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Dunne's Deal

Will youth and experience be a winning combination for Google exec Matt Dunne?


Published July 7, 2010 at 8:24 a.m.

You get an aerobic workout campaigning door to door with gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne. Dressed in dark slacks, starched white shirt and tie, the youngest Democrat in the race sets a brisk pace when he’s working a neighborhood. Last week, the 40-year-old Hartland resident found himself pounding the pavement in Burlington’s affluent Hill Section.

Like any experienced politician, Dunne, a former state lawmaker, has canvassing down to a science: If people are home, he tells them in 15 seconds who he is and why they should vote for him. Then he points them to his website and suggests they call with any questions. If no one answers, he hangs a “Dunne for Governor” leaflet on the door handle and scribbles a personal note so they know it was him — not some teenaged campaign volunteer — who dropped by.

With a whole state to win over, campaigning for governor one house at a time might seem like a waste of a candidate’s time — a Sisyphean task. But Dunne, an executive at Google, swears by it. It’s how, at age 22, he won a seat in the Vermont House. It’s how the young lawmaker later won a state Senate seat and a primary for lieutenant governor in 2006. And it’s how Dunne is preparing for the August 24 primary. Every vote counts in a five-way race where as few as 12,000 voters could decide the winner.

Dunne describes retail politics as “a powerful tool … I get a lot more energy and feel like I’m connecting with voters when I do this.” Translation: He’s very good at it.

Though he trails in the polls and in name recognition, Dunne is an aggressive campaigner who will politely work an undecided voter as long as he or she allows. His powers of persuasion were on display at the Hill Section home of an old Statehouse colleague, Ann Hallowell, who served in the legislature with Dunne more than a decade ago. Although she gave Dunne a big hug and assured him how badly she wants a Democrat to beat Republican candidate Brian Dubie, Hallowell told Dunne she’d already sent a check to Doug Racine.

“I’m just worried you’re not well known enough to win,” Hallowell said. “I wish there was some magical way of suddenly having you become the focus.”

Dunne leaned forward in his chair, rolled up his sleeves and made his pitch.

“We’ve raised over $200,000, enough to be able to communicate effectively,” Dunne began, his deep-set eyes locked on Hallowell’s. “We’ve got fresh, new ideas. To beat Brian, you need someone with credentials in business. I’ve spent a career working in companies that were forward looking.”

After 20 minutes of salesmanship, the Google exec had Hallowell’s endorsement and permission to put a lawn sign in her front yard.

Judging from his energy level, you would never guess Dunne is a sleep-deprived father of three young kids, one of whom was born three weeks ago. Long considered an ambitious “up-and-comer” in Vermont politics, he’s still a generation younger than his opponents.

But Dunne has achieved a lot in four decades. After graduating from Brown University in 1992, where he studied public policy, he spent 11 years in the legislature — seven in the House, four in the Senate. In Montpelier, he distinguished himself by supporting arts-and economic-development programs.

Senator Hinda Miller (D-Chittenden) observed Dunne’s “fire to achieve” when they served together on the Senate Economic Development Committee. That’s why she decided to endorse him. Miller describes Dunne as a go-getter who “magnetized” people around him to get legislation passed.

Bill McKibben, the Ripton environmentalist, author and founder of 350.org, opted to back Dunne without even speaking with him. McKibben says he read Dunne’s position statements online and found them more specific than any other candidate’s.

The other factor was the candidate’s youth. “The generational thing is as important as anything else in my choice,” McKibben says in a phone interview. “People spend a lot of time going on and on about what a shame it is that the best and brightest young people leave Vermont. It strikes me Matt Dunne as governor would be a counterargument that might serve to draw some of them back in.”

One such young person, an 18-year-old high school graduate from Essex, is credited with helping launch Dunne’s campaign. After watching Dunne fall to Brian Dubie in the 2006 lieutenant governor’s race, Matt Breuer emailed Dunne this past November and urged him to run for governor. Breuer is headed to Yale University this fall and wants to settle in Vermont afterward, but he worries that in four years he won’t be able to find a job that pays, he says. He believes having Dunne as governor would give Vermont’s economy a boost.

“It’s really important that our next governor understands where the kids who aren’t coming back to Vermont are going,” says Breuer, who spent his senior year volunteering for the Dunne campaign. “It’s going to take a new generation of leadership to bring Vermont back to the national lead that we should be in.”

Dunne’s day jobs have included stints as marketing director for software company Logic Associates and associate director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College, where he oversaw programs training students for careers in nonprofit management and public service.

In 1999, the Clinton Administration tapped Dunne, then 30, to head AmeriCorps VISTA, the 6000-employee national service program aimed at fighting poverty. He stayed in Washington, D.C., for two years, through the Clinton-Bush transition, before returning to Vermont in 2002.

Today, as Google’s manager of U.S. community affairs, Dunne has the job of keeping the peace between the Internet search giant and the public in 23 U.S. towns that host Google’s massive data centers — sprawling, fortified warehouses where the company’s computer servers are kept. He works out of a small office in White River Junction and jets around the U.S. and Europe putting out fires and doing the diplomacy of “corporate responsibility.”

The job can be tough, Dunne says. For instance, he’s had to explain to locals in North Carolina why few of them would get jobs in the huge data center erected just down the road.

“The goal is to be able to tell people no and have them love you anyway,” says Dunne, who’s on leave from his job for the campaign.

It’s no wonder corporate buzzwords such as “cross-functional” and “reorg” creep into Dunne’s speeches, which have a tendency to sound canned. Dunne’s unique challenge is to hone his image as the tech-savvy, charismatic “change” agent without alienating voters who would be drawn to his down-home, Vermonty side.

Dunne was born in New Haven, Conn., in 1969, but grew up on the 100-acre farm in Hartland that he still calls home. The family raised pigs, sheep, cows and poultry, but Dunne, a precocious child, exhibited a talent for the arts. He played classical violin alongside his father and started a children’s theater in Hartland in the seventh grade. He was a high school thespian, playing leading roles in productions of The Importance of Being Earnest and Macbeth.

One of his earliest political memories is of handing out campaign literature for Peter Welch — now a congressman, then a legislative candidate — at the Hartford dump. Welch’s first wife, Joan Smith, worked with Dunne’s mother at Dartmouth, where Faith Dunne chaired the education department.

Dunne’s father, John, was a civil rights activist in 1960s North Carolina and later founded the Vermont Land Trust. John died of melanoma at the age of 39, when Dunne was 13, forcing him and his younger brother to grow up fast.

Dunne is married to Sarah Stewart Taylor, a journalist and murder-mystery novelist. The couple has three children: Judson, 5; Abraham, 2; and Cora, three weeks.

At a recent campaign rally in Hartland, Taylor introduced Dunne outside the town hall with daughter Cora in a BabyBjörn, a blanket shielding her head from the blazing sun.

“We have a lot going on in our domestic life right now,” Taylor told the crowd. “People keep asking us, ‘Why are you doing this governor thing on top of all this other stuff you have going on right now?’ And what we keep telling them is that this is an absolutely crucial year in Vermont. We need new leadership. We’ve had eight years of something that isn’t working.”

What would Governor Dunne do to make Vermont work? His first priority would be bringing broadband Internet service to the “last mile” of every remote road in Vermont. Dunne says he would float revenue bonds to finance the estimated $400 million cost of building the broadband network, and recoup the money from leases paid by private Internet service providers.

“If we see [broadband] as the electricity of our time, we have the chance to actually do it,” Dunne says.

His economic development plan involves allocating $15 million more in seed capital for startup businesses; granting tax deferrals on capital gains that are invested in early-stage companies; and establishing a microenterprise fund to make loans of $5000 to $20,000 to help unemployed Vermonters start small businesses.

In the Vermont House, Dunne was a driving force behind Vermont’s brownfields program, which uses state and federal dollars to rehab polluted industrial sites into usable office and residential space. Dunne says he grew tired of watching forest and farmland get flattened for new construction while existing structures lay unused.

“There is 4 million square feet of abandoned industrial space in Vermont,” Dunne says. “We need jobs and we need economic development, and the fact is that we have all of this property that can be the first place where you grow jobs.”

As a state senator, Dunne earned high marks from Vermont Public Interest Research Group for supporting renewable energy incentives, required labeling on genetically modified seeds and a “fair pricing” program meant to lower the cost of prescription drugs. VPIRG named Dunne a “public interest hero” after the 2003-04 session for backing 100 percent of the interest group’s positions.

As a House member, Dunne’s record on consumer and environmental issues is more mixed. He voted to protect Act 250 from attempts to weaken the land use law and to require the clear labeling of dairy products produced using recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH). But he also voted against stricter regulation of ski resorts that tap public water supplies for snowmaking and against same-day voter registration — positions that earned him a score of C-plus from VPIRG in one session.

Dunne sees promise for state government in Google’s “flat” business model, and he believes he could use his experience there and at AmeriCorps to repair morale among state employees. He takes issue with the Douglas administration’s decision to spend $100,000 installing web-monitoring software on state employee computers, a practice he calls “spying.” A state audit discovered state workers streaming NCAA basketball games and downloading porn during the workday.

“The question is, why are they doing that?” Dunne asks rhetorically. “The reason is not because we need more people spying on you. The reason is because morale is low. They don’t have a clear mission, and they haven’t been invited to be part of solving problems.”

Dunne even thinks Vermont has something to learn from Google about transparency, a word not everyone would associate with the highly secretive corporation.

Seven Days emailed Google’s pressroom to confirm basic details about Dunne’s employment, such as his job title, job description and hire date. The response came within minutes.

“We don’t release personnel information on our employees, so unfortunately, I can’t help you out here,” Google spokesman Jordan Newman wrote. “Best of luck moving forward.”

Dunne is doing just that. When he finished canvassing the Hill Section, he popped by a Green Drinks happy hour at The Skinny Pancake on the Burlington Waterfront. He stepped right into a group of shaggy-haired twentysomethings and went to work.

Dunne approached a bearded young farmer whose face was painted in swirly colors. The man had already chosen a candidate, he told Dunne, when he ran into Peter Shumlin’s campaign manager, who convinced him to back the Windham County Democrat instead.

After listening to Dunne for a few minutes, the young farmer was back on the fence. On the way out, he made a point of picking up a Dunne campaign sticker.

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