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Howard Dean Won't Run for Vermont Governor


Published May 20, 2024 at 9:45 a.m.

Howard Dean at Monday's press conference - KEVIN MCCALLUM ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Kevin McCallum ©️ Seven Days
  • Howard Dean at Monday's press conference

Updated at 1:03 p.m.

Former Vermont governor Howard Dean announced on Monday that he doesn't want his old job back.

The 75-year-old Burlington Democrat and longest-serving governor in state history had floated the idea recently that he would to try to oust Republican Gov. Phil Scott from office in November. But on Monday, he told reporters that he didn't want to go negative against Scott and said polling showed him 10 percentage points behind the incumbent.

The only way to close such a gap would be to run a “scorched-earth negative attack campaign” like those in other parts of the country, something he was uninterested in doing.

“I don’t know if a campaign like that could get me elected, but I do know it would be really harmful to our state and our values,” Dean said.

Another prominent potential Democratic candidate, former Burlington mayor Miro Weinberger, said in a statement to Seven Days on Monday that he does not "intend to be a candidate for public office this fall."

Dean detailed his decision at a press conference at Waterbury Town Hall three weeks after releasing a statement expressing concern about the "poisonous atmosphere" in Montpelier between Scott and lawmakers.

The prospect of a Dean candidacy had electrified many Democratic lawmakers frustrated by Scott's dominance over his Democratic challengers in the past several gubernatorial contests.
They viewed Dean, who served as governor from 1991 to 2003 and ran for president in 2004, as having the job experience, name recognition and campaigning prowess needed to topple the incumbent.

“As a Democrat I’m disappointed he’s chosen not to move forward,” Rep. Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury) said after the event.

Dean still has his finger on the pulse of what’s important to Vermonters, Stevens said, and the party needs someone like him to better communicate the policies that will benefit them.

But Dean said his desire to spend time with his grandchildren, who live out-of-state, the need to raise at least $2 million for a campaign, and the narrow path forward for him all contributed to his decision. Polling showed that his focus on health care reform raised his popularity among voters compared to Scott, but the biggest issue on voters’ minds this year was taxes.
From left: Rep. Tiffany Bluemle (D-Burlington), Howard Dean, and former representative Mary Sullivan - KEVIN MCCALLUM ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Kevin McCallum ©️ Seven Days
  • From left: Rep. Tiffany Bluemle (D-Burlington), Howard Dean, and former representative Mary Sullivan
Dean said that surprised him. It also played to a core strength of Scott, who made opposition to new taxes and concern about the cost of living in the state central to his political brand.

Scott, who confirmed in a May 11 email to supporters that he's seeking a fifth term, is routinely named as one of the most popular governors in the nation.

Since his election in 2016, he has bested his Democratic rivals by ever-larger margins. He earned widespread praise for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and has won over independents and moderate Democrats with his even-keeled demeanor, opposition to new taxes and distaste for former president Donald Trump.
But Scott's increasingly obstructionist approach to dealing with lawmakers, including his decision to appoint former charter school executive Zoie Saunders to be secretary of education despite the Senate voting against her, has convinced many Democrats they need to sharpen their attacks on Scott's record.

Dean kept word of his decision close to the vest. Even close supporters said days ago that they didn’t know what his final decision would be.

Before the press conference began, however, Dean didn’t look quite look like a candidate for the state’s top job. He wore a blazer over a polo shirt and a pair of old black running shoes. Dean nevertheless said his interest in the job was genuine.

“I confess that politics is my blood, and I actually love campaigning,” Dean said.

Before exploring the run, Dean said he checked in with other politicians who might be interested in the job, ideally someone much younger, he said. None he spoke with said they were planning to challenge Scott.

He eventually realized he faced a catch-22: To close the gap with Scott, he’d have to go negative. But Vermonters rarely oust incumbents and tend to recoil at negative campaigning, meaning it would likely backfire, he said.

Dean is no stranger to such tactics. He used to run the Democratic National Committee, which he described as a “sumo wrestling job without a ring” and where candidates “go at it until someone drops dead.”

He didn’t want to bring such a campaign to Vermont, but said if he ran, he might not be able to help himself.

“I didn’t trust myself with three weeks to go to be nice and civil if I thought a couple of bad ads would put me in front,” Dean said.

Running a positive campaign that laid out the policy differences between him and Scott would only go so far to close the gap, he said, because politics is as much about personality as policy.

Democrats will need to look beyond Dean.
So far, only former Middlebury Selectboard member Esther Charlestin, 33, has said she's running as a Democrat to try to defeat Scott.

Jim Dandeneau, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party, said the party is having difficulty recruiting viable candidates because it is very difficult to convince people to run against such a popular incumbent.

“If you want a legitimate shot at winning, you have to convince people that you have a legitimate shot at winning,” Dandeneau said.

An independent candidate for governor, a social worker from Montpelier named Poa Mutino, attended the press conference and urged people to follow his nascent campaign.

The filing deadline for major party candidates is May 30.

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