The Dean You Don't Know
"That's one of the reasons we wrote the book," said Hamilton Davis, a former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for The Providence Journal and former managing editor of The Burlington Free Press, Vermont's largest daily newspaper. "This guy, fiscally, is a tremendous conservative. It wasn't only fiscally. He is a cheapskate. He won't even buy a shirt that fits."
In "Fiscally Tight, but Not Always," one of several chapters Davis wrote for the book Howard Dean: A Citizen's Guide to the Man Who Would Be President (Steerforth Press, 2003), by a team of reporters from Vermont's Rutland Herald and Times-Argus, Davis describes how Dean—who was the Lt. governor when Republican Gov. Richard Snelling died of a heart attack in 1991—stayed the course charted by Snelling during his subsequent five-term tenure.
In speeches and on his Web site, the Democratic presidential candidate has said a "Dean administration in Washington will do what the Dean administration did in Vermont: we will balance the budget... to meet long-term fiscal commitments to protect Medicare and Social Security and relieve future generations of the stifling burden of debt." As Dean has said many times on the campaign trail, 'You can't fund social justice in a deficit.'
What Dean's speeches and Web site don't say, however, is that the architect of Dean's economic record was Richard Snelling, a socially liberal, fiscally conservative governor who publicly criticized the Reagan administration's deficit-creating policies in the mid-1980s—and was duly ostracized by the Reagan administration for doing so.
"He [Dean] didn't build the ship, but he was its captain," said William Gilbert, who was Snelling's longtime top aide as state Secretary of Administration. "He certainly was at odds with the more Liberal members of his own party. That's on the record. The fights he had with them were very entertaining."
In the book, Davis accurately recounts how just before Snelling died, he dealt with a state deficit by proposing a temporary progressive increase in the state income tax.
At the time, Vermont's tax was a fixed 25 percent of the federal rate. Snelling proposed three rates—pegged on income—and then revoking those increases when the state retired its deficit. Dean not only followed through on that plan, but when returning to one fixed rate, Dean lowered the state income tax by 1 percent. "It was enormously important in a symbolic sense," said Nord Brue, a businessman quoted in the book.
In the first term when Dean could put his own mark on the state budget, 1993 to 1994, Davis said Dean said no—across-the-boards—to state agency heads for funding increases. This was the last thing many Democrats in Vermont wanted or expected.
"Dean's approach was to accept the Snelling philosophy of tying state spending to the growth rate of the economy," Davis wrote. "But Dean, in practice, was far tougher on spending than Snelling ever was. Tom Pelham, who was Dean's budget chief for most of his tenure, says he and Dean calculated that the Snelling budget track was pitched too high by $100 million. So they determined to cut spending even more sharply than Snelling had contemplated." The result: in two years the state red ink was gone.
This fiscal conservatism extended to all areas in government except one: health care. When Dean became governor, prior state administrations laid the groundwork for what would become one of his biggest selling points in 2003, his expansion of state Medicaid and other social welfare programs to extend health care to children and young families. Dean has spoken of this achievement on the presidential campaign trail, adding a flinty Yankee asterisk: that it's cheap to increase care for people who are basically healthy.
But the imprint behind Dean's economic philosophy and record can be traced to one man: Republican Richard Snelling, the self-made millionaire turned five-term governor.
"He stuck to a lot of Snelling stuff," Davis said. "He was very impressed by Snelling. People always say that when someone dies. But I believe Howard meant that. He saw him as a tremendously powerful and efficient manager of the machinery of government."
It's ironic—and inaccurate—for Dean's primary opponents and the press to portray Dean as a 'loud, eager-to-spend Liberal,' Davis said. "A lot of guys that I speak to—they say if they can get him so wrong, what are they saying [that's wrong] about the other guys?"
Steven Rosenfeld is a commentary editor and audio producer for TomPaine.com, where this article first appeared (www.tompaine.com).
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