Home-State Record: Howard Dean

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(Host) Today in our series on the home-state records of the Democratic presidential candidates we look at former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. He was one of that state’s longest serving governors and built his reputation on balanced budgets, health care for the uninsured, and the hot issue of gay rights.

From Vermont Public Radio, John Dillon reports.

(Dean, from announcement speech) “You have the power! You have the power!”

(Dillon) Howard Dean’s fiery speech announcing his candidacy for president is not the way most Vermonters remember him. At home, Dean is known as a pragmatic politician, who cut income taxes and balanced the budget.

Some believe his pragmatism comes from his background as a doctor. His patients remember some of the qualities that he carried over into political life -a quick intelligence and a direct, forceful style. Holly Miller says it’s not a big leap for her to see her former doctor as a presidential candidate.

(Holly Miller) “As a physician he was pretty much the way he was as a politician, in that he had a lot of energy, exuberant, optimistic, very – you know, strong opinions.”

(Dillon) Dean was a part-time lieutenant governor and full-time doctor in August 1991, when he learned that Republican Governor Richard Snelling had died from a heart attack. Dean took office with a vow to continue to Snelling’s ambitious plan to erase a $65 million deficit through budget cuts and tax hikes.

But he fought with the liberals in his own party, who wanted to keep the higher taxes in place. Dean wouldn’t budge, and told the Democratic caucus in 1994 that he would actively oppose their plan:

(Dean) “And I think we have to control spending and the only way to control spending, apparently, is to be very hard nosed about the tax situation. Because if you extend the taxes you’re clearly going to spend the money….”

(Dillon) It turned out to be good policy – and good politics. As governor, Dean was essentially a centrist. Moderate Republicans liked his tight-fisted approach on the budget and his pro-business views on environmental regulations. He’s never lost in 10 elections.

As governor, Dean brought a physician’s approach to issues. He was seen as stubborn, but in the end his decisions were those of an analytical and practical politician.

When Dean failed to persuade the Legislature to approve an ambitious universal health plan, he turned to a more incremental approach. First, he extended coverage to kids through age 17, then to many adults who lacked health insurance.

He also emphasized preventive health care for children through his initiative known as “Success by Six.” Cornelius Hogan was Dean’s health czar. He says the results were profound.

(Hogan) “Fifty percent reduction in lead levels in children’s brains, 44 percent reduction in teen pregnancies, 22 percent improvement in early pre-natal care, 27 percent reduction in smoking during pregnancy, 34 percent improvement in immunization rates.”

(Dillon) One of the toughest challenges Dean faced in his 11 and a half years came in late 1999 when the state Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature had to extend the rights and benefits of marriage to gay and lesbian couples. Dean did not support gay marriage. But he did sign legislation that authorizes civil unions for same-sex couples.

There was a tremendous backlash in the 2000 election. On the campaign trail that year, Dean quietly donned a bulletproof vest. He felt the voters’ anger, and encountered it one day on the street in Williamstown, population 3,000.

(Protester) “We’ve seen you down in San Francisco being hugged by all these gays and lesbians.”
(Dean) “That’s crap, you haven’t seen any such thing.”

(Dillon) But the acrimony subsided. Dean won that close race, but decided not to try for a sixth term in 2002. By then, he was already campaigning around the country.

Only recently, though, have polls shown him beating President Bush in the Green Mountain State. In Dean’s last address as governor, he touched on an important theme for his campaign to come.

(Dean, from farewell address) “I think that Vermont is the way that America ought to be. America would be a stronger country if we valued each other as human beings more. America would be a stronger country if we admitted that we are dependent on each other and that we are responsible for each other and that we are connected to each other every human being – whether we like them or not that we are connected to and that we have an obligation to, as fellow Americans and as fellow human beings.”

(Dillon) For the Home-State Record Project, I’m John Dillon.

(Host) The Home-State Record Project on the nine Democratic presidential candidates is a production of Vermont Public Radio.

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