Editor’s note: This essay by Greg Guma is from The Vermont Way: Restless Spirits and Popular Movement, a new study of the state’s evolution and influence slated for release in 2012. To find out more, visit The Vermont Way.
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 Day, 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 Gov. Howard Dean.
Although there had been debate for years, the first legal turning point came on Dec. 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 United States. Some states had passed laws forbidding or declining to recognize such marriages. The federal government had enacted the Defense of Marriage Act, which said states need not recognize same-sex unions from other places.
Sensing a political landmine, 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 2-to-1. 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.
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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 forecast 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 is sometimes slow to respond, as with extending voting rights to women in the early 20th century, its traditional values often re-assert themselves.