This week Vermont Public Television will release the latest episodes in a long series called "The Governors." The series comprises interviews with each of Vermont’s former governors. Journalist Chris Graff started the series in 1989 and began with administration of Bob Stafford who served in the 1950s. Now, VPT is presenting the next two installments of "The Governors" — Howard Dean and Jim Douglas.
Graff points out that Vermonters knew little about their part-time lieutenant governor, Howard Dean, when Governor Dick Snelling died suddenly. It was August 1991, and overnight the governor’s office switched from Republican to Democratic. "And so we really learned about Howard Dean over next couple years," says Graff. "Some of the questions – would he fire the Snelling cabinet? What would he do financially?
Pretty quickly, the state got to know Dean’s frank style that sometimes got him into trouble, which Graff asks Dean about in the program:
Graff: "When you look at your years as governor, I think it’s fair to say that at one point or another you angered just about everyone."
Dean, laughing: "That’s true!"
Graff: "The left, the right, the business community, environmentalists, property rights advocates, doctors, health insurers. Was that by design?"
Dean: "No! I said what I thought and it was refreshing. I’m not sure I ever could’ve gotten elected governor."
A journalist during the Dean administration, Graff describes press conferences at which Dean would say, ‘You know, my staff will kill me for saying this, but….’ "I think his staff understood that you had to let Howard Dean be Howard Dean," Says Graff.
Dean was the champion of what was known as the Champion Lands deal in the Northeast Kingdom. Graff says that massive land conservation project is what Dean hopes to be remembered for. But a pair of court cases also marked his administration. I think also you can’t get away from the fact of the two really critical decisions that happened on his time," says Graff. "Act 60, the financing of education, and civil unions. It’s hard to remember how absolutely controversial civil unions was, how it tore apart the state of Vermont."
By the time the state debated replacing civil unions with gay marriage, the issue had lost some of its controversy and the state had a new governor: Jim Douglas. Douglas opposed gay marriage but he didn’t pressure Republican lawmakers to follow his lead. "This was one of those decisions where really each legislator in their own heart had to decide what was best," says Graff.
Douglas’s administration was eight years of Republican leadership in a solidly Democratic state. In "The Governors", Graff prompts Douglas to reflect on how partisanship has changed:
Graff: "Tell us about your relationships with the Legislature. You were a Republican Governor, governing most of your tenure with Democratic majorities in the Legislature. How did that play out?"
Douglas: "Well, there were certainly some differences of opinion on health care, to be sure, on fiscal policy, on legislation throughout those six years when it was under complete Democratic control. I noted earlier, Chris, that the attitude, atmosphere in Montpelier is different than it was 30 or 40 years ago. There certainly is more partisanship. There are times if a Republican governor proposes an idea, it’s automatically rejected by a Democratic majority. And I think that’s unfortunate."
Douglas also comments on the moniker "Governor Scissorhands." He says every ribbon cutting he attended was a sign of something good happening in the state. He tells Graff, "I always found that people were happy to see me. There was some wag at the time who said, ‘That Douglas – he’d go to the opening of an envelope!’ Well, I guess I probably would."
Dean has been out of office almost 10 years now, but Douglas only 18 months. Graff says time affects their legacies, and also tempers their candor.
Vermont Public Television’s entire series covers five decades that transformed Vermont. Yet Graff says all of these governors have tackled the same issues over time – like youth flight and education funding. "This is a distinct period, these 52 years. The state has seen dramatic change in that period," Graff says. "But I think also it tells us that we don’t ever really find ‘the solution’, we just keep trying to find better ways and work towards a solution."
That effort is detailed in a series that now spans the administrations of nine governors – three of whom have since died.
NOTE: The Governor’s episode about Howard Dean premieres Tuesday, May 8 at 8 p.m. on Vermont Public Television. The episode on Jim Douglas premieres Tuesday May 15.