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For Vermonters who have seen Howard Dean up close and personal for the last eleven years as our governor, there’s something darkly comical about watching the national media refer to him as the “liberal” in the race for the Democratic nomination for president. With few exceptions in the 11-plus years he held the state’s top job, Dean was a conservative Democrat at best. And many in Vermont, particularly environmentalists, see Dean as just another Republican in Democrat’s clothing.
As the son of a wealthy Long Island family (his father was a prominent Wall Street insider), Dean’s used to having his golden path well greased. After dutifully attending Yale and then medical school, Dean looked for a state to launch both a private medical practice and a political career. He chose Vermont as much for its beauty as its lenient mood toward carpet bagging politicians, thus joining Brooklynite Bernie Sanders as a born again Vermonter.
Dean became Vermont’s accidental governor in 1991 after Governor Richard Snelling died of a heart attack while swimming in his pool. Dean, the lieutenant governor at the time, took the state’s political reins and immediately followed through with his promise not to offend the Snelling Republicans who occupied the executive branch. And Dean carried on with his right-leaning centrism for the next eleven, long years.
With his sights now set on the White House, the Dean team has been doing its best over the last year to polish up a mediocre gubernatorial record. They’re also trying to position Dean as “the liberal” in the Democratic field so as to grab the much-coveted early primary voters.
And nowhere are the tall tales of Dean’s liberalism more off the mark than when the Dean team begins to gush about his environmental record.
“EP under Governor Dean meant Expedite Permits, not Environmental Protection,” proclaims Annette Smith, the director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment.
Smith is no stranger to Dean’s environmental record, having tangled with the Dean administration on everything from the OMYA Corporation’s mining to pesticide usage on Vermont’s mega-farms. When Smith learned that Dean was holding a press conference at the Burlington Community Boathouse last week to celebrate his eco-legacy, she fired off emails to Vermont environmentalist calling for a protest of the event and wondering if they were “going to let Governor Dean ride out on his white horse of environmental leadership?”
It was Smith who stumbled onto Dean’s official gubernatorial web site a couple of years ago and found a bucolic photo of her home town of Danby being featured with this caption: “Time stands still hereyou might even forget when it’s time to go home.” Ironically, the location depicted in the photo was the same spot Dean was pushing to host a massive gas pipeline, a plan that would have required timber clear-cuts and other dramatic topographical changes. The Dean team removed the photo within a couple of weeks, but not before Smith made hay with his apparent hypocrisy.
“Dean’s attempts to run for president as an environmentalist is nothing but a fraud,” Smith told Wild Matters. “He’s destroyed the Agency of Natural Resources, he’s refused to meet with environmentalists while constantly meeting with the development community, and he’s made the permitting process one, big dysfunctional joke.”
Those are not the words you’d expect to hear from an environmentalist if all you relied on for your news was the mainstream press. The Burlington Free Press, for example, has spent considerable space putting one coat of varnish after another on Dean’s tenure, including a rather smarmy salute to his eco-record. The word from those quarters is that Dean is the environment’s friend and he’s done nothing but anger the business community by slowing development and stymieing growth.
Dean’s record, however, shows just the opposite. Remember, when Dean took office there were no Wal-Marts in Vermont; there was no Home Depots; Burlington’s downtown was dominated by local stores not the national chains that now rule the roost; there were 36% more small farmers in existence; there were no 100,000-hen mega-farms; and sprawl wasn’t a word on the tip of everyone’s tongue.
Interestingly, Dean told the Free Press last week that he wished the rest of “the country were more like Vermont.” But it certainly seems Dean has been doing his best to make Vermont more like the rest of the country.
Stephanie Kaplan, a leading environmental lawyer and the former executive officer of Vermont’s Environmental Board, has seen the regulatory process under Dean become so slanted against environmentalists and concerned citizens that she hardly thinks its worth putting up a fight anymore.
“Under Dean the Act 250 process (Vermont’s primary development review law) and the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) have lost their way,” contends Kaplan. “Dean created the myth that environmental laws hurt the economy and set the tone to allow Act 250 and the ANR to simply be permit mills for developers.”
Kaplan points to the “Environmental Board purge” in the mid-90s that allowed Dean to set the pro-development tone. In 1993, the Board issued an Act 250 permit to C&S Grocers in Brattleboro with conditions that restricted the diesel emissions from its heavy truck traffic. After C&S execs cried foul and threatened to move to New Hampshire, Dean broke gubernatorial precedent by publicly criticizing the Environmental Board for issuing what he called a “non-permit.”
A year after receiving their public rebuke from Dean, four of the Environmental Board members ? including the chair ? were up for reappointment. With the not-so-subtle clues from Dean that he didn’t approve of the Board’s political direction, the Republican majority in the state senate shot down each and every one of their appointments, thus dramatically changing both the structure and climate of the Board.
“After the post-C&S purge,” says Kaplan, “the burden of proof for Act 250 permits switched from being on the applicants — where it’s supposed to be — to being on the environmentalists. That’s why 98% of the permit requests are approved and only 20% ever have hearings.”
There is, however, one issue that Dean deserves credit for: his peripatetic efforts in land conservation. During his tenure, Dean has overseen the public preservation of over one million acres of Vermont land, most notably the former Champion Corporation lands in the Northeast Kingdom.
“But these special parcels seem to be the only land Dean cares about,” says Kaplan. “The rest has been fair game for over development.”
As Dean goes national he may be able to fool an Iowan or two with his eco-record, but Vermonters have seen enough to know that being green isn’t easy for Dean. And he’s far from being a liberal.