November 26, 2002

KING OF THE GRAY STATES:

See Howard Run: Vermont governor Howard Dean is off and running for the White House. But why is he doing it, and where will he end up? (Charles P. Pierce, Globe Staff, 11/24/2002, Boston Globe Magazine)
In Vermont, where state government is largely a part-time business, and where the Legislature meets for only about 16 weeks a year, Dean's volatile and energetic persona was in stark contrast to the overall temper of the government he'd been handed to lead. Nevertheless, for all his bombast, he hewed to the middle, alienating everyone a little but very few people a lot. Dean's fiscal stewardship placed the governor on such firm political ground that he could afford to be stubborn when the Vermont Supreme Court handed him not one live grenade but two.

The first was a 1997 decision, Brigham v. State of Vermont, in which the court declared that the system of funding the state's public schools through property taxes produced unconstitutional inequities. An ugly class war erupted between wealthy communities and poorer ones. Fault lines cracked open between longtime Vermonters and more recent arrivals. Dean left the problem to the Legislature, and the state's General Assembly produced Act 60 - the Equal Educational Opportunity Act - which assessed a statewide property tax of $1.10 per $100 of assessed value, which was then placed into an education fund, which the state then distributed in block grants. This guaranteed a threshold amount to be spent per student regardless of where the student lived. If a town wanted to spend more than the threshold, the money went into a pool shared by the richer towns with the poorer towns. The solution angered everyone a little, but Dean stood by Act 60 staunchly during his 1998 reelection campaign.

The incivility that erupted during the school-funding debates exploded again in December 1999, when, in Baker v. State of Vermont, the state high court held that same-sex couples were entitled to the same legal benefits and protections enjoyed by heterosexual married couples. "It started during Act 60," recalls Lee Light, a farmer and longtime progressive activist. "But the civil-union thing put a cap on it. I've never seen that kind of nastiness up here. Never."

In April 2000, Dean signed a bill legalizing so-called civil unions in Vermont. He did so without any public ceremony, which angered the gay community and which isn't exactly George Aiken spitting in the eye of LBJ. However, during his 2000 reelection campaign, Dean never budged on his support for the civil-union bill even in the face of a withering assault from the Republican candidate, state legislator Ruth Dwyer, who, two years earlier, had been pounding him over Act 60.

In both elections and in everything he has done as governor, you can see Dean's distrust - indeed, his active, visceral dislike - of political extremes. His is a blunt personality that flourishes paradoxically in the gray areas. "I think the country's being run now by ideologues of the right," he says. "They can't tolerate ambiguity, and without ambiguity the world can't survive."


An excellent long profile, but, unfortunately for Mr. Dean, the American people tend not to choose gray men for the presidency, favoring what Willmoore Kendall called men of "high principle" instead.
Posted by Orrin Judd at November 26, 2002 4:51 PM
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