“A Browser's Guide to Campaign 2004, Cont'd” Commentary by Chris Suellentrop, Slate.com, 1/2/04
On Aug. 14, 1991, Vermont Gov. Richard Snelling died and was replaced by his mostly unknown lieutenant governor. The state's press corps could only wonder, "Who is Howard Dean?" writes David Moats, the editorial page editor of the Rutland Herald, in the introduction to Howard Dean: A Citizen's Guide to the Man Who Would Be President. The book is written by "a team of reporters for Vermont's Rutland Herald & Times-Argus" who purport to know Dean best. Moats writes, "It took the next decade for those of us in the press, and our readership, to gain an understanding of the energetic, ambitious politician who was sworn into office that summer afternoon in 1991."
Unfortunately for the nation, the Vermont press corps can't give us 10 years to gain an understanding of Howard Dean. Instead, they've given us 245 pages. The book sketches a pretty positive portrait, but fair or not, the juicy parts tend to be Dean's lesser-known lowlights:
Lights out: In one of Dean's first major decisions as governor, he sided with power companies in favor of a 25-year contract to purchase electricity from Quebec. Environment groups opposed the project because of Hydro-Quebec's damming of state rivers; human-rights groups worried about the fate of the Cree Indians, whose land would be flooded; and consumer groups worried whether the plan would even save Vermont money. The consumer groups, at least, turned out to be right: "In the late 1990s, Vermont's two biggest power companies nearly became insolvent as they struggled to pay what turned out to be high costs for Quebec power." Vermont consumers and businesses received "steep rate increases."
Not-so-green Dean: As governor, Dean turned out to be pro-conservation but anti-regulation, a position that some environmentalists find hard to reconcile. The state bought and preserved more than 470,000 acres of wild land, but Dean's administration also gutted or ignored Vermont's environmental regulations in order to land new business development. Upon retirement, the executive officer of Vermont's Water Resources Board charged Dean's administration with underfunding the state's Agency of Natural Resources and with politicizing environmental science: "ANR has not been given the resources to adequately do its job and too often the scientifically sound recommendations by ANR technical staff are overruled in final permit decisions by political appointees." (Dean's budget chief admits in the book that some agencies, including the Department of Natural Resources, were underfunded: "I agree that they didn't have enough money to do what they were authorized to do.")
In general, Dean showed a disdain for Vermont's legal and regulatory processes in favor of ad hoc deal-making and what he called "common sense" and "reason." Dean's critics say he abandoned a 20-year approach of appointing locally respected officials to environmental commissions. Instead, he "seems to have looked to people who wouldn't oppose his philosophy, who wouldn't demand tiresome scientific data and who wouldn't mind working for a governor who might inject himself in cases," writes Hamilton E. Davis, former managing editor of the Burlington Free Press. Some of Dean's defenders argue that he "never really understood the damage he was doing to the regulatory system."
Like governor, like candidate: Dean "never quite grasped the idea that he was something other than a normal guy," Davis writes. "He was smarter than most, of course, and with an unusual job, but otherwise he seems to have considered himself an ordinary guy who could say pretty much whatever crossed his mind without getting too wrought up over it."