- Matthew Thorsen
- Dan Feliciano
As a political neophyte with scant name recognition, Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Dan Feliciano exceeded expectations when he collected 14 percent of the vote as a late-starting write-in candidate in the Republican primary. In a Vermont Public Radio debate the following month, the 51-year-old business-efficiency expert struck some listeners as better-informed and more articulate than Scott Milne, the candidate who had won the Republican gubernatorial primary.
Feliciano comes across as unthreatening, nondogmatic and, in the view of political scientist and retired Middlebury College professor Eric Davis, "not a fringe candidate." His aim to be seen as more of a mainstream conservative than a radical right-winger has been steadied by endorsements from a few Vermont GOP standouts: party vice-chair Brady Toensing, treasurer Mark Snelling and Darcie Johnston, manager of Randy Brock's 2012 campaign for governor.
So who is this guy?
True to Libertarian ideology, Feliciano wants to slash taxes and shrink bureaucracy. He said he'd make a start toward those twin goals by eliminating the surcharge on electricity bills that finances Efficiency Vermont. That statewide energy-conservation entity operates on an annual budget of $45 million but produces "zero value" for Vermonters, according to Feliciano. Efficiency Vermont energy auditors came to his home in Essex Junction and offered no useful suggestions, says the former engineer for General Electric.
Feliciano would also permanently unplug Vermont Health Connect, the state-sponsored website that is supposed to enable Vermonters to buy affordable insurance policies. (Shumlin announced in mid-September that the online marketplace was being taken offline in hopes of correcting failures that have plagued the initiative since its launch.)
Feliciano's hostility toward Vermont Health Connect squares with his sworn opposition to Shumlin's plan to introduce a single-payer health insurance system in Vermont. Estimated price tag: $2 billion. The Libertarian's flat-out rejection of single payer is a key reason why Johnston, an ardent campaigner against Shumlin's proposal, has gone to work for Feliciano rather than for Milne, who has refused to denounce single payer.
The move to make state government the primary health insurer in Vermont is consistent, in Feliciano's view, with the public sector's tendency to get bigger and bigger. Every large organization leans in that direction, he says — until it's pulled back by an efficiency expert like himself. "No one wants transparency," Feliciano adds, because opacity conceals waste and thus enables government to continue growing.
If Vermonters knew the extent of waste in their state government, Feliciano declares, "they'd just gag."
Vermont already ranks "among the highest-tax states," he continues, arguing that the share of earnings taken by the government impedes economic growth. "There's no hope for young people here," Feliciano approvingly quotes his wife, Carol Aja, as saying, specifically in regard to their three children.
But in his defense of personal liberty, Feliciano does not regard extremism as a virtue. A pure Libertarian might argue against Vermont participating in the federal health exchange. Feliciano, however, cites "practical considerations" in acquiescing to the state's continued implementation of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, which he says should be done through a federal exchange.
Feliciano points to his experience arranging care for one of his children, who has autism, in depicting private insurance companies as a better source of coverage than government. Travelers Insurance helped find effective and efficient treatment, he relates, because it was in the company's competitive interest to do so. But he also acknowledges that government entities, including public schools, have played an important and positive role in his daughter's life.
"I don't think that what I'm proposing is any less caring" than what a liberal Vermonter would espouse, Feliciano says. "I honestly believe nonprofits and charitable organizations can do a much better job than what the state is doing."
In some respects, he's more pragmatic than radical.
In keeping with the Libertarian Party's platform, Feliciano does favor legalizing marijuana, but he emphasizes the importance of devising sobriety tests for drivers who may be stoned. He also wants the state to take "a wait-and-see approach" in regard to legalizing other drugs. There's no reason for Vermont to go first, Feliciano says, declaring he's "not a rip-the-Band-Aid-off kind of guy." In the course of a 75-minute interview, he made no mention of the official Libertarian stand in support of "amnesty for all convicted nonviolent drug offenders."
On abortion, he affirms the right to choose, except for those under age 18. Feliciano advocates parental notification as a precondition for a girl to terminate a pregnancy. He's also not in favor of "late-term abortions," although he says these are seldom performed in Vermont.
Feliciano, who was born in Manhattan to parents from Puerto Rico, attributes his political outlook more to lived experience than to what he absorbed from reading Ayn Rand and other libertarians.
When Feliciano was in second grade, his family moved to Monroe, N.Y., a town about 50 miles north of New York City. A high-school dropout, he got a job at age 16 as a gas station attendant. Former heavyweight boxing champion Floyd Patterson, a regular customer, proved especially influential in his decision to join the U.S. Navy the following year, Feliciano relates in a voice still resonant with the harsh consonants of a native New Yorker.
He studied sonar in the Navy and got a job as a GE systems engineer after his discharge. Feliciano went on to chart a career as an efficiency consultant to health insurance companies such as Cigna and Aetna. He also worked for IDX, the Vermont-based medical software company that GE Healthcare purchased in 2006. Feliciano is currently employed by Keurig Green Mountain as a "continuous process improvement manager."
With a smile, he bats away the suggestion that he may be exhibiting arrogance by targeting the state's top job when he has never held elected office. "It would be nothing more than frustrating for me to know the right answers and the right approach and to be dealing with people who don't understand what it takes to move a large organization," he says.
Why not start with a bid for the local selectboard or the legislature? Feliciano says he's learned from his work with generals and CEOs that "with executives, you don't put them back into middle management."
For a time, it seemed Feliciano might just bust the mold to emerge as the chief competitor to Democratic incumbent Gov. Peter Shumlin — until a survey released October 7 by the Castleton Polling Institute suggested otherwise. It registered business-as-usual results: Shumlin on top with 47 percent, Milne second with 35 percent and Feliciano a distant third at 6 percent. The only surprise was the two-term governor's failure to corral majority support. Feliciano's single-digit performance suggested that a third-party candidate would once again prove no more than a spoiler, if that.
Why is the seemingly attractive newcomer struggling to gain traction, as the poll suggests?
It's mainly a matter of money, in Davis' view. Feliciano reported total campaign contributions of $31,000 as of October 15, with about a third of that amount coming out of his own pocket. Milne's $146,000 intake is nearly five times greater, while Shumlin's $777,000 sum buries those of both rivals. Feliciano has been able to afford a few radio ads and Facebook blurbs, but he's had no paid presence on television.
And while Davis views him as a respectable candidate, not all debate organizers accord Feliciano that treatment. WCAX aired a mano-a-mano exchange between Milne and Shumlin on October 7. Feliciano's exclusion relegated him to the same sideshow status as the four other candidates in the race, who together polled 3 percent in the Castleton survey.
Perhaps most importantly, however, Feliciano's philosophy leaves him out of sync with Vermont's political culture. He's a proponent of small government and an opponent of public spending on new social initiatives. And the state where he's lived for the past 11 years registers a clear preference for activist governance in the service of progressive policies.
Does a man with this résumé, philosophy and self-presentation have a future in Vermont politics?
Probably not, Davis suggests. He predicts that Feliciano's 6-point showing in the Castleton poll will approximate his actual result on November 4.
Vermont Republican Party chairman David Sunderland says the state GOP does have room for someone with Feliciano's views, though he cautions that the Libertarian stand on drugs is "disturbing to many Republicans." Sunderland suggests that GOP loyalist attitudes toward Feliciano will become even more negative if his vote total enables Shumlin to edge out Milne. "It's reasonable to assume that a majority of his vote comes from potential Scott Milne supporters," Sunderland says.
Feliciano has a different vision of his political future. He says he's "confident" he'll run again in two years — either in a third bid for the governor's office or as a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat held by seven-term incumbent Patrick Leahy. But he hasn't decided which banner he'd carry in another statewide campaign. He says he could run as a Libertarian, a Republican or an independent.