“The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know.” -- Harry Truman

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Parkway That Never Was

March 3, 1936: Vermonters reject a road along the ridge of the Green Mountains in a Town Meeting Day referendum.

Vermont’s expanding tourist sector received support from the Works Progress Administration throughout the Depression years. In southern Vermont that meant the completion of routes 9 and 7. Various state parks and airports were also upgraded. The first ski tow rope in the country started operating in Woodstock in 1934, with George Aiken, then Speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives, in attendance. 

This sparked the expansion of seasonal employment in the commercial ski industry. Ski trails gradually crisscrossed the state, and wealthy visitors bought farms abandoned by those who could longer make a living on the land.

published map, 1935
One business-backed project did hit a snag, however, a proposed Green Mountain Parkway along the ridge of the famous mountain range. Among its main boosters was James Paddock Taylor, Executive Secretary of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, who envisioned a beautiful, 260-mile ribbon of road extending from Canada to Massachusetts. Washington DC wanted it, and, according to Taylor and other influentials, so would most Vermonters once they understood the benefits. 

A major selling point was that construction would create jobs for some of the 16,000 Vermonters out of work. All the road’s backers needed was legislative approval of half a million dollars to purchase rights of way.

For Taylor and others who wanted the state to be more like the rest of the country, the parkway was viewed as a progressive initiative. It would create a new and modern state of mind. “The Parkway is a part of that program to get Vermont out of her valley-mindedness into the big view of things which should be expected from a mountain people,” Taylor wrote.

But many residents were suspicious, especially of President Roosevelt and his New Deal. They didn’t like the idea that the federal government would take control of 50,000 acres of land along the ridge of the state’s main mountain range, and preferred to see any extra money go toward fixing existing roads and bridges. Many feared that a nationally-controlled parkway would literally cut the state in half.

The Burlington Free Press thought it was a fine idea. “If our Washington Santa Claus wants to send us up ten millions to build a road over the side of our old Green Mountains, let’s graciously accept it and put the boys to work,” the paper chirped in a March 1935 editorial. But other papers, notably The Rutland Herald, weren’t convinced about the potential benefits. “The parkway would take tourists out of the valleys, where we can sell things to them, into the hills, where we can’t,” the Herald predicted. Half a million dollars was too much to borrow, an editorial added, and “a wilderness area now rich in game will be spoiled for hikes, sportsmen, horseback riders…”

Herald headlines of the time often played to public fears:


On December 14, 1935 the Vermont legislature finally met to consider the Green Mountain Parkway Act, designed to give the National Park Service jurisdiction over the necessary land and appropriate matching funds for the road. The debate was spirited.

One opponent called the promise of jobs propaganda and warned that the bill for construction would be passed on to future generations. A supporter replied, “Spending five hundred thousand dollars to get 18 million? I call that a pretty good deal. And as far as the argument that it will become a through way, that’s just ridiculous. Mister Speaker, Franklin County is unanimously in favor, and so is former governor Wilson.”

Another skeptic questioned whether the road would ever be completed. “The way it looks now,” he predicted, “one of two things will happen – either the whole country will go bankrupt or someone will step in and stop the spending. Either way, we’re stuck holding the bag.” Another said that people were “sending out an SOS. Heed it, I beg you, and let the people decide.”

The resolution passed but the advice was heeded. On March 3, 1936 the final decision was put before the people in a statewide referendum. Actually, the legislature was just asking voters to choose between two start dates – April 1, 1936 or five years later. But most people understood it was probably now or never.

When the votes were counted a convincing majority had rejected the federal government’s $18 million offer. There was strong support for the road in northern counties – Chittenden, Franklin, Grand Isle, Lamoille, and Washington – but it was roundly rejected in the south. As some opponents put it, they simply didn’t want the national government to become a large property owner and regulator of land in Vermont. The final vote was 31,101 in favor and 43,176 opposed.  

“Well, the people have expressed their opinion in no uncertain terms,” huffed the Burlington Free Press. “So that’s that.”

Was the decision enlightened or selfish, provincial or progressive, conservative or radical? It is difficult to categorize. Nevertheless, Vermonters had spoken, using their unique form of grassroots democracy – Town Meeting. 

At late as 1960, the National Park Service was still recommending the Green Mountain Parkway as part of an Appalachian Parkway system, but nothing came of it. University of Vermont political science professor Frank Bryan has argued that its defeat in 1936 was “the most democratic expression of environmental consciousness in American history, mythic in its defiance and radical in its implications – a Vermont that is green and rebellious.”

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Burlington: The Public Power Story

James Burke, Burlington’s Democratic mayor for seven terms between 1903 and 1935, is commonly hailed as “father” of the Burlington Electric Department. Though his political rivals at the time often reminded the public that the idea hadn’t actually originated with him, Burke was indisputably the engine that pulled the new department along during its early years.

Municipal power had enormous appeal in the early 20th century. In Vermont, the legislature authorized Burlington to furnish electric power to local residents on December 9, 1902. This meant that the city could purchase needed land – by eminent domain when necessary – and issue bonds for the work.

Three weeks earlier, however, the lawmakers had also approved the incorporation of a privately-owned light and power company. Burlington Light and Power would subsequently compete with – and more than once sue – the city over the management of energy distribution.

The Moran Plant on Burlington's Waterfront once generated power,
but has been closed for the past 25 years. 

Public vs. Private Power

Burlington Light and Power was founded by men like B.B. Smalley and Urban Woodbury. Smalley was a wealthy Democrat who had run for governor in 1892. A corporation lawyer, banker and president of the Burlington Gas Light Company, he was also on the board of directors of the Consolidated Electric Company, which merged with his Gas Light Company in 1906.

Woodbury was one of Smalley’s closest business associates. President of Consolidated Electric and founding board member of the Gas Light Company, he was a war hero, a former mayor and lieutenant governor, and had diverse business interests. Two years after Smalley ran for governor as a Democrat and lost Woodbury ran as a Republican and, predictably, won.

In short, Mayor Burke had some powerful opponents.

Just a week after he was declared the legal mayor by the State Supreme Court in 1903, he went to the City Council to win backing for light plant bonds. Two days later, on June 11, he staged a special citywide meeting to vote on the proposed $150,000 investment.

Woodbury was there to speak against the plan, along with Elias Lyman, owner of the area’s big coal company and the local mass transit monopoly, Burlington Traction Company. Both were hissed by the crowd as they talked.

The voters said yes to Burke’s proposal. Less than two years later his daughter, Loretta, pressed a button at the bandstand in City Hall park, energizing two circuits of street lights with power from the just-completed plant. Within ten years Burlington was generating over one million kilowatt hours with a turbine generator.

Despite widespread local support for public power, owners of the competing power company didn’t cave in. In fact, when the city was on the verge of expanding the department in 1910, Burlington Light and Power made a competing bid to supply energy for street lights, public buildings and parks. After it was turned down, the utility company filed an injunction to prevent the city from issuing new bonds.

Mayor James Burke
The lawsuit was dropped after two years, since it wasn’t possible to prove that commercial lighting supplied by the city was increasing the public debt. The company’s hope of challenging the city’s legal right to compete had been dashed. But Light and Power did eventually take the city to court and win. The Supreme Court decision came in 1918, while Mayor Burke was temporarily retired. 

The basis of the case was an agreement forged by Burke between the city and the private utility back in 1904. To avoid duplication as demand for electricity increased, Burlington had agreed to share utility pole space with Light and Power. Since the city used more of its poles, the city department was supposed to pay a 20 cent per year fee for each wire attached.

In 1909, Burlington stopped paying. One claim was that its charter established a right to use the top of all poles without charge. Light and Power cried foul.  A contract was a contract, after all, and the city was its chief competitor. The court agreed. No matter what the City Charter said, the department had to pay up.

That small defeat didn’t change the direction in which the city was moving, however. When Green Mountain Power offered $1 million to lease the department for 20 years the city wisely declined. During those 20 years public power brought Burlington more than $2 million in profit. In 1953, the department officially became a city monopoly when it purchased GMP’s franchise.

Modern Times

The 30-megawatt coal-fired Moran Generating Station, named for Mayor J.E. Moran, was completed in 1954. Since its closing decades ago, the city has pursued various plans to convert it for recreation or other community use. Its future, and that of the department itself, briefly became issues in the 2012 mayoral race when, at the start of a tough mayoral campaign, Republican candidate Kurt Wright proposed the sale of BED to reduce the city debt.

In 2005, BED received a National Star of Energy Efficiency award from the Alliance to Save Energy. A House resolution congratulating BED on this achievement noted that “despite the city’s significant commercial expansion over the last 15 years, in 2004, Burlington used less electricity than in 1989, a feat that was made possible through BED’s innovative leadership as a promoter of energy efficiency.” It also assisted in avoiding the release of over 43,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually.  

Today BED is the largest municipally-owned electric utility in Vermont. With more than 19,000 residential and commercial customers, it generates around $50 million in annual revenues, and provides power for the city and Burlington International Airport. Although exempt from local property taxes, the department pays around $1.5 million annually in contributions to the city, plus “indirect costs” that can reach $500,000. Mayor Burke’s vision of municipal energy production has gone farther than he could have imagined.

Monday, July 25, 2011

How Vermont Went Republican

July 13, 1854: The second US Republican Party is formed.

The 1840 Convention of the Vermont Whig Party was the largest ever staged in New England. Almost 20,000 people came to Burlington, attending an enormous parade in support of William Henry Harrison.

During the gathering Vermont Whig leader and US Congressman William Slade encouraged Party members to take a stronger stand on slavery. That January Slade had delivered the first abolitionist address ever made in Congress, calling for the immediate end of human slavery. Still, he felt that the country wasn’t ready for an abolitionist president.

Within two years, however, the growth of the anti-slavery Liberty Party convinced Slade to “abolitionize” Vermont’s Whigs. In 1842, therefore, the state Party’s platform called slavery a “moral and political evil” that should be removed.

When Henry Clay emerged as the Whig candidate for president in 1844, Vermonters were rightly suspicious about his position. Clay was equivocating on whether Texas should be annexed since it would eventually become another slave state. To compensate, the Whigs picked Slade to run for governor. Not only did he win, Clay carried the state. But Democrat James K. Polk became president.

As it worked out, annexation of the Lone Star State led to a war with Mexico, another decision Vermont Whigs opposed. In 1848, Green Mountains Whigs were again unhappy with their candidate. This time it was Zachery Taylor, a slave owner and hero of the Mexican War.

By this time Slade was fed up and decided to move on to the Free Soil Party. An outgrowth of the Liberty Party, it was strongly abolitionist – Free Soil for Free Men, it proclaimed – and drew its leadership from a coalition of Democrats, Whigs and former Liberty Party supporters. Although Carlos Coolidge, a Whig – and distant relative of future president Calvin Coolidge – defeated the new coalition in the governor’s race, the opposition of most Vermonters to slavery or its extension into new territories remained undiminished.

Political allegiances were shifting rapidly. Between 1849 and 1853, the state’s Democratic Party went into a steep decline. Joining forces with the Free Soilers had undermined their status as a credible alternative to the Whigs. In a desperate move, the Party’s leaders choose opposition to temperance as a cause. A temperance referendum had passed, but the vote was close and Democrats felt that it didn’t truly reflect public opinion. The real problem, though, was the Party’s unpopular position on slavery.

The turning point came in 1854 after a series of mass meetings was held across the state. The leaders at those spontaneous events weren’t the old political players but instead a group of insurgents. The state was at the edge of another political rebellion.

That summer the Whigs, split between realists and stalwarts, could only agree on a provisional slate to be headed by Stephen Royce, an abolitionist State Supreme Court Judge whose selling point as a gubernatorial candidate was that he had “never mingled in the slightest degree with party politics.” The Free Soilers, running this time under the “unionist” banner, looked to an elderly newspaperman, Ezekiel. P. Walton, who announced that he was ready to step aside for someone else.

The Democrats weren’t even in the running, further undermined by the nomination of Franklin Pierce for President. Pierce supported the return of runaway slaves under the Fugitive Slave Act, as well as the Nebraska Act, which made slavery a blatant state’s right issue. Ironically, the Act had been proposed by former Vermonter Stephen Douglas. Rather than helping Democrats, the Illinois senator’s return home for a political appearance in February had accelerated the Party’s collapse in the state.

The timing was perfect for a new party that could appeal to the many Vermonters disillusioned with the political establishment. In June, Ezekiel Walton called for a mass state convention, and on July 13 around 600 people showed up at the statehouse in Montpelier to form the second state Republican Party in the nation.

“Our rallying cry shall henceforth be the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law,” its platform announced, “the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, the prohibition of slavery in all the Territories of the United States, and the admission of no more slave states into the Union.”

Provisional Whig candidate Royce became the new party’s nominee and went on to win in November with 62 percent of the vote. By the next year the Republican Party had spread across the northern states and installed one of its own as Speaker of the US House.

In Vermont there was a brief challenge from the American Party, electoral arm of a growing nativist movement known as the Know-Nothings. But the Republicans managed to attract enough nativist support by attacking the Know-Nothing penchant for secrecy while sympathizing with its dislike of Irish immigrants. In a diluted form nativist sentiment was absorbed by Republican Party, finding expression later in exceptionalist rhetoric.

The state’s political landscape had been transformed, with confusion replaced by unity. In 1856, John Charles Frémont, the Republican candidate for president, won about 80 percent of Vermont’s popular vote. Two years later Pennsylvania reformer Thaddeus Stevens, a native Vermonter, re-entered Congress as a Republican and rapidly assumed leadership of the House, where his strong abolitionist sentiments and legislative skills gave him tremendous power.

Two years after that, in 1860, Vermonters gave Abraham Lincoln the largest margin of victory of any state in the nation. The Green Mountains remained solid Republican territory for the next 100 years.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mormons and the Presidency

June 27, 1844: Joseph Smith is killed while running for President

Audio Podcast: Greg Guma on Mormon History and the Presidency
Mormons, the Presidency and the Bilderberg Way by Ronin Wolfe

Of the major religions – other than Muslim – people in the US are least comfortable with the prospect of a Mormon president, says a new Pew Research Center study. Even evangelical Christians, a core constituency for many a Republican hopeful, tend to see the Church of Jesus of Latter-Day Saints as a secretive, possibly heretical cult. Thus, if Mitt Romney does become the GOP’s nominee in 2012, this could be a tougher obstacle than his association with health care reform or his oft-discussed absence of authenticity.

On the other hand, there are a number of Mormon political heavy-weights, notably US Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, Jon Huntsman – one of Romney’s rivals for the nomination, and five other senators, including both from Utah, Michael S. Lee and Orrin Hatch, Mike Crapo of Idaho, Tom Udall of New Mexico, and Dean Heller, who replaced John Ensign to join Reid in representing Nevada.

Romney’s ties to the Church are among the deepest. A fifth-generation Mormon whose ancestors were involved from the mid-1850s, he is a former lay bishop of Massachusetts' temple. But he isn’t the first Mormon to seek the presidency. That honor goes to founder Joseph Smith, a Vermonter by birth who struck out for the west in revival days.

The enthusiasm of 19th century revival movements was contagious. Part of an evangelical surge known as the Second Great Awakening, many centered on Christian prophecies of impending doom. The prophecies faded but the righteous attitude and enthusiasm gave energy to diverse movements, from abolition to temperance and opposition to Masonic influence.

Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont on December 23, 1805 but moved to New York before founding the Church in 1831. He began by announcing that an angel had given him a book of golden plates inscribed with a religious history of ancient peoples. Once “translated” by Smith their contents became The Book of Mormon.

Believers flocked to the new religion, but hostile neighbors forced Smith and his followers to keep moving, first to Ohio and then Missouri and Illinois. In Missouri the tensions broke into outright war. Hostile Missourians thought the Mormons were planning an insurrection and the governor said they should be "exterminated” or driven out. Smith next led them to Illinois, where they built a town on some Mississippi River swampland. There Smith became the mayor of a town he named Nauvoo and commanded an impressive militia.

He announced for President as candidate of the National Reform Party in early 1844. It was a long shot, since former President Andrew Jackson was engineering the nomination of Tennessee farmer, lawyer and political “dark horse” James Polk. The Whigs were backing Henry Clay, and the big issue was expansion – specifically the takeover of Texas and Oregon.

Smith’s party had emerged from the National Reform Association, a coalition of unionists, locofocos (a radical Democratic faction combining unionists and libertarians) and the Workingman’s Party, united in their concern about depression and “social degradation of the laborer.” What especially attracted Smith, however, was the Party’s policy focus – homesteading rights. National Reformers wanted legislation allowing workers and others to acquire public lands free of charge, state laws exempting farm land from seizure to collect debts, and restrictions on ownership of large swathes by the wealthy. Their slogan was “Vote the Land Free.”

Unfortunately, like many candidates before and since, Smith had some personal baggage. In his case it came in the form of romantic overtures he had made to the wife of a convert, William Law, a Canadian who quit the Church and publicly attacked the Mormon practice of polygamy in a newsletter. “We are earnestly seeking to explode the vicious principles of Joseph Smith, and those who practice the same abominations and whoredoms,” wrote Law. Accompanied by the Nauvoo city marshal, Smith responded by destroying his accuser’s printing press. The governor charged him with inciting a riot and had him jailed.

On June 27, 1844, while Smith was drinking wine with his brother and some friends in a spacious cell in Carthage, Illinois, a mob surrounded the building. The prophet had a gun, a six shot “pepper-box” pistol, but a gang with blackened faces charged into his cell and opened fire, immediately killing his brother and the others. Smith almost escaped out the window. With shots coming at him from behind and below he plummeted two stories to the ground and then died.

Five men were tried for his murder. All were acquitted. But the Mormon church soon recovered when a new prophet emerged – a 43-year-old former housepainter and carpenter from Vermont named Brigham Young.

Thirty-seven years after Smith’s fateful race Chester Arthur succeeded where he had fallen short, becoming the first president from Vermont upon the assassination of President James Garfield. But Arthur was the Episcopalian son of a Baptist minister, and public attitudes had turned less tolerant in the intervening years. In his first Annual Message to Congress on December 6, 1881, Arthur called Mormon polygamy an “odious crime” and a “barbarous system,” urging legislation to stop its spread. By then Mormons were well established in Utah, Idaho, Arizona and other Western Territories. Attacks on polygamy peppered Arthur’s speeches throughout his presidency.

More than a century later, the Pew Research Center has concluded that 25 percent of American would be less likely to vote for a Mormon presidential candidate. The responses from white evangelicals are even less encouraging. More than a third reacted negatively to the idea of a Mormon in the White House. Among those, 63 percent said there is no way they will vote for Romney. University of Akron political scientist John Green claims that distrust among Christian evangelicals contributed to his 2008 loss in the Iowa caucuses.

During Romney’s 2008 presidential run he tried to defuse the issue and dispel doubts with a speech, a strategy used with success by John F. Kennedy when he spoke publicly about Catholicism and politics during his presidential run. But Romney's "Faith in America" talk in Texas mentioned his Mormon faith just once, raising questions about whether he was as comfortable with the issue as he suggested.

This time, he moved to preempt attacks by announcing on CNN that he is “not a spokesman” for the Church. Whether it will work remains to be seen.

This article is the third in a series adapted from The Vermont Way, a new study by Greg Guma to be released in 2012.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Voting Equality and the Hoff Effect

May 14, 1965: “One-Man One-Vote” reapportions legislative power
For Phil Hoff, one of Vermont’s breakthrough governors in the 20th century, the main job of an elected leader is to push the envelope of change. “You have to stand up for things,” he once told me, “and if that results in you being defeated, it’s a risk you take.”
Hoff was speaking from experience, the sweet and the bitter. After three terms as governor in the tumultuous 1960s, he was trounced in a 1970 run for the US Senate by incumbent Republican Winston Prouty. The main reason, as he saw it, was his civil rights activism, particularly sponsorship of the Vermont-New York Youth Project, which brought Black teenagers up from New York to work and play with White Vermonters. “It was enormously successful for the participants,” he said. “But it wasn’t well understood, and all the latent racism began to emerge. There’s no question it defeated me in the Senate race.”
Civil rights activism wasn’t the only thing that made Hoff’s years as governor special. To start, he was the first Democrat elected in a century – after just one term in the House. It was rough going at first. Facing an overwhelmingly Republican legislature, he thought there was little chance he would be re-elected. “So, why not damn the torpedoes, which I did,” he said. “They (voters) wanted us to shake up the establishment.”
The Democratic Party had been gaining strength since 1952, when Burlington City Attorney Robert Larrow ran for governor. His 39 percent showing against an incumbent demonstrated the potential to attract moderate Republicans and win not only in urban areas but statewide. Frank Branon, a Franklin County senator, built on that base in subsequent elections.
The 1958 race between Bernard Leddy and Republican Robert Stafford was close enough for a recount, while William Meyer, a forester who ran a grassroots campaign, became the first Democratic Congressman in a century. But Meyer was soon tarred as a “commie lover” for supporting non-intervention in the affairs of China and defeated after a single term by Stafford, who spent the next two decades in the House and Senate.
Hoff was part of a bipartisan group of legislators known as the “young turks,” an alliance that included Republican Franklin Billings, a Rockefeller-connected lawyer from Woodstock, and Ernest Gibson III, son of a former governor, grandson of a Senator. Hoff claimed that the state had been damaged by a century of one-party rule. The endorsement of Republicans like A. Luke Crispe, a former Gibson law partner from Brattleboro, and T. Garry Buckley helped him to victory. They and other dissident Republicans had joined with Democrats to form the Vermont Independent Party, a strategy for wooing voters away from F. Ray Keyser, the Republican incumbent.
Larrow, who ran for attorney general in 1962, was pushing for redistricting of Burlington and, more crucially, reapportionment of the state legislature based on population. Since the founding of Vermont representation in its legislature had been based on the principle of one town-one vote; in other words, a town with only a thousand residents had the same legislative weight as a growing city.
Basing legislative seats in the House of Representatives on population instead would clearly increase representation from urban, Democratic communities like Burlington and Brattleboro. At this point Democrats were winning about 40 percent of the popular vote statewide but had only 20 percent of the legislative seats.
On January 23, 1963, Crispe filed a lawsuit arguing that representation on the basis of towns and counties violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. When it reached US District Court the name on the lawsuit was renegade Republican Garry Buckley. One problem the reformers had was the solidly GOP legislature. But they had a friend who was perfect for the job of House Speaker. Just as Crispe filed the reapportionment lawsuit in Brattleboro, Republican Franklin Billings was elected House Speaker with every Democratic vote.
The US Supreme Court eventually agreed with the arguments of Larrow, Crispe and Buckley and ordered the state legislature to make the change. The transition officially began on May 14, 1965 when the House of Representatives voted to reduce its size from 245 to 150 seats and elect each member based on population rather than geography. Traditionalists warned that small towns would no longer have much influence on the state’s direction.
In 1966, Hoff appointed Larrow and Billings to the Superior Court. In the 1970s another Democratic Governor, Thomas Salmon, elevated both to the state Supreme Court. Buckley eventually became Lieutenant Governor.
During Hoff’s three terms, the nature and scope of state government dramatically changed. Those years brought a major expansion of the state college system, the state’s takeover of welfare, urban renewal projects, the first rehabilitation programs at Vermont prisons, and reluctant acceptance that a regional approach to planning was needed. As Joe Sherman put it in Fast Lane on a Dirt Road, “Vermonters seemed willing, at least for a while, to go with the irresistible tug of the American century. They were just climbing on board 60 years late.”
Hoff also pushed for a statewide development plan. “It probably wasn’t very good,” he admitted later, “but no one had ever done it before.” Acknowledging “uncontrolled” growth, he argued that dependence on local tax revenues to support schools was one of the main culprits.
Historic moments like the one Hoff seized are few and far between, at least he thought so. “But I also like to believe that we’re closer to one now than a lot of people think.”
This is the second in a series of excerpts from The Vermont Way: Restless Spirits and Popular Movements, a new study of the state by Greg Guma that will be published in 2012.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Path to Marriage Equality

April 7, 2009: Vermont legalizes same-sex marriage

The idea that Vermont is exceptional has long influenced its self-image. The landscape is certainly extraordinary and, in historical terms, there is some basis for the claim. After all, it was an Independent Republic for almost 15 years and the first state to ban slavery.

Once anti-slavery activism opened the door for the Republican Party, Vermont stayed solidly Republican for a century. Its population was small and predominantly white, but its political system has featured the direct democracy of Town Meeting, short terms for officials, strong environmental laws, and, as of April 2009, same-sex marriage.

Vermont’s legislature was the first in the nation to legalize gay marriage, another in a series of breaks with conventional political thinking that contribute to the state’s iconoclastic brand. Here is a brief look at how it happened, and the role played by Howard Dean.

Although there was debate for years, the first legal turning point came on December 10, 1999, when the Vermont Supreme Court ruled in Baker v. Vermont that gay couples had a right to the same benefits provided to straight couples and told the legislature to come up with the appropriate implementation.

At the time same-gender couples could not be legally married anywhere in the US. Some states had passed laws forbidding or declining to recognize such marriages. The federal government had enacted the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which said states need not recognize same-sex unions from other places.
Sensing a political landmine, Governor Dean initially expressed some discomfort with gay marriage. But the legislature moved forward, making Vermont the first state to legalize civil unions. Dean signed the bill, but without a public ceremony. He was hoping to cool down a tense atmosphere. It didn’t work. Gay rights activists felt cheated and an anti-gay backlash almost cost him re-election in 2000.
Depending on the poll, at that point Vermonters were either equally divided on the issue, or opposed to same-sex marriage by about two-to-one. However, the surveys also showed that many people had open minds. Vermont had been the first state to allow both adults in same-gender couples to be legally recognized as parents. Still, endorsing the right to marry was politically risky.
In retrospect, Dean insisted that he was committed to equality for all. “That’s why I knew I had to work for civil unions,” he wrote in his 2003 memoir, released in the midst of a campaign for president. “I never viewed the bill as a gay rights issue. I signed it out of a commitment to human rights, and because every single American has the same right to equality and justice under the law that I have.”
Whatever the reasons Dean benefited in the long run: Wealthy gay supporters in the Fire Island beach community became early and generous contributors to his presidential campaign. By the time civil unions became state law in 2000, he was already considering a run. But he passed that year, and waited until the end of his final term as governor to begin building an organization.
Early on, Dean tapped into an Internet-based strategy, using “meetups” to organize supporters across the country. He also discovered a new way to raise money. By June 30, 2003, he had $8 million, beating his rivals and advancing to the top candidate tier. By August he was the hottest political story in the country, the wild card of the upcoming presidential race.
Back in Vermont, people were perplexed. This sounded like a different Howard Dean, no longer the moderate who had frustrated progressives and equivocated on gay marriage. Now he was, as Jonathan Alter wrote in a cover story for Newsweek, “the fire-breathing neopopulist” calling on liberals to “Take your country back.”
Groups like the Club for Growth had something else in mind. In an ad released by the conservative group shortly before the crucial Iowa caucuses, two actors, playing an elderly couple, were asked to describe the threat looming over the country. Responding to the camera, the “husband” said, “Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times reading…” Then the “wife” jumped in with, “body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont where it belongs.” Gay marriage wasn’t mentioned but lingered between the lines.
It was strong stuff, a blend of dark comedy and cultural hate speech, so effective that the Club didn’t have to pay much for airtime. News networks were more than willing to provide free play, for this and other bad press.
In the end, Dean’s incandescent sprint became a cautionary tale. By winning the so-called “invisible primary” – the fundraising and organization race before votes were cast – he looked like a “frontrunner” too early. His support turned out to be demographically thin and easy to undermine. In early 2004 he went from “hot” to “not” in a month.
Back in Vermont, Republican James Douglas replaced Dean as governor. A moderate and pragmatic bureaucrat, Douglas did what he could to stop what began to look inevitable without picking a fight. On April 7, 2009, over his veto, the Vermont legislature became the nation’s first to allow marriage for same-sex couples. There was no big backlash and a study forecasted that it would boost the state’s economy by more than $30 million over three years, create 700 jobs and generate $3.3 million in fees and taxes.
For several decades Vermont has been known for independent thinking. But the maverick spirit actually dates to the American Revolution, as settlers broke free of British rule and exploitation by land speculators. It continued with the jailhouse re-election of Congressman Matthew Lyon – a critic of President John Adams – in defiance of the Alien and Sedition Acts, resistance to the War of 1812, rejection of Masonic secrecy, and defeat of a Green Mountain Parkway during the New Deal. The pattern reflects a libertarian streak that has frequently resisted the pull of modern liberalism.
Despite geographical isolation, early Vermonters also expressed a belief in equality and tolerance that made it fertile ground for revival-era experiments and leadership in the fight to end slavery. Although the state was sometimes slow to respond, as with extending voting rights to women, its traditional values have often re-asserted themselves – in the expansion of social services in the 1940s, assimilation of newcomers in the late 1960s and, two years ago, the landmark decision to make same-sex marriage state law.
This is the first in a series of excerpts from The Vermont Way, a new study of the state by Greg Guma that will be released in 2012. Check this site for future previews.