ST. ALBANS — Admittedly it’s early in the 2016 gubernatorial race, and Democratic candidate Matt Dunne knows that. He’s so aware of it, he acknowledges he doesn’t have a platform yet.
That’s why he’s attending small gatherings – such as the one here at Jeff Young’s St. Albans home Thursday night – to hear from Vermonters, understand the issues on the ground, and decide what he’ll to run on.
Young is a former Democratic state representative and city council member.
“The campaign starting as early as it has, has it’s downsides” said Dunne, adding that a year-and-a-half-long campaign is lengthy, to say the least. “The upside,” he continued, “is we’re able to have conversations.”
St. Albans was Dunne’s seventh stop thus far. Early this week he spoke with people in Bennington, and he’s also been to Grand Isle County and Essex County. He’s had the help of 19 volunteers and friends (not to mention the $115,000 in contributions reported to the Secretary of State in July).
At the Youngs’ home last night, Dunne, 45, gave an introduction. “I grew up in Hartland, Vermont,” he said. His dad was a civil rights activist turned lawyer, and his mother was the first tenured woman to teach at Dartmouth College. Dunne was 13 when his father died, and that, he said, was a formative experience.
“The community of Hartland really wrapped its arms around me and my family,” said Dunne.
As he grew older, Dunne attended Brown University, and when he returned to Vermont, his community encouraged him to run for the legislature. “They knew where my values were, they knew I would listen, and they knew I would work really hard,” he said. At age 22, he became a representative in the Vermont House, and he stayed there for seven years.
He worked for the Clinton Administration for several years as the director of AmeriCorps VISTA, and then in 2002, Dunne returned to Vermont and was elected to the Senate for two terms.
Since 2007, Dunne has acted as the head of community affairs for Google – he works from White River Junction, in an old bakery building.
“My work there is making sure we’re doing right by communities,” he said.
Dunne ran for governor in 2010 but lost in the Democratic primary. In the five years since, he said he’s kept busy at Google. Dunne said his company has worked on building high-speed Internet and bringing wireless access to rural communities, as well as investing in affordable housing.
In addition, he said, “We’ve been able to [invest] over $2 billion in renewable energy.” Around 10,000 businesses that were offline have since been brought online, and Dunne said, “In the last year, I launched a program to train 5,000 low-income girls to code.”
“The only downside,” he said, of his work at Google, “is we do it in every state except for the one I love.” As Dunne has reconnected with Vermont for his gubernatorial campaign, he said he is worried.
“I’ve become quite concerned that we’re in a precarious place as a state,” he said. Deterioration of the middle class, state budget deficits, rising healthcare costs, unequal economic development, cuts in services – in conjunction with raised taxes – were all concerns, said Dunne.
“The state is simply not in a sustainable place,” he said. “On the other side, Vermonters are optimistic and I’m an optimist myself.”
As a result, Dunne is meeting with Vermonters to ask what they think are opportunities for the state, as well as challenges. “We’ll be holding gatherings like this to listen to you,” he said. “We’ll be using them to actively build our platform. I don’t want to presuppose – I want to hear from you what those top things are.”
Close to 20 people sat on the Youngs’ porch, enjoying the evening air and the candidate in front of them. Almost everyone – from former state senator Don Collins, previous state representatives Michel Consejo and Cindy Weed, and Enosburgh pastor Linda Maloney to residents from just down the road in St. Albans and people from Georgia, Montgomery, Berkshire and Fletcher – had a suggestion (or two) for Dunne.
- building a youth service program as an alternative to military service;
- addressing poverty and disenfranchised youth in Vermont;
- creating a living wage;
- improving and growing senior services, such as free rides;
- lowering property taxes;
- continuing towards single payer healthcare;
- becoming aggressive about improving water quality in Lake Champlain;
- finding ways to address the problems for the Department for Children and Families;
- fighting opiate addiction;
- taking a leadership role on education and clarifying the Agency of Education’s role and responsibilities;
- improving the Department of Corrections and making rehabilitation more effective;
- putting people with knowledge and experience, not political prowess, in administration roles;
- taking advantage of the community spirit of Vermont, fostering community development;
- connecting governance more to the people, being honest and transparent
- addressing high housing costs;
- bringing more jobs to Vermont, training people to be qualified;
- combatting climate change;
- giving a voice to the politically voiceless;
- and, finding ways to hold government employees accountable.
Dunne had some ideas for a number of these challenges and opportunities. Finding ways to reach out to impoverished youth – such as a simple phone call reminding them to take their PSAT test the next day – have proven effective, he said, as has giving resources to people on the ground – like what he did with AmeriCorps VISTA to build up communities.
Service politics, he said, and meeting people where they’re at, is a model he would be using for the campaign.
Dunne also emphasized bringing connectivity to Vermont through expanding Internet access, helping businesses reach further with access to the World Wide Web and creating online meetings between himself and voters.
“We’re going to experiment with some of these things on the campaign trail, because, why not?” Dunne said.
In addressing housing costs and climate change, Dunne also mentioned the VerMod homes, which are efficient housing units with solar panels and other energy-saving features.
“They’re dropping the price as it goes along,” he said.
As for healthcare, Dunne said he felt the next step – one he thought Vermont was ready for – was changing the reimbursement model. “We have to get to a place that we have an incentive structure that works,” he said.
At the end of the meeting, Dunne thanked everyone for coming especially given the early timing in the campaign season.
“This is great,” he said. “The ideas, concerns and the energy here has been similar to other places. I appreciate your time and energy over a year before an election.”
Dunne added, “I’m not going to become one of those politicians that’s going to tell you what you want to hear. The kind of changes we’re talking about at this point in Vermont’s history – they’re not going to be easy.”
But he said, by focusing on common goals and bringing everybody into the conversation, “We can make it happen.”