Vermont Governor Faces Tough Challenge

By Lawrence Morahan | July 7, 2008 | 8:26 PM EDT

( - Even before he signed the unpopular Civil Unions bill, Vermont Governor Howard Dean was looking at the Statehouse in the rearview mirror, political analysts say.

From the left came Progressive candidate Anthony Pollina, who pollsters predict could garner 10 percent of Dean's liberal base in November.

From right of center came Ruth Dwyer, the likely Republican nominee and a former gubernatorial candidate, who is currently running neck-and-neck with the fourth-term Democrat.

Together, they could have deprived Dean of the majority he needed to serve a fifth term.

But after authorizing marriage benefits for same-sex couples in a controversial bill passed by a Democratic Legislature in April against the will of a majority of Vermonters, Dean has put his chances for reelection virtually out of reach, analysts say.

"The Civil Unions Bill was the straw that broke the camel's back," said Kathie Summers, campaign manager for Dwyer. "It's the issue that woke everyone up. Now they're taking a look around, and they're seeing all of the things Dean did that they didn't like but weren't enough to put people over the edge. Civil unions put them over the edge."

Under Vermont law, a gubernatorial candidate that fails to get 50 percent of the vote, even if he or she wins the election, has to be confirmed by a vote in the Legislature.

So, even if Dean wins the popular vote by less than 50 percent, his chances of getting the stamp of approval of a new Republican Legislature, as pollsters predict is on the cards, are slim.

Republicans have been gaining steadily over the past three election cycles, and the outrage felt across the state at the recent Civil Unions bill will translate into enough gains for conservatives to block his confirmation, analysts say.

Currently, the GOP is less than 10 votes shy of an outright majority in the House.

Among the issues that people haven't forgotten is "Act 60" - an education finance reform bill passed in 1996 that allowed the state to take control of local towns' finances for education.

Act 60 caused an uproar similar to that caused by the recent civil unions legislation because it was seen as state Supreme Court-mandated legislation sponsored by Dean. The law threw out the old funding system, put the state in control of education funding and brought in a statewide property tax.

"It was seen as the first activist decision of this Supreme Court," said Craig Bensen, vice president of Take It to the People, a grassroots family organization opposed to civil unions.

"It was one of the crown jewels of Dean's administration, but the result was that Republicans picked up 10 extra seats in the House that year," Bensen said.

Dean was one of the first New Democrats, and Vermont became one of the first states to get a federal waiver to experiment with new rules designed to transform welfare recipients into employees.

For 40 percent of Vermont's welfare recipients, there were no work requirements; the remainder could wait more than two years before starting job preparation programs. The upswing in the economy eventually eased welfare rolls. The number of families on welfare declined from 10,000 in 1994 to 6,200 last March.

Dean, a physician, is a devotee of universal health insurance and tried to pass a state health care system. His efforts to reform health care drove all but three health care providers out of Vermont, state officials reported.

Until a couple of years ago, Dean was considered as a possible contender for Surgeon General in the Clinton Administration.

"Voters are also angry that he spent a lot of time in Washington," one state official said. "Some of it was on the tail end of him being the head of the National Governor's Association, but a lot had to do with job shopping."

Dean's foremost opponent, Ruth Dwyer, 41, is a farmer from Thetford, VT and a Republican member of the Legislature from 1994 to 1998. She ran for governor against Dean in 1998 and got 41 percent of the vote. If the Legislature repeals all or any part of the Civil Unions bill, she has pledged to sign it.

Dean's promotion of civil unions and defense of them after they proved unpopular is the enduring issue in this year's election.

"My state's split, and that's the saddest thing for me to see happen," said Republican State Representative Nancy Sheltra, an organizer of STARS, or Standing Together And Reclaiming the State, a group opposed to the Civil Unions bill.

"It didn't split like this on issues before this. No one got involved to the extent they're involved on the Civil Unions bill. We let people live their lives, but this is turning everything upside down and inside out," she said.