In Profile: Will Corren’s principled stands on issues sway voters?

Dean Corren, a Progressive candidate for lieutenant governor. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Dean Corren, a Progressive candidate for lieutenant governor. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Editor’s note: This article by Anne Galloway is a news analysis.

In some respects, Dean Corren is not your typical politician. For one thing, he is first and foremost a scientist. It’s fair to say he’s the only candidate that’s ever run for lieutenant governor to cite the second law of thermodynamics to explain why he’s running.

In other respects, Corren is like many politicians who run because of a single focus. Corren’s prime reason for running is to help push forward Gov. Peter Shumlin’s single payer health care initiative. That plan, after a number of delays, is expected to be laid out when the Legislature reconvenes in January. Health care reform is an issue where Corren sharply contrasts with his opponent, Phil Scott, the incumbent Republican, who is less than enthusiastic about single payer.

“The second law of thermodynamics says it’s way easier to destroy things than to create things,” Corren said in an interview. “The universe goes toward entropy unless you put a lot of energy, including intellectual energy, into the interaction to organize things and make them work.

“To have the administration working so hard putting together the details of not only the financing plan and have a lieutenant governor act as an anchor slowing things down, making things tougher to explain than they already are, that was intolerable,” Corren continued. The state, he said, needs a lieutenant governor “who gets it on health care.”

While lieutenant governors in the past have promoted issues — Howard Dean for example focused on teen suicide — Corren’s ambition to be a key player in the health care debate would expand significantly the role of the office, which is typically relegated to four activities: filling in for the governor when he’s away, presiding over the Senate, casting tie-breaking votes and serving on the Senate Committee on Committees, which chooses the committee chairs and Senate staff.

The issue is too important, Corren says, to be passive or “fence-sitting” which is what he says Scott has been doing. Scott describes himself as “skeptical.”

Referring to the governor, Corren said: “Peter and I have disagreed on things in the past, we’ll disagree on things in future, but we can no longer afford to be saying on health care, well, I’m skeptical forever”

Single payer, Corren believes, is inextricably tied to Vermont’s economic growth. Without it, the state’s expenditures on health care will continue to escalate because only an all-inclusive system can control costs, he says. Even with the Affordable Care Act in place, more Vermonters will be priced out of coverage, in his view.

However, concerns have been raised about the government getting further involved in the health care system have been heightened by problems with setting up the state’s health care website built. More than $100 million has been spent on a website that has never fully functioned and is now shut down for repairs.

There has also been frustration with delays in the rollout of how the Shumlin administration would recommend financing the $2 billion needed to replace premiums and which taxes would be tapped.

About 40 percent of Vermonters support single payer; 39 percent oppose the initiative and 21 percent are unsure, according to a Castleton Polling Institute/VTDigger poll conducted at the end of March.

Corren’s campaign has been unusual in another respect and has provided him an advantage over his opponent. He qualified for $200,000 in publicly financed campaign funds, which instantly put him ahead of Scott in the fundraising realm (last election cycle Scott raised $180,000 total), and Corren can, as a result, spend more time campaigning as opposed to holding fundraising parties and making calls to contributors. Corren is the second candidate to qualify, after Steve Hintgen who received $80,259 in the 2004 race for lieutenant governor. Hintgen garnered 7 percent of the vote that year.

However, what may be the key to Corren’s campaign is whether the longtime Progressive can attract significant support from the Democrats, who did not field a candidate. In June, Gov. Peter Shumlin endorsed him, and in August, he garnered 3,874 write-in votes in the Democratic Primary. Last weekend, officials for the Vermont Democratic Party overwhelmingly threw their support behind him.

The Dems dominate the state politically. The party is expected to hold the governor’s office and continue to have an almost two-thirds majority in the Legislature after the General Election on Nov. 4.

Progressive lieutenant governor candidate Dean Corren (right) is joined by Attorney General Bill Sorrell at McCaffrey's Sunoco in Burlington on Monday for a news conference on gas prices. Photo by Morgan True/VTDigger

Progressive lieutenant governor candidate Dean Corren (right) is joined by Attorney General Bill Sorrell at McCaffrey’s Sunoco in Burlington on Monday for a news conference on gas prices. Photo by Morgan True/VTDigger

In the last election cycle, Cassandra Gekas, a Progressive/Democratic candidate won 41 percent of the vote, even though the odds were heavily stacked against her — she had little money, no name recognition and no political experience. Scott garnered 57 percent of the vote in 2012.

Although voter turnout is expected to be low and Republicans will be motivated to cast ballots for Scott, the sole standard bearer for the Vermont GOP in statewide office, Corren is a known quantity who has the governor’s backing and plenty of money to work with.

However, some in the Democratic Party view Corren’s tenure in the Legislature in the 1990s as one in which he was an uncompromising Progressive who was a sometimes sanctimonious change agent in the Vermont House of Representatives. Has he really changed, they wonder?

Corren says he isn’t afraid to take principled stands. In his view, he worked across party lines and is good at developing close relationships with other pols. Critics, however, say the jury is out on whether he can go from a lone wolf into a shepherd who can guide the Senate through what is predicted to be one of the most intense legislative sessions in recent memory — especially if he is pressing for a particular agenda from the podium. (The Vermont Legislature faces a trifecta of tough issues: single payer financing, property tax reform and an ongoing budget gap of $50 million or more, on top of $31 million in rescissions in spending for the current fiscal year.)

As a House rep, he helped to stop passage of a power deregulation bill that had been approved by the Senate, and which was supported by Gov. Howard Dean who later admitted he had been wrong on the issue. Corren says he worked with Republican Walt Freed and Democrats Tom Costello and Speaker Michael Obuchowski to kill the legislation.

“Together we killed that plan and saved Vermonters hundreds of millions of dollars,” Corren says.

Corren left the House in 2000 for a stint as a legislative liaison for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., because he couldn’t afford to stay — he was no longer making money on a patent he’d sold to IBM. “It broke my heart to leave and all I had to do was sign my name to get elected,” he says.

Since then, he has considered running for “various things.”

“I’ve managed to stave that off for 14 years,” Corren said.

But this election cycle he couldn’t shake the bug. The idea that Vermont was moving so close to single payer and that monied interests “would like to see us slide backwards very rapidly — that was just breaking my heart.”

Applied science and politics

Corren, 59, is a scientist, businessman and inventor. He runs the company Verdant Power, which develops technology that generates electricity from the movement of water in oceans, rivers and channels. He and his wife, Cindy, have four children and live in Burlington.

Corren grew up in New York City and got his first taste of Vermont at Middlebury College, where he studied philosophy and physics and took up dance as a sideline. When he graduated early in 1977, his interest in dance led him back to the city where he took a day job as an electronics engineer. Within a year, he was supervising four employees.

He then went to graduate school at New York University’s applied science program, where he studied the greenhouse gas effect. In 1980, his thesis was about how the United States could help to avert the coming global warming crisis by weaning itself off of fossil fuels. Computer modeling in the early 1980s was unsophisticated and inaccurate, he says, and “there was a huge dose of conservatism as far as how any predictions of the future would be treated academically.”

Corren pursued a career as a research scientist. He patented a turbine rotor that taps power from moon-driven tidal changes. Two decades later his turbine was tested in the East River, and in 2012, the Department of Energy began installing 30 of Verdant Power’s turbines in the first commercially licensed tidal energy project in the United States.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott (left) and Progressive/Democratic challenger Dean Corren debate live from the Tunbridge World's Fair on WDEV's The Mark Johnson Show on Friday, Sept. 12, 2014. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott (left) and Progressive/Democratic challenger Dean Corren debate live from the Tunbridge World’s Fair on WDEV’s The Mark Johnson Show on Friday, Sept. 12, 2014. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger

He is deeply disappointed by the lack of progress and the “incredible opportunity we had that we’ve squandered by wasting time doing what was obvious back then, and of course it’s only gotten worse.”

“The actions we have to take now are going to have to be at a level higher every month that goes by,” Corren said. “Every month that goes by we will have to contemplate a level of action we didn’t even have to contemplate a few months earlier.”

Vermont, he says, needs to be prepared for the negative impacts associated with climate change and “seize on the opportunities that we are going to be presented with in terms of agriculture, tourism and job creation.”

Either or thinking about business and the environment, he says is outmoded. “A good environment is the way to have sustainable, high quality jobs.”

Energy issues have partly driven his interest in politics. He got involved in NYPIRG and pressed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to hold the first hearing at Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant on the Hudson River.

When he moved to Burlington in 1988 he was appointed to the Burlington Electric Department where he pushed for energy efficiency programs and renewable sources of power.

In 1990, he made a run for House rep, “knocked on every door twice,” and lost by a handful of votes. The effort paid off: The next election cycle he won.

Principles over politics

Corren’s strength, and arguably his weakness, is his clarity on positions. He is an ideologue, and he is very direct about what he supports — single payer, wind energy, a re-evaluation of the Vermont Gas pipeline, publicly financed campaigns. Scott, meanwhile, often takes a position that is less clear or appears to be trying to satisfy both sides of an argument.

A conversation with Corren, ranges widely across issues. He is a wonk’s wonk, or a “brain in a jar,” as one source put it, who is passionate about his beliefs.

And if his track record is any indication, Corren is not averse to pushing debate on controversial issues. During his tenure in the House, from 1992 to 2000, he sponsored the first single payer health care bill, death with dignity legislation, and the legalization of gay marriage. While all three bills failed at the time, they eventually were enacted a decade or so later.

Candidate for lieutenant governor Dean Corren during a debate at the Tunbridge World's Fair on WDEV's The Mark Johnson Show. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger

Candidate for lieutenant governor Dean Corren during a debate at the Tunbridge World’s Fair on WDEV’s The Mark Johnson Show. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger

“At all of those times, I was told those things were impossible and they’re all law now,” Corren said in an interview. “I feel very good about the direction Vermont is going in and I think that as usual some politicians are playing catch up with the people.

“But some are truly leading, and I give this governor a lot of credit, particularly on health care,” he continued.

Peter Freyne, a columnist for Seven Days, dubbed Corren and Terry Bouricius, a fellow Prog, the Self-Righteous Brothers.

Bouricius says Freyne went after them viciously and unfairly “because we didn’t play the game he liked to report on.”

Corren, along with many other lawmakers, came under criticism for charging the state for mileage and lodging that exceeded actual costs. Though legal, some lawmakers said it was improper. Rep. Helen Riehle said she had been caught with her “hand in the cookie jar,” while Corren and some others defended it, arguing it was justified in part because pay for lawmakers was low.

The Progs had a caucus of two in the House, and the only way they could possibly get legislation passed was to work hard to get support across party lines. In some cases, they drafted legislation that they asked other lawmakers — Dems and Republicans — to sponsor in their stead.

The duo stuck to the issues they cared about, and Bouricius says they didn’t care who got credit. The Dems, on the other hand, cared too much about re-election and didn’t have the political courage to pass “serious legislation” like gay marriage and single payer, Bouricius says.

They were transparent about what their issues were and where they were coming from. That tack didn’t make them particularly powerful — the people who wheel and deal have more sway often — but it was a problem for the powerbrokers in the House who didn’t want them to shake things up, he says.

“You need people who don’t do what is politically expedient, and we played that role, and it was very important,” Bouricius said, especially at a time when the House was a series of “nondemocratic fiefdoms with a king.”

“When Ralph Wright was speaker, he was the lord master,” Bouricius says. “But we had very good working relationships across all party lines, and we worked with quite a diverse range of people.”

An municipal ethics bill Corren sponsored, for example, passed out of government operations, but “Ralph said no, and that was it.”

Andrew MacLean, a longtime lobbyist for MacLean, Meehan and Rice, says Bouricius and Corren chided members of the body who communicated with lobbyists as “somehow tainted.” MacLean said the two Progs did not cross party lines and “Corren was not an inclusive guy when he was in the Legislature for the most part.”

According to Corren’s reckoning, he got more bills amended than any other lawmaker in the House over the course of his 10-year career. He couldn’t sponsor or amend bills the usual way a member of the majority might have — through horsetrading and powerbrokering. As part of a tiny minority, he couldn’t push bills up through the committee system.

“I wouldn’t put something on the floor unless I had a Republican and Democrat on the bill too, unless it was something I wanted to make a point on, and I didn’t do a lot of that.”

His tack was to hew to the facts and let reason persuade. Often, his proposals earned tripartisan support, he said, because his overriding interest was in supporting the best legislation possible.

“I had a hard time letting any bill through that wasn’t perfect,” Corren said. “But I really didn’t think I did it an annoying way. I kept floor speeches succinct and fact oriented. I never said things like do the right thing. Obviously, people have different ideas about what doing the right thing is; I just try to putting out the facts.”

Bouricius describes his former colleague as “one of the best liked members of the house in that he had really good relationship with a bunch of Republicans and a bunch of Democrats.

“People to love to say politics is the art of the possible, sausage making and all that,” Bouricius said. “We said politics is the art of changing what is thought to be possible.”

Corren has the whole package, Bouricius says — he’s a “bonafide genius,” and he has the relationship skills to deal with the committees and personality issues in the Legislature. Bouricius says “he’s not a sellout,” nor is he the “doctrinaire person that I was.”

Dean Corren, a Progressive challenging incumbent Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, filed his paperwork for public financing Thursday morning with Secretary of State Jim Condos. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Dean Corren, a Progressive challenging incumbent Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, filed his paperwork for public financing Thursday morning with Secretary of State Jim Condos. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Steve Kimbell, a retired lobbyist with KSE Partners, said when Corren was in the Legislature he pressed for very aggressive Progressive legislation, and “he made some enemies doing that.”

“He wasn’t there to integrate with other lawmakers and reach common conclusions,” Kimbell says. “He knew he was driving a far out agenda, and he didn’t care if that made him unpopular.”

Depending on how much Corren has mellowed since then and whether hard feelings linger, his reputation could “cause him problems,” Kimbell said.

If elected, Corren would face an uphill battle winning the trust of the clutch of Democrats who run the Senate. John Campbell, the president pro tem of the Senate, and two other prominent blue dog Democrats Sens. Dick Sears and Dick Mazza have made no bones about who they support: incumbent Republican Phil Scott.

Scott plays the role of arbiter in the staid 30-member Senate, which prides itself on collegiality, and he is largely trusted by Senate Democrats, Progressives and the GOP. When personalities clash, as they often do in the Green Room where egos have more space to expand than in the House where 150 representatives must vie for attention, Scott has been known to gently chide his former colleagues in order to keep them within the bounds of polity. His leadership was particularly crucial in the 2010 biennium when Campbell struggled to maintain control over fellow Democrats. Diplomatic skill could be an asset at the podium again in the coming session with the absence of Rebecca Ramos, Campbell’s capable chief of staff.

Kimbell said most lieutenant governors recognize that the position has very limited power, and “if you’re driving an issues-based agenda, it’s a tough place to do it from.”

“If he brings the same approach to political problem solving as he did being a member of the House, I think it could be difficult,” Kimbell said.

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Anne Galloway

About Anne

Anne Galloway is the founder and editor of VTDigger and the executive director of the Vermont Journalism Trust. Galloway founded VTDigger in 2009 after she was laid off from her position as Sunday editor of the Rutland Herald and Times Argus. VTDigger has grown from a $16,000 a year nonprofit with no employees to a $2 million nonprofit daily news operation with a staff of 25. In 2017, Galloway was a finalist for the Ancil Payne Award for Ethics, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the Investigative Reporters and Editors FOIA Award for her investigation into allegations of foreign investor fraud at Jay Peak Resort.

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