By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
As Howard Dean lays claim to the left in 2004, many in Vermont recall a more conservative governor.
BURLINGTON, Vt. - Pausing from hawking his organic beets and strawberries, David Zuckerman grinned when asked about the new hero of liberals across the nation.
"Most Vermonters I know chuckle about Howard Dean as the most liberal presidential candidate," said Zuckerman, a pony-tailed farmer and Vermont state legislator.
Customer Laura Brown, after unfavorably comparing President Bush's I.Q. to one of Zuckerman's beets, recalled the fiery, populist speech Dean had given to announce his candidacy recently in Burlington.
"He sure wasn't giving those kinds of speeches as governor," said Brown, a professional herbologist. "Howard Dean's a different creature than when he was here."
In the capital of Ben and Jerry's and Birkenstocks, Vermonters are a tad perplexed as their former governor makes big waves in the Democratic presidential race. At times they don't recognize him.
The fellow delivering stemwinders that bring roaring crowds to their feet was known in Vermont for dull speeches. The darling of liberal activists nationally repeatedly snubbed the left wing of his party during nearly 12 years as Vermont governor. He rails against President Bush's tax cuts, but in Vermont he twice fought for state tax cuts and repeatedly bashed Democratic spending plans as irresponsible.
"The joke among a lot of Vermont Republicans was that they didn't need to run anyone for governor because they basically had one in office already," said Harlan Sylvester, a conservative Democratic stockbroker and longtime adviser to Dean.
A few months ago, Howard Dean, 54, was an obscure presidential long shot from a quaint state known mostly for maple syrup and hippie ice cream moguls. Now his blunt talk and outsider image have made him a top contender for the Democratic nomination.
He raised more money in the past three months, $7.5-million, than any of the other eight Democrats in the race. Polls show him nearly tied for the lead for the Iowa caucuses and second in New Hampshire, home of the first primary. He overwhelmingly won a recent Internet contest of liberal voters. With his promise to "take back the Democratic Party," the doctor from Vermont is inspiring passion among Democratic activists like no one else.
His vocal opposition to the war in Iraq and willingness to attack other establishment Democratic candidates have helped him forge a national image as a fire-breathing progressive. In fact, Vermonters know that fiscal conservatism defines his politics as much as anything else.
"I really don't think I've changed that much. It's just that in Vermont, a centrist is more liberal than most of the rest of the country," Dean said. "Philosophically, (liberals and I) believed in the same kinds of things, but money was a real issue for me."
Vermont is an unlikely breeding ground for presidents. This is a state, after all, whose lone Congressman is a Socialist elected five times as an independent.
The state's $3.4-billion state budget would not even cover Florida's child protection expenses.
Winning a gubernatorial election, as Dean did five times, is akin to winning a countywide county commission seat in Pinellas or Hillsborough County - except both Pinellas and Hillsborough have more voters than Vermont's 419,000. And the Tampa Bay electorate is far more diverse.
When a St. Petersburg Times reporter recently observed that Vermont is 98 percent white, Dean sheepishly corrected him.
"It's 96 percent," he muttered.
Can governing Vermont prepare someone to lead the free world? Dean names two once-obscure former governors of relatively small states who moved into the White House: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
The best picture of Howard Dean the leader can be found among Vermont's green mountains, covered bridges and tie-dyed T-shirts.
One gets a sense of Dean's style soon after walking past granite columns and the feisty looking Ethan Allen statue into the 144-year-old State House in Montpelier. Inside, the hallways are lined with portraits of past governors in dark suits and ties.
Except Dean. He is smiling in the gold-framed portrait, wearing hiking boots and an open-collar chamois shirt. He clutches a canoe paddle as if he is about to scull across Lake Champlain.
New Englanders have little use for pretense, and neither did Dean. Until the presidential campaign, Burlington residents would chat up the governor while shopping at Price Chopper and at high school hockey games.
Reporters would visit the governor's office and find him shoeless, sometimes with holes in his socks. When Dean presided over the state Senate as lieutenant governor, lawmakers knew when he had child care problems because his young kids would sit by him on the Senate floor and color.
Nobody called him governor. It was always Howard, or occasionally Ho-Ho. In a state this small campaigns are won not with TV ads but with town meetings and chatting up voters as they toss their garbage at the local dump. Dean is used to the kind of personal politicking crucial in Iowa's and New Hampshire's early presidential preference contests.
Vermont's longest-serving governor of the 20th century is actually a patrician who grew up on Park Avenue and East Hampton. Medical residency brought him to Vermont, where he and his wife, Dr. Judith Steinberg, went into private practice together.
Dean's political activism started with a push to get a bike trail built in Burlington, which led to Dean winning a state House seat in 1982. He surprised many observers in 1986 by getting elected lieutenant governor.
In August 1991, while the part-time lieutenant governor was giving a physical, he learned Republican Gov. Richard Snelling had died of a heart attack. Dean finished his patient's exam before heading to Montpelier to be sworn in.
As a little-noticed lawmaker and lieutenant governor, Dean generally worked on issues involving children or the environment. Most people assumed a predictable liberal was stepping in as governor.
The state's budget crunch proved them wrong. Vermont is one of the few states without a constitutional requirement for balanced budgets, and Dean faced a $69-million deficit when he took office. Snelling had imposed a temporary income tax increase that was due to sunset in 1993. Many Democrats expected Dean would extend the tax to help the state weather the recession with more social services spending and continue reducing the deficit.
Dean adamantly refused. Vermont could not compete for businesses if it maintained one of the nation's highest income tax rates, he said. He joined with Republicans to ensure the tax increase disappeared and slightly lowered the rate again in 1996.
Conservative spending was a consistent theme with Dean, and liberal Democrats were his chief antagonists. Former Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Dick McCormack remembers an early meeting where Dean warned Senate Democrats about his fiscal agenda.
"He said, "Whatever we want to achieve as Democrats, whatever your idealistic agenda is, it's not going to happen if the people don't trust us with their money. And they don't,"' recalled McCormack, a folk singer who often clashed with Dean.
The message didn't stop Democrats from repeatedly bucking Dean's budget plans. But working closest with Republicans and moderate Democrats - and isolating liberals - Dean fended them off.
"Liberal Democrats in Vermont spent a good deal of the time frustrated and unhappy when he was governor," state Rep. Bill Lippert said of Dean's budget fights.
Dean built up a rainy day fund for Vermont and helped boost its credit ratings. He also removed sales taxes on clothing, though he pushed for higher cigarette taxes. He fought Republicans who wanted to cut taxes when Vermont had big budget surpluses. Instead, he pushed the legislature to use the money to pay down Vermont's debt and cover some construction projects that otherwise would have been bonded.
The two biggest controversies of Dean's tenure - over school funding and gay rights - stemmed from state Supreme Court decisions and brought criticism that Dean avoided the front lines of the battles.
The first bombshell hit in 1997, when the court ruled Vermont needed more equitable statewide school spending. The issue pitted Vermont's wealthy resort towns against poorer ones and reverberates to this day in Vermont.
Dean quickly threatened to veto any income tax increase to help pay for the mandate. But he was conspicuously quiet about advocating a specific plan. He left that to state lawmakers, who imposed a statewide property tax. Act 60, as it was called, provided a pool of money to be distributed across the state.
It was wildly unpopular. But Dean staunchly defended the principle of the act in his 1998 reelection campaign, even while promising reforms that critics say he never delivered.
The other bitter controversy came in 1999, when the court unanimously found that same-sex couples deserve the same protections and benefits as married couples. Legislators ultimately decided on a "civil unions" law that essentially legalized same-sex marriages without using the M word.
Critics say the governor, after initially expressing reservations about gay marriage, stayed mostly out of the lead and left lawmakers to take much of the considerable early heat. Dean signed the bill out of sight of cameras, saying he didn't want to further inflame the state. Gay detractors said he did it "in the closet."
Dean scoffs at such criticism. He consciously spoke up quickly in favor of equal treatment for domestic partners, he said.
"I knew that I had to give cover to legislators," said Dean, who the following year faced a contentious campaign focused largely on civil unions.
Other lawmakers give Dean credit too.
"He gets a bad rap from people saying he didn't do enough," said state Rep. Lippert, an openly gay psychologist who helped craft the civil union law. "If he had not unequivocably said he would sign a bill that gives all the rights and privileges of marriage, we would not have a civil unions law."
Dean pushed hard and successfully to preserve hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland and farmland. But the doctor's biggest Vermont legacy is expanded children's health care. Friends and critics alike say it was a passion for Dean, whose presidential campaign also touts the need to expand health care access, funded by rolling back the president's tax cuts.
First came failure. Soon after becoming governor, he pushed for universal health insurance for Vermonters. It was similar in many respects to the ill-fated Clinton health care proposal. Attacked from the left and right in the state legislature, Dean's plan died just as the Clinton plan did.
He quickly switched gears and went for a more incremental approach focused on kids. He took an existing child health insurance plan, known as Doctor Dynasaur, and dramatically expanded it to cover all children with families with incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line (about $55,000 for a family of four). Today, about 96 percent of children up to age 18 in Vermont have health insurance.
Dean also instituted a program called "Success By Six," where every newborn child in Vermont gets a visit from a state or private agency within two weeks. Dean credits the program with helping significantly reduce child abuse rates in Vermont. Through Medicaid waivers, he increased insurance coverage of adults too.
Even the issue closest to his heart at times butted with his fiscal priorities. His last budget, in addition to cutting the state share of local schools funding, required higher co-payments from patients, reduced Medicaid payments to providers and cut coverage for dental care, eyeglasses and other services.
Dean said he worked hard not to eliminate anyone's health coverage, "but you've got to manage the money."
As a presidential candidate, Dean often infuriates his opponents with his sharp attacks. He has several times had to apologize for misstatements and diplomatic lapses, including recently belittling the presidential chances of Sen. Bob Graham of Florida.
That knack for offending is nothing new.
Dean's gubernatorial staff used to joke about wishing for a remote control to pause and rewind Howard Dean after he got on a tear. State lawmakers used to refer to Kathy Hoyt, Dean's former chief of staff, as "chief smoother" because she so often had to smooth over feathers ruffled by Dean.
He once likened a group of liberal Democrats to communists. He publicly said he hoped one fellow Democrat would lose shortly before her election.
"People loved the fact that he's unfiltered and unhandled," said Bob Rogan, Dean's former deputy chief of staff and onetime aide to Gov. Lawton Chiles and Graham. Rogan is now Dean's deputy campaign manager. "It's always been one his greatest strengths and, some would argue, his greatest weakness."
An early Dean campaign bumper sticker: "Howard Dean - I just like the guy."
Even while regularly infuriating lawmakers, Dean made few lasting enemies. He was at times prickly with reporters, but several said he seemed to enjoy sparring with the Vermont press. Spending much of his last year in office traveling the country campaigning, newspapers had to sue Dean to force him to release his travel calendar.
Back in Vermont last year Dean at one point scoffed at state Senate spending plans. "The Senate budget is in la-la land," he said.
Soon after, an anonymous note circulated among lawmakers: "Howard Dean is running for president. Who's in la-la land?"
That, of course, was before Dean gained traction opposing Bush's war on Iraq. It was long before he started dominating the buzz of the presidential campaign.
These days, Vermonters talk with a mix of shock and pride that their little state has produced the candidate with the most momentum and the strongest populist message.
Even many of the Vermont liberals who regularly fought with their former governor acknowledge they expect to vote for the guy and no longer think he's in la-la land.
"A lot of people in Vermont know what a mistake it is to underestimate Howard Dean," said former Senate majority leader McCormack.
- Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or email@example.com