish.  The Democrats were pushing along on the drumbeat of health care and Clinton's talking about it and all this.  So the day it ended, that day that winter when the Grocer's Association ran a big ad in the Rutland Herald and said what was it, it will cost 750 million, something like that $750 million of your taxes to support this plan.

QUESTION: What are some of his strengths and weaknesses?

FREYNE: He's smart, he's willing to learn, he's goal-oriented.  He's a Scorpio--Scorpios are fighters, warriors.  It's a warrior nature.  He's ruled by the planet Mars, the red planet.  He's got backbone.  And goal-oriented.  I think the possibility of being president is something that didn't just pop into his head--it was there in the 1980s.  Because what he knew that nobody else knew here was that he was born to lead--very successful background.  Ralph Wright, Ralph had a book All Politics is Personal, his memoir.  And the line about Howard Dean was that with Howard Dean losing was never part of the equation.  He had such confidence that not succeeding was never a consideration, and that if something doesn't work it was like, okay, try something else.

QUESTION: Some of the people I've talked to have said there's an arrogance.

FREYNE: All people who want to be president are arrogant, or even governors; I mean there is that in them.  It's called leadership.  You want a mamby pampy?

QUESTION: What do you think about the notion of him running for president? 

FREYNE: To me it's exciting.  It's once again.  First the Bernie Sanders thing...

This is a state comprised mainly of small towns, though people move to urban areas.  But that still lingers on.  Howard Dean I think has a great respect for politics and democracy.  Politics is a good thing I think.  It beats the rest of the world shooting one another. 

So he's a man with a plan.  He's the man with the plan.  And the remarkable thing about him is he's always kept it close.  He's not a braggart; he's not a pompous SOB.  What he believes in he believes in strongly, but he's still a doctor by training.  Doctors by training sometimes have to tell people you are 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 bringing that doctor thing into it, he'll be real and he'll be be straight...


Copyright © 2002  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action