Vt. Gov. Deals With Civil Unions


Friday, September 15th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


EAST FAIRFIELD, Vt. (AP) — A small, hand-lettered sign hangs from a utility pole on Vermont's Route 36 with the message ``Dump Dean.'' Farther east, the words ``Gone Homo'' are scrawled on duct tape beneath the governor's name on a campaign sign.

These are difficult days for Howard Dean, Vermont's once popular governor here in farm country, which in most years forms the foundation of a Democratic candidate's campaign.

Civil unions, providing marriage benefits for same-sex couples, changed all that. Democrats whose support could always be taken for granted have abandoned the governor, and many are taking a look at Republican nominee Ruth Dwyer. State polls show Dean's favorability rating has slipped from 63 percent in February to 41 percent, a tumble that followed passage of the civil unions law.

That's why he showed up at a dairy farm Thursday just after sunrise to begin his fall campaign for re-election. He's not taking Franklin County, a Democratic stronghold between Burlington and the Canadian border, for granted.

``I want to be very clear that I'm not giving up Franklin County for anything,'' Dean said.

The governor's kickoff came two days after a record number of Vermonters voted in state primary elections and ousted Republican legislators who supported the homosexual rights law.

Nearly two dozen people showed up outside Tom and Sue Howrigan's new cow barn Thursday to greet the governor and listen to his message about agriculture, education, health care, prescription drug prices and jobs.

Almost all the folks had reservations about civil unions. But there was still support for Dean.

Dean's ``the better of all the evils,'' Tom Howrigan said. ``There's a lot of issues I don't really agree on, but I think for the overall picture for agriculture, he's the better candidate.''

Farming still dominates Franklin County, where a few families form the backbone of civic life. The Howrigans are among them.

Former Gov. Phil Hoff, a Democrat, said Dean needed to work hard not only because of civil unions but also because after more than nine years in office, some voters are beginning to tire of him. Dean, 51, is running for his fifth two-year term.

Still, Hoff said he thought it was unlikely Vermont would choose someone as conservative as Dwyer, who wants to repeal the civil unions law.

``I'm not terribly concerned,'' Hoff said, but warned: ``I don't think it's going to be an easy ride or that he can take it for granted.''

So Dean is working to strengthen his base, drawing people like the Howrigan family back into the fold.

``I've developed over the summer support among the leadership of Franklin County that I didn't have for a while,'' he said.

Even more than civil unions, agriculture is what concerns the great majority of people in this region. And, because it's what they talk about, it's what the politicians are emphasizing.

That's reminded some people who have been disappointed with Dean's support for civil unions that they have much more in common with the Democrats than that high-profile issue.

``I think when the dust settles, he'll do very well,'' said Harold Howrigan. ``He's a good, strong businessperson, agriculture person.''

Harold Howrigan has been talking to friends and neighbors about what he believes are the good things that Dean has achieved, including the governor's support for the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact, which pays New England farmers a premium for their milk.

Among the losses if Dean were to be voted out of office would be state Agriculture Commissioner Leon Graves, whom Howrigan described as ``extremely knowledgeable with endless energy.''

That message is being carried farm by farm across rural Franklin County.

``I try to stay away from politics,'' Sue Howrigan said after bending the governor's ear about higher education. ``But I think as it gets close to the election, they're going to realize the good that he's done.''

Dean hopes so. But he sees signs like those along Route 36 and knows he can't glide to re-election this time. So he spent Thursday crisscrossing the state to continue the conversations he says he wants to have with Vermont's voters.

``I'm fighting in every county in the state,'' Dean said.

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On the Net:

Vermont governor: http://www.state.vt.us/governor

Ruth Dwyer: http://www.Dwyer2000.org