When Winston Dowland ran for state legislator as a Progressive last fall, he admits he didn't think he'd win. His candidacy was a long shot -- the 62-year-old Holland resident was the first Progressive candidate to run in his two-seat district in the state's Northeast Kingdom. He and a long-shot Democrat ran against two popular Republican incumbents -- Loren Shaw, who'd ousted a pro-civil-union Democrat in the anti-gay backlash of 2000, and Nancy Sheltra, the stridently conservative eight-term legislator from Derby.
It seemed unlikely that a Progressive could unseat either. After all, the party's left-leaning statement of principles advocates nuclear disarmament and decries "white privilege." Its platform also calls for "full equality" for same-gender couples -- yep, that means gay marriage.
When the dust settled on election night, Winston Dowland was in second place -- behind Shaw, and 14 votes ahead of Sheltra. A tense recount left Dowland with a slim nine-vote margin over the long-serving Republican. And it left many Vermont political observers wondering, who is this guy?
Dowland doesn't fit the stereotypical Prog profile. For starters, his Vermont accent exempts him from the charge that he's some kind of kooky invader. And his sensible gray crew-cut contrasts sharply with the ponytail worn by Burlington Representative and Progressive House Caucus Chair David Zuckerman. Born in Derby Line, Dowland left Vermont in 1959 to join the Navy, and served five tours of duty in Vietnam. When he returned to Vermont in 1979, he found jobs as a mail carrier and a welder. "I know what it is to work for a living," he says during an interview in a Montpelier coffee shop on the day of his swearing in at the Statehouse.
But although some 62 year-olds might deliver a line like that with a trace of bitterness, Dowland imbues it only with an earnest pride. It's something his campaign manager, retired Episcopal priest Bob Castle, likes about him. "He's not an angry man," says Castle. Sure enough, Dowland strikes listeners as straightforward, youthful, and perhaps a bit mischevious.
Dowland's clearly his own man, but he says he shares the same values as other Progs. He wants better health care, a livable wage and more jobs in rural parts of the state -- themes echoed by Sandy Haas of Rochester and Dexter Randall of Troy, the other two Progressive candidates who won in rural areas last November.
These new reps now make up half of the six-member Progressive Caucus. "We all have the same ideas," insists Dowland. And, he notes with a maverick twinkle in his eye, "The people from the Northeast Kingdom like them ideas."
Even so, Dowland concedes that he had another advantage: "Everybody knew me in the area." He adds, "People here vote for the person, and what they've done, and what they're doing." Dowland has already done quite a bit: He served on the town planning commission in recent years and currently chairs Holland's Selectboard, a job he intends to keep during his service in the Legislature. He's also the current commander of the Vermont chapter of Disabled American Veterans. A small, circular gold-and-silver tiepin identifying him as such glitters on his chest.
The DAV isn't related to groups such as the American Legion or the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "We don't have bars and all this type of stuff," Dowland says. Instead, the DAV exists to help vets and their spouses navigate the federal veterans' benefits bureaucracy.
Over the years, Dowland has gotten to know quite a few vets and their widows. "When they don't get anything and I can get 'em something, that's pretty rewarding," he says. The DAV also offers free transportation to members who need a lift. Up in the Kingdom, Dowland and his wife often do the driving.
Dowland's work with veterans drew attention to his viability as a candidate for the Legislature. Last spring, he raised enough money to send a group of Vermont World War II vets to the opening of the new WWII Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Afterwards, representatives from all three parties approached him about the possibility of running for office.
Dowland considers himself an independent and says he "thought seriously" about running as a Democrat, but was interested in offering voters "something different." In the end, it was Anthony Pollina who convinced him to run as a Progressive.
The two first met at a campaign stop in Holland in October 2002, while the former gubernatorial candidate was running for lieutenant governor. "Jeez, I really liked what he had to say," recalls Dow-land. "If he was a party other than Progressive, I probably would have sashayed over to them."
Pollina's populist slant drew Dowland into the fold. The retiree recalls that when he returned to Vermont after his stint in the Navy, he had to work two or three jobs at a time to support his family. For a while, he worked the night shift at Butterfield's Tap and Die, and labored during the day as a welder for a company making quad tractors. At one point, he tried, unsuccessfully, to start a dumpster-making business.
Based on his experiences, Dowland believes the economic survival of the Kingdom hinges on supporting small business owners and advocating for a livable wage. He's also open to establishing a single-payer health-care system. "Dr. Dynasaur is single-payer," he observes, "and it's a heck of a good system." He favors extending the program to adults.
But while those are the same positions held by urban Progs, Dowland frames them in a different way. That, in addition to being well known locally, may be the key to his appeal with conservative rural voters; plenty of people voted for both him and Sheltra. When talking about a livable wage, for example, Dowland suggests that better wages will strengthen families by allowing women to stay home and raise children. "Right now, the wife's working, the husband's working," he says, "and they're not getting ahead. They ought to have a choice if the wife wants to stay home." It's an old-fashioned argument that you probably wouldn't hear in Burlington, but it works for Dowland.
He brings his family-values approach to the jobs issue, too, when he points out that none of his three grown children can afford to live in Vermont. They can't find jobs here. "Ain't no big companies coming up in our area," he notes. "If we can create these [small business] jobs, I think we can keep our families here."
At the core of Dowland's approach to Progressive issues is a message that the Left has been trying to sell nationwide, so far without much success. Namely, that these economic concerns are doing far more to hurt families than gay marriage ever will. That was essentially Dowland's pitch to voters and, because of who he is, it worked. While Sheltra repeatedly invoked abortion and "the homosexual agenda" at candidate forums, Dowland quietly expressed support for both abortion rights and gay people, but steered the debate away from social issues.
"I said, ÔThe gay issue's old. Let's move on to something important to this area,'" he explains. "She beat herself. People just got sick of hearing that type of stuff."
When pressed about his stance on gay marriage, Dowland uses an anecdote about racism to illustrate his position. When he went to Florida in '59 after joining the Navy, he saw a white woman berate a black woman on a bus, instructing her to sit in the back. It disturbed him. "I can see how a gay person would feel if they were treated like that," he says. And then he moves on to the issues he'd rather discuss.
The success of Dowland's approach isn't lost on Prog boss David Zuckerman. The Burlington Rep likes his Orleans County colleague and says he brings "a Bernie flavor" to the party. Zuckerman describes Dowland's perspective as an asset. "That's going to really help us connect with other Vermonters who agreed with us but were hedging because of the stereotypes," he says.
Zuckerman calls Dowland's victory evidence of Progressive inroads that have existed for the past few election cycles. "People haven't recognized that we've done well in the Kingdom," he says. In 2002, Anthony Pollina beat Democratic candidate Peter Shumlin in five Northeastern Vermont counties. "With Winston, Dexter and Sandy, we've shown what many of us in the party have known for a while, which is that we have members in rural parts of the state."
Barbara Postman, the Democratic Rep who lost to Loren Shaw in 2000 and who approached Dowland to run for the Democrats last year, admits she was "disappointed to some extent" that he chose to run as a Progressive. But, she notes, her party fielded only one candidate, and endorsed Dowland for the other seat. Besides, she chides, Dowland's party affiliation is less important than people think. "When it comes down to it, I don't think he's going to vote straight party line anyway," she says admiringly. "Winston's got his own mind."
Postman also says that although the Progs have gained ground in the Northeast Kingdom, so have the Democrats. Party meetings that used to draw five people are now drawing 30 or 40. She suggests that Dowland's election, and that of Randall, a Kingdom dairy farmer, bode well for the Dems, too. The former state legislator, who knows a thing or two about fluctuations in political climate, states the obvious when she says, "Things are changing up there."