Dean’s Potential Run for Governor Buoys Dems Eager for a Competitive Race | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice


Dean’s Potential Run for Governor Buoys Dems Eager for a Competitive Race


Published May 10, 2024 at 4:54 p.m.
Updated May 15, 2024 at 10:12 a.m.

  • Marc Nadel

Excitement is building in Democratic circles over the prospect that former governor Howard Dean will give Gov. Phil Scott something he hasn't had in a long time — a serious challenger.

Dean confirmed late last month that he might run against Scott, who announced over the weekend he will, as expected, seek a fifth term. In a May 1 statement, Dean expressed concern about what he called a "poisonous atmosphere" in Montpelier and a lack of progress on important issues such as health care.

"I believe Vermont is in real danger of losing much we have fought for and much of what we have accomplished in the atmosphere of anger and disrespect which permeates Montpelier," he wrote. "And I believe we can do better together."

In addition to testing some potential campaign themes, his statement accelerated a statewide signature-gathering campaign to get him on the ballot.

"Every person I've talked to about this has said, 'Oh, my gosh, that would be extraordinary!'" Rep. Tiffany Bluemle (D-Burlington) told Seven Days.

Bluemle said she recently had coffee with Dean in Burlington's South End. She said she was struck by the physical and mental fitness of the 75-year-old former physician, governor and presidential candidate. When they parted ways, Dean told her he was heading to Winooski — on foot.

Dean declined an interview request, noting that he won't speak to the press "until and if I submit signatures." The deadline to submit 500 valid signatures in order to get on the August primary ballot is May 30.

After hinting at his own decision in remarks to lawmakers during a session that stretched into early Saturday morning, Scott, 65, announced his candidacy on Saturday evening in an email to supporters. The message included a photo of him with his mentor, longtime state senator Dick Mazza, a Democrat who stepped down last month because he has cancer.

"After reflecting on all the work still left to do, I've come to realize I cannot step away at a time when Vermont's Legislature is so far out of balance, so I've decided to run for reelection to keep working for you," he wrote.

Scott had intimated for weeks that he felt obligated to continue using his office to prevent the Democratic supermajority in the legislature from advancing policies that would increase the cost of living.

If Dean does enter the race, he'll likely face former Middlebury Selectboard member Esther Charlestin, 33, who announced a run as a Democrat on January 5. Former Burlington mayor Miro Weinberger expressed interest in the job last fall, but last week a spokesperson said he had not made a decision.

Charlestin said she's neither surprised nor concerned by the prospect of running against Dean for the party's nomination.

"If he enters, great. If he doesn't, great. I am still going," she told Seven Days.

Dean's potential candidacy has energized Democrats in a way that candidates for governor in recent elections have not. It has raised hopes that someone with his name recognition, experience as governor from 1991 to 2003, and fundraising ability could mount a formidable challenge to Scott, who has trounced his previous opponents.

"There is no question that there is a grassroots effort to encourage him to run," Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia) said. She served in Dean's administration for a decade, including two years as secretary of the Agency of Human Services.

Kitchel said she's proud of the work they did to expand social services and provide health care to children and pregnant women through the Dr. Dynasaur program.

Dean was first elected to the Vermont House in 1982. He had served two and a half terms as lieutenant governor when governor Richard Snelling died of a heart attack in 1991, thrusting Dean into the role. Dean went on to win five consecutive terms, making him the longest-serving governor in state history. He was fiscally conservative, often battling with Progressives and other Dems to cut taxes and balance budgets, but socially liberal, supporting Vermont's historic approval of civil unions.

Rep. Tristan Toleno (D-Brattleboro) said he was excited about Dean's possible return. The current administration has kept more than 1,000 positions in state government open in order to balance the budget, which has increased wait times for state services, demoralized workers and contributed to high turnover rates, Toleno said; about 38 percent of new hires leave in less than a year, state workforce data show.

"If we can get someone who actually cares about the quality of state services and is actually leading and accountable for that, it'll be breathtaking," Toleno said.


Democrats have been deeply frustrated by Scott's political dominance, which began when he defeated Democrat Sue Minter in 2016 by 9 percentage points. While Democrats hold a supermajority in the state legislature and occupy all other statewide offices, many express frustration because the governorship continues to elude them. National polling also routinely finds that Scott is one of the most popular governors in the country.

"The fact is that Democrats haven't really put up a viable candidate since Sue Minter," Rep. Mike Mrowicki (D-Putney) said. "The governor has been able to take off the last two elections and call it in."

In Scott's 2018 reelection bid, he defeated Democrat Christine Hallquist, the first transgender candidate for statewide office, by 15 points. The gap has only grown: In 2020, Scott owned Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Progressive/Democrat, by 41 points, an indication of the public approval of Scott's leadership during the pandemic. Two years later, without campaigning, he brushed aside Brenda Siegel, an advocate for Vermont's homeless people and a Democrat, by 47 points.

The string of losses has embarrassed the Vermont Democratic Party, which has otherwise been gaining momentum in Montpelier in recent years.

But its power has limits. On April 30, the Vermont Senate voted not to confirm Scott's pick for education secretary, former charter school executive Zoie Saunders. Immediately after the vote, the governor announced that he had named her interim secretary, which does not require confirmation.

That crossed a line and laid bare the disdain Scott has shown for lawmakers, VDP executive director Jim Dandeneau said. The appointment galvanized many people who don't typically pay attention to state politics, Dandeneau said, which led to "a pretty significant shift in the calculus" about Scott's vulnerability.

"Phil Scott tries to put a charter school executive in charge of the state education system, and all of a sudden, having a Republican governor is something that matters to them," he said.

Scott has defended his decision by noting that Saunders was one of three finalists the State Board of Education sent him. He blamed what he called "outside groups" for misrepresenting her record and whipping up opposition, clarifying that he was referring to the teachers' union and superintendents' association, among others.

  • Marc Nadel

For the past eight years, Vermont politics have been "within ... normal bounds" while national politics became a "five-alarm" crisis, Dandeneau said. Scott's calm demeanor, nice-guy image and opposition to former president Donald Trump lulled many Democrats into supporting him, but that may be changing, Dandeneau said.

Matthew Dickinson, a professor of political science at Middlebury College, said Scott's long stretch of popularity and lack of strong challengers may have left him with blind spots.

"I think there is a case to be made that Scott has overreached on a couple of issues," he said, citing Scott's dismissal of widespread opposition to Saunders' appointment. "He's lost a little bit of touch with mainstream opinion here and could be vulnerable to a strong opponent."

Dean confirmed his interest in running as the acrimony surrounding Scott's choice of Saunders was rising. And he fired off his May 1 statement the day after Scott named her interim secretary.

In it, Dean also warned about "fiscal turmoil" ahead, as evidenced by the $13 million budget deficit that the City of Burlington faces and what he called an "alarming" rise in property taxes to fund schools.

"I had my battles in Montpelier over money, but we always worked out our differences and the budgets were solid, thoughtful and mostly negotiated respectfully between the Governor's office and the House and Senate," Dean wrote.

Rebecca Ramos, a lobbyist who worked for Dean as a legislative liaison, said the "breakdown in communications" between lawmakers and Scott's administration is preventing the kind of collaboration needed to move good policy forward.

"I'm sure governor Dean knows that it can be better and it can be different, and I'm sure that's something that's motivating him," Ramos said.

If Scott is worried about the prospect of a showdown with a former governor, he's keeping a poker face. He said Dean's potential run was "interesting."

"One thing I will tell you is — and you can take this one to the bank — 24 years from now, I will not be on the ballot," Scott quipped at a press conference earlier this month.

Paul Dame, chair of the Vermont GOP, expects Scott to be more active to help Republican candidates win seats in the General Assembly and perhaps break the supermajority's grip.

Dame said he was initially "perplexed" when Dean confirmed his interest in his old job after more than two decades out of public office. Now he thinks Dean is stepping forward to protect the party from another embarrassing defeat so younger officeholders with gubernatorial aspirations can wait Scott out.

"Dean's got nothing to lose," Dame said.

And lose he most likely would, Dame predicted, especially given his vulnerability on the education-finance issue that is at the forefront of most voters' minds. Dean supported the 1997 passage of Act 60, which established the statewide funding system that preserves local control over schools but recalculates state aid to reduce inequities between richer and poorer school districts. That system is at the heart of the sharp property tax increases residents are facing this year, he argued.

Dusting off Dean would only give Republicans an opening to tie him to that policy, Dame said. Dean's long history in state and national politics and his reputation for bombast would also make his temperament an issue.

"It would be a stark contrast to have Gov. Scott, the epitome of quiet and mild mannered, and then to have Howard 'the Scream' Dean running against him," Dame said.

That's a reference to Dean's notorious battle cry after the 2004 Iowa Caucus went viral, hobbling his presidential aspirations. Dean's campaign had gained traction quickly and revolutionized online fundraising before his third-place finish in Iowa. Dean dropped out of the contest soon thereafter.

Dean continued to be a lightning rod as the chair of the Democratic National Committee from 2005 to 2009, as a media commentator and on social media.

"He's been very boisterous in a way that I'm not sure Vermonters are really looking for," Dame said.

Newer Democratic officeholders such as State Treasurer Mike Pieciak, Secretary of State Sarah Copeland Hanzas and Attorney General Charity Clark are, along with Zuckerman, often mentioned as potential future candidates for governor. Pieciak, who served in the Scott administration, said he's "humbled" to hear such talk but said there is "no grand plan" for Dean to take one for the team this election cycle.

He said Vermonters should be proud of Dean's record as governor. Dean signed the nation's first civil unions law in 2000, something Pieciak, who is gay, considers courageous. The idea of Dean returning to Vermont politics evokes for him a sense of nostalgia.

"It's exciting to think about him coming back," Pieciak said. "I've always admired him."

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