Fringe Friday is Seven Days' weekly web series about the independent and minor party candidates running for governor, U.S. House and U.S. Senate — many of whom are pitching more radical ideas for bettering the lives of average Vermonters.
While "fringe" might seem disparaging, we don't mean it that way. Vermont has a strong tradition of putting independent and third-party candidates on the ballot, giving voters the option to choose from a wide menu of ideologies. Still, these candidates rarely garner more than 1 percent of the vote, perhaps due to their less traditional ideas, or poor organization or even lack of media exposure. As such, they remain on the fringes of the state's political system.
Candidate: Dennis Steele
Office Sought: Governor
Education:California Polytechnic State University (BS in liberal studies, minor in anthropology, 2003) Cuesta College (two-year degree in math and general science, 2000)
Family: Steele grew up in Kirby, Vt., on the same street where he lives today. His father was a carpenter and his mother worked a factory job manufacturing industrial scales. Steele has Abenaki Indian blood and he's been researching his geneology to connect with his native roots. His wife, Amber, is a stay-at-home mother and the couple have two kids: Angela, 6, and Luke, 3.
Platform: Secession. Steele's an active member of the Second Vermont Republic movement (publishers of Vermont Commons newspaper) and thinks Vermont must secede from the United States to avoid economic and social catastrophe. He believes the United States has lost its "moral authority" and that deepening federal deficits make it a "sinking ship" that Vermont should jump off of. Seceding would keep Vermont afloat, he believes, by reclaiming the $2 billion Vermonters currently pay into the U.S. Department of Defense budget. (Steele served in the U.S. Army for three years in the early 1980s — he joined to get money for college — and served as a helicopter crew chief.
We caught up with Steele at Langdon Street Café in Montpelier earlier this week.
Seven Days: Where were you stationed with the Army?
Dennis Steele: I served in South Carolina, Virginia and Hawaii. And then I ended up staying in Hawaii for another four years after I got out. I had all my paperwork to get into the warrant officer program and I got my real estate license. I looked at my landlord and he was driving a Mercedes Benz and the pilot was driving a Mazda 323. So I was, like, all right, I'm going to give the real estate thing a try. I failed the first time. I put three deals in escrow and they all fell out. Didn't know what I was doing. So I was working at Radio Shack, had to call my dad to pay my rent. I saw an ad for Brothers' Auto Sales that said you can make $5000 a month. Used cars. I was a used car salesman. This old Vietnam vet was the sales manager and he took a liking to me and hired me. The first month I made $5000. I was happy. Then I moved to California and was there for 14 years. I was teaching chess to low-income kids in San Luis Obisbo.
SD: How did your politics evolve?
DS: For me, the awakening started to happen in 2003 when we decided to go into Iraq. It didn't make sense to me. I was living out in California. My in-laws were die-hard Reagan Republicans and here I was the only veteran in the family that was antiwar. And getting kicked out of family dinners and basically family arguments every time we were at the family dinner table. In 2006, I moved back to Vermont. In 2007, I was back in California visiting the in-laws. I was sitting on the couch with my father-in-law — he watches Fox News 24 hours a day. And on this thing came the O'Reilly show and there was Thomas Naylor, Second Vermont Republic. Vermont wants to secede from the Union, and I was just going, 'Holy shit! What's this? There is a revolution and it's happening in my back yard.' As soon as I got back here, I looked up the website, ordered the Vermont Commons, got the flag (pictured) and everything. I thought the movement was way bigger than it was. You see it on TV like that, you have different expectations.
SD: Up until that point, what had your politics been?
DS: I voted for Ross Perot. I knew Bill Clinton was lying right way. Oh — I got involved with Ron Paul, of course. I was, like, 'This is the most intelligent person I've ever ever heard run for office.' I was actually leaning toward Obama because he was talking about ending the wars and everything. One night I decided to turn on the Republican debate. I wanted to see what the warmongers were going to say. And this little guy, 76-year-old man, said, 'Close all the bases. Bring all the troops home. Foreign policy of nonintervention.' I about fell out of my chair on the floor. I was watching this guy all night tearing these neo-cons apart. The neo-cons completely sabotaged his campaign. So I called Thomas [Naylor] back up and said, 'I'm back in the movement. The system's broken and ungovernable.'
SD: Why secede?
DS: What other alternatives are there?
SD: Well, why don't you just explain why you think it's a good idea?
DS: The U.S. government has lost its moral authority. It's owned, controlled and operated by corporate America, Wall Street and the Israeli lobby. It doesn't answer to the people anymore, so what choice do we have? Most people are in denial. The only thing I can do is try to wake people up and make them understand that Vermont's pro rata share of the U.S. Defense Department budget is $2 billion per year. And what could Vermont do with that money? A lot.
SD: Explain how it would work.