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Meet the Prez? 

Pinch me! Pinch me! Pinch me! Is this really happening?

Does Vermont Gov. Howard Dean M.D. really have a shot at the White House or is all this just a dream?

Those were the thoughts streaming through our mind Sunday morning as our favorite presidential hopeful sat across the big table from NBC’s hard-nosed interviewer Tim Russert on “Meet the Press,” the gold-standard for talking-head news shows.

Curious millions tuned in coast-to-coast to get a first-hand, up-close-and-personal look at the governor from Ben & Jerry’s Land. The one who’s been getting noticed lately as the colorful rookie in a Democratic presidential field full of boring Beltway insiders.

The early reviews have been remarkably favorable.

Pinch me! Pinch me! Pinch me!

On Capitol Hill, Roll Call Daily’s Chris Black wrote in Monday’s edition, “Dean is not a flashy politician. But he comes across as smart and sincere on television. On ‘Meet,’ he was direct, straightforward and thoughtful.”

Black did note that Russert, a supremely talented political interrogator, did “trip up” our beloved Ho-Ho on one point. Russert highlighted the apparent contradiction in Dean’s position of protecting abortion rights with federal law but leaving gay-marriage rights to be decided at the state level.

“That said,” wrote Ms. Black, “the physician-governor pulled no punches in criticizing President Bush’s foreign policy as isolationist and attacking the Bush tax cut as bad economic policy. He posed the trade-off between tax cuts and better roads, national health care and other domestic priorities as well as any other Democrat to date. And he did a solid job defending his support for the Vermont law extending legal recognition to gay and lesbian couples. ‘You cannot compromise on human dignity,’ he said.”

Pinch me! Pinch me!

If you missed the show, you’ll find a complete transcript at www.msnbc.com/news/783870.asp. It’s definitely a collector’s item.

Our Washington, D.C., sources say Ho-Ho was all the talk Monday around the Capitol Hill watercoolers. If there was anything first-time Dean watchers agreed on, it was that the Vermont governor demonstrated some smarts under fire. Dean came off as intelligent, articulate and lively.

Almost in unison, Capitol Hill insiders said, what jumped out at them from the TV screen was “the agility of his mind.” Dean didn’t speak in the traditional, cautious and cushioned dialect of Washington talking heads.

“He’s such a straight talker,” said one. “Is this for real?”

The answer, of course, is yes. Howard Dean is for real. He’s the candidate with the “buzz” and, if USA Today’s Tuesday editorial page means anything, he’s got the “Mo,” as in “momentum,” too.

DeWayne Hickham’s “Skip Gore this time, please,” column laid out a boatload of reasons why Al Gore should pack it in. All a second run for the White House could do for Mr. Gore, wrote Hickham, is make him a two-time Democratic presidential loser, like Adlai Stevenson was in the 1950s.

What’s needed, he writes, is “a fresh Democratic face, someone not burdened by the influences to which Gore now admits to have succumbed. Democrats would be wise to look to the governors’ ranks for someone to head their ticket. Governors are Washington outsiders who can claim to have run something other than their mouths during their political careers. Four of the past five presidents went from the Statehouse to the White House.

“So far,” Hickham continues, “the list of Democrats with their sights set on the party’s nomination includes only one governor, Vermont’s Howard Dean. He’s a fusion Democrat: a social liberal and fiscal conservative who gets high marks from the National Rifle Association and wants to roll back Bush’s tax cut to finance a national health plan.”

A “fusion Democrat,” eh?

Has a nice ring to it.

Pinch me! Pinch me! Pinch me!


Spin of the Week! — Got to give the political chutzpah award of the week to the Douglas for Governor campaign. Nobody else came close.

On Monday, the day after Ho-Ho’s appearance on “Meet the Press,” Douglas’ campaign headquarters sent out a press release claiming Gov. Dean’s remarks about the good fiscal health of Vermont state government was actually a plug for Republican Jim Douglas, and the excellent work he’s done as state treasurer!

I’m not making this up.

The spin was that while Democrat Doug Racine is criticizing Jim’s performance as state treasurer, Howard Dean is praising it before the entire nation!

The release was sent out by Jim Barnett, the distinguished deputy campaign manager. He claimed that Dean’s nationally televised statement that Vermont “is better financially managed than almost every state in the country,” was actually a compliment aimed at his boss, Jim Douglas.

Really?

Dean rightly boasted to NBC’s Russert about Vermont’s high bond rating, reduced state debt and solid rainy-day funds. And Barnett told Seven Days that Jim Douglas, by virtue of his office, clearly deserves a share of the credit.

Under questioning, Mr. Barnett conceded that as Lite-Gov, Democrat Doug Racine has had some influence over the state’s annual budgets. But Racine, charged Barnett, “is one person who probably does not deserve any credit” for boosting our bond rating or reducing our debt.

Racine’s campaign manager found Barnett’s spin almost laughable.

“I thought maybe, just maybe, Jim Douglas’ nasty boys had learned not to stretch the truth,” said Tom Hughes. He said he watched “Meet the Press,” too, and noticed Gov. Dean didn’t say a word about “balancing the state’s checkbook,” something the state treasurer is required to do by statute.

“Cutting debt and building rainy-day funds are the actions of the legislature and the governor, which led to our high bond rating,” said Hughes. “Balancing the books is the job of the Treasurer.”

Clearly, when Ho-Ho praises Vermont’s fiscal management, “he’s not referring to Jim Douglas,” said Hughes. And to back it up he pointed to Dr. Dean’s published remarks in May that summed up Mr. Douglas’ fiscal talents in Dean’s mind.

“The guy’s been in office for 30 years,” said Dean, “and hasn’t accomplished anything but screw up the treasurer’s office.”

Mr. Barnett must have missed that one.


Professor Running! — Don’t expect to see UVM political science prof Anthony Gierzynski popping up in his trademark Levi’s with Marselis Parsons on Ch. 3 this fall. Of late, Professor Blue Jeans has been WCAX-TV’s go-to guy for expert political analysis.

But Gierzynski is leaving the political press box and suiting up for the game. In a case of practicing what he preaches, Gierzynski has signed on with the Democratic Party and is a candidate for the Vermont House.

Gierzynski and fellow Democrat Nancy Kirby (co-owner of Champlain Leather on Cherry Street) are taking on two well-regarded Progressive incumbents in a district that includes Burlington’s Ward 1 and a chunk of Ward 2.

“It’s the heart of Progressive territory,” noted Professor Blue Jeans. He predicted, “It’ll be a hell of a battle.”

With Progressive State Rep. Carina Driscoll losing her seat to reapportionment, the Burlap Proggies are down to just three office-holders under the golden dome: the two Gierzynski and Kirby are challenging — State Reps. David Zuckerman and Bob Kiss — and Rep. Steve Hingtgen from the adjoining district.

Led by freshman City Councilor Ian Carleton, Burlington Democrats are serious about taking back the turf that once was theirs. That was back in the olden days before a certain politician by the name of Bernie Sanders turned the Queen City upside down and the Old North End became Sanderista Country.

Tony the Prof grew up in a Chicago suburb. He got his Ph.D. at the University of Kentucky and has been on the UVM faculty for 10 years. Tony the Prof — not to be confused with Tony the Prog — teaches courses on American Politics, and Politics and the Media. He’s also the author of Money Rules — Financing Elections in America and is a recognized expert in the field of campaign finance reform.

As for making the move from talking about politics in the classroom to actually doing it as a candidate, Tony the Prof told Seven Days, “In terms of what I teach, it fits in really well.” He said he expects to spend $1500-$2000 on the race — for brochures, lawn signs and a couple mailings.

In Kiss and Zuckerman, Tony the Prof has formidable opposition. Finding clear differences on issues may not be easy. For example, Gierzynski said he fully supports Zuckerman’s medical marijuana initiative that passed the House but dissolved in the Senate. The Professor said he sees the race as “an inter-family conflict.”

“It’s not liberals vs. conservatives,” explained Gierzynski, “but rather liberals vs. liberals.” The difference, he said, “is in how we propose to go about getting things done.”

Asked if he thinks the fledgling Vermont Progressive Party has a future, Tony the Prof answered “no.”

“The best they can do is be a spoiler, and that’s a problem. I want them back in the Democratic Party,” he said.

One avenue of attack we expect the Proggies to use is the Professor’s opposition to the UVM faculty’s successful union organizing drive.

“I’m not against unions in general,” said candidate Gierzynski. “But in the case of UVM, the costs outweighed the benefits.”


gnoring Hogan? — In the last few days we’ve heard from a few distinguished Burlington business types who’ve politely suggested yours truly give a little more ink to Independent gubernatorial candidate Cornelius Hogan of Plainfield.

They noted the mainstream press always acknowledges King Con’s existence in stories about the two main contenders, Democrat Doug Racine and Republican Jim Douglas.

And they boldly suggested that yours truly is in the tank for Doug the Liberal and that explains the Hogan blackout.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

We pointed out recent columns highlighting Racine’s flip-flopper tendencies on issues like the Circumferential Highway. And we suggested Racine and Douglas offer Vermonters a choice between two seasoned political veterans. What’s King Con got to offer?

“He’s a good manager,” they replied in unison. Great! Maybe the likable retired gentleman should just buy a motel?

They noted Hogan’s resume includes impressive stints as Commissioner of Corrections and Secretary of the Agency of Human Services.

But when pressed to come up with one issue that King Con champions, one issue that separates him from the competition, Hogan’s Heroes were speechless.

In fact, yours truly did contact Mr. Hogan last week in hopes of getting a column item out of him. But all he could come up with was the news that he’s campaigning in a 27-foot RV with a big “Hogan for Governor” sign. And he has a couple TV commercials in the can for the fall.

One’s a 60-second biography, the other a short, humorous, 15-second spot featuring King Con in a horse stall highlighting his ability to cut through the manure.

If Mr. Hogan can somehow manage to turn horse manure into a hot-button issue, his campaign just might get legs.

P.S. As for Mr. Racine’s management skills, one thing’s for sure — Duggy’s a skinflint.

At Racine’s recent environmental press event at Burlington’s Oakledge Park, we half-expected the Quiet Man to arrive by bicycle. Great photo op. But then we noticed the candidate and a campaign aide approaching on foot down Flynn Avenue.

Pretty impressive, we thought on first blush. Racine hoofed it all the way from downtown!

Our bubble was quickly burst when we realized Mr. Racine had parked his wheels up the road and around the corner to avoid paying the $4 Oakledge parking fee.

Fiscal conservative if ever we saw one.


More Wedding Bells! — Love is definitely in the air. The latest to catch the bug is Gov. Howard Dean’s press secretary, Sue Allen.

Sweet Sue told Seven Days she’s become engaged to Jim Picone of Calais. He’s a physician’s assistant at Central Vermont Hospital, a mandolin player, a watercolor artist and one of the luckiest guys in Vermont.

A small wedding is planned for early fall, said Ms. Allen, followed by “a big party” later in the fall.

Mazel tov!

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About The Author

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne

Bio:
Peter Freyne, 1949-2009, wrote the weekly political column "Inside Track," which originated in the Vanguard Press in the mid 1980s; he brought it to Seven Days in 1995. He retired it shortly before his death in January, 2009. We all miss him.

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