GovernorJim Douglas (R)
SenatorsPatrick Leahy (D)
Bernie Sanders (I)
RepresentativeRep. Peter Welch (D)
Early America and contemporary America come together in Vermont. The state is a mixture of the 19th and 21st centuries—maple syrup and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, tiny clapboard villages and carefully zoned towns with unobtrusively signed outlet malls, covered bridges and civil unions. Not so long ago, Vermont seemed an entirely antique state, almost as carefully preserved as its Shelburne Museum, with its barn and jail, railroad station and blacksmith shop, covered bridge, and 37 buildings full of folk art. But in just a few decades, the state has been transformed by newcomers, who were attracted to its antique look but transformed Vermont’s culture in their own image. The state may be tiny—the Legislature and Republican Gov. Jim Douglas sparred over the latter’s proposal for a tax holiday priced at $2 million, a rounding error in most state budgets—but it can also be cosmopolitan. The Simpsons Movie premiered in Vermont’s Springfield in July 2007 and The Dark Knight, in which Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy had a cameo role, premiered in his home town of Montpelier in July 2008.
Vermont was first settled by flinty Yankees from Connecticut, and the state showed an independent streak from the beginning. After Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys repulsed the British in 1777, this was an independent republic for 14 years, claimed by New York and New Hampshire to no avail. Allen tried to persuade George Washington to make it a new state; several books argue that Vermont never voluntarily joined the United States, but in any case Vermont was admitted as the 14th state in 1791. The economy was almost entirely agricultural, as second sons and daughters from small New England farms struggled to scratch out livings from the rocky soil. Eventually, they quit that struggle and raised dairy cows instead, producing milk for the masses in New York City. Vermont developed commerce as well. With its legendary thriftiness, the state accumulated capital that, invested wisely, was used to build the solid stone office buildings and courthouses, the thick-timbered houses, and gold-topped state Capitol that have remained long after ramshackle wooden buildings of the early19th century have crumbled. Vermont made an economic asset of its maple trees and its quaintness. Beginning in the 1890s, the state government promoted it as a tourist destination and passed a law requiring Vermont maple syrup to be made from only local trees. But Vermont never developed labor-intensive industry, and so over the years it exported people and its population aged. From 1850 to the 1960s, as a result of continuous out-migration, Vermont’s population hovered between 300,000 and 400,000. Today, 621,000 people live here, many of whom have no Vermont ancestry at all. Two presidents were born in Vermont, but both made their careers elsewhere—Chester Arthur in New York and Calvin Coolidge in Massachusetts. Two great foreign writers lived there for years—Rudyard Kipling and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Since the 1960s—perhaps the key date was 1963, when people first outnumbered cows—Vermont has changed rapidly. Its economy has boomed, led by leisure-time industries—ski resorts, summer homes—and high-tech companies in and around the Burlington area on the mostly undeveloped shores of glorious Lake Champlain. You can find big-box retailers in Williston but also ethnic diversity—Vietnamese, Bosnians, Koreans—in Winooski. Sheldon has the highest representation of native Vermonters, 83%, and tiny Buels Gore, a sliver of land left out when the first settlers drew town lines, had a population boom in the 1990s, when it grew from two residents to 12. Homegrown firms started by Baby-Boomer rebels—Ben & Jerry’s, founded in 1978, is the archetype—have flourished. The newcomers cherished what novelist Paul Greenberg calls “maple’s homespun image.” Vermont’s population growth from 390,000 in 1960 to well over 600,000 today hasn’t come from random settlement. Next-door New Hampshire, trumpeting its low taxes and aversion to government, attracted right-leaning migrants from Massachusetts and elsewhere to settle spanking-new developments. Vermont, proclaiming its desire to preserve the environment and the past, attracted left-leaning migrants from New York and elsewhere who were willing to pay higher taxes and higher prices and submit to tough environmental restrictions for the privilege of living in a seemingly pristine setting. The state’s greatest fans may be members of the 251 Club, the 4,000 people who have traveled to all 251 of Vermont’s cities and towns.
Public policy played a part in the evolution of Vermont. Back in 1970, Republican Gov. Deane Davis (the last Vermont native to hold the job), facing a primary challenge, pushed through Act 200, a sweeping land-use law that helped give Vermont its environmental reputation. Housing developments and new ski resorts were required to meet 10 environmental criteria and get the approval of five different commissions, with opponents granted a right to appeal. Since then, Vermont has passed its own Clean Air Act that levies a tax on new cars that get less than 20 miles to the gallon. It bans billboards and rooftop air conditioning units. It passed Act 60, which attempted to equalize property taxes throughout the state, and Act 200, which provided state support for regional planning boards. It has a state land trust that buys development rights of farmland to stop the disappearance of family farms. Distressed by the demise of dairy farming—more than half of such farms have gone out of business since 1982—the state government loans money to help farmers buy water buffalo to produce mozzarella. There are now four Wal-Marts in the state, but two of them are in pre-existing buildings. And when Home Depot tried to build a store in one town, the locals insisted on a vegetation-covered roof on which cows could graze. Home Depot passed on the idea. Some dairy farmers are processing their animals’ solid waste, mixed with bacteria from their digestive systems, into methane fuel. The Grass Energy Collaborative is making fuel pellets from grass and corn; other farmers are making biodiesel fuel from canola beans, sunflower seeds, and flax. An organization called Rural Vermont is pressing for a certification process to allow farmers to sell more than the 50 quarts a day of raw unpasteurized milk that current law allows. But Vermont does not try to regulate everything. It is the one state with no gun control laws, and the state Senate voted for a task force to consider lowering the drinking age to 18.
As Vermont has changed culturally, it has also changed politically. In the 19th century, Yankee Vermont was the most Republican state in the nation; in 1936, Vermont and Maine were the only states to resist Franklin D. Roosevelt’s landslide. For three decades thereafter, Vermont’s Yankee Protestant Republicans outnumbered its French Canadian and Irish Catholic Democrats. But now, political issues slice Vermont along different lines—between liberal, highly educated newcomers, and conservative, less-educated old Vermonters. In the 2008 presidential election, Vermont was the second-most-Democratic state, after Barack Obama’s native Hawaii. Its last Republican member of Congress, James Jeffords, became an independent in May 2001 and voted to make the Democrats the Senate majority party. In January 2003, former Gov. Howard Dean set off to run for president. By July his opposition to the Iraq War (and not his relatively moderate fiscal record in Vermont) made him the leading fundraiser and the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Vermont, valuing tradition, had become the leader of America’s Left.
One issue that made Dean attractive to leftist Democrats was civil unions. Ironically, it was one on which he had not taken the lead. In a lawsuit brought by three same-sex couples, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature had to pass a gay-marriage law or give same-sex couples the same rights under state law as married couples. In April 2000, the Legislature passed a law authorizing civil unions for same-sex couples, and Dean signed it out of sight of cameras. Opposition to civil unions was fierce and vocal, though seldom articulated in the state’s liberal press. Groups were formed called Take Back Vermont and Who Would Have Thought, while backers of civil unions and other liberal policies formed a group called Move Vermont Forward. Republican gubernatorial candidate Ruth Dwyer vociferously opposed civil unions. Several pro-civil-union Republican legislators lost their seats in the September primary, and Republicans won control of the state House in November. But Dwyer lost, and Democrats held the state Senate. In subsequent years, the controversy has abated. Both major-party candidates for governor in 2002 opposed repeal. And the legalization of same-sex marriage in neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut has made Vermont seem moderate by comparison.
Democrats have mostly prevailed since 2000. Vermont voted 51% Democratic for president in 2000, 59% in 2004, and 67% in 2008. Obama carried all but four of the state’s 251 cities and towns, and those cast only 370 votes. Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy has won re-election by very wide margins, and Bernie Sanders, an independent re-elected easily to the House every two years, was elected to Jeffords’s Senate seat in 2006 by 65%-32%, while Democrat Peter Welch won the at-large House seat. Yet at the same time, Vermont may have become somewhat less liberal on economic issues. Job losses at IBM and slow economic growth in what had been the booming Burlington area prompted second-guessing of the costs associated with Act 250 and Act 60. In the 2002 election for governor, longtime Republican officeholder Jim Douglas beat Democratic Lt. Gov. Doug Racine, 45%-42%. Douglas’s prime goal was revision of Act 250, and in 2004, the Democratic Senate and Republican House voted for major changes. But Vermont’s cultural liberalism persisted. Douglas was proud of a law cleaning up Lake Champlain, and he let a medical marijuana bill become law without his signature. Republicans lost their majority in the state House in 2004. After the 2008 election, Democrats held a 95-48 majority there, plus a 23-7 edge in the state Senate—party breakdowns that look almost like Massachusetts. But as Rhode Island and Connecticut have done for many years, Vermont has voted to keep its Republican governor. Douglas has been re-elected three times by solid margins. Vermont is one of only two states (New Hampshire is the other) that has two-year terms for governor.
2008 Presidential Vote
2008 Democratic Presidential Primary
2008 Republican Presidential Primary
Vermont was the most Republican state in the 1936 presidential election, when Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign manager had a good laugh updating an old adage to say, “As goes Maine, so goes Vermont.” Times have changed. In 2004, Vermont was the third-most-Democratic state, after Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and in 2008, the second–most-Democratic, after Hawaii. Vermont has become solidly liberal on cultural and foreign issues and it is not very conservative on economics. The state seems downright hostile to conservative national Republicans. Ronald Reagan got his seventh-lowest percentage here in 1980, and in early 2007, some 29 town meetings voted to urge Congress to impeach President Bush. It is the only state that Bush did not visit as president.
The conflict between the old and the new Vermont is apparent in the exit polls. Back in 2000, people without college degrees voted 48%-46% for Bush, but Al Gore carried college graduates 51%-36%, and those with postgraduate degrees 62%-29%. By 2008, the percentage for Obama among those with no college degree was 61%-38%, the split among those with college degrees was 67%-29%, and among those with postgraduate degrees it was 80%-20%. The old divide between Protestants and Catholics has nearly vanished: Obama won 63% of Catholics and 58% of Protestants. But he did even better, 82%, among the 24% of voters who said they had no religion.
The Vermont presidential primary, abolished for 1992, reappeared in 1996, but got little notice then and in 2000. Turnout in 2000 was light and tilted Republican because the Democratic race was over. In 2004, Vermont was naturally Dean’s campaign headquarters, and though Dean was effectively eliminated by the time Vermont voted on March 2, Vermonters still came out in droves and gave him his only primary victory; turnout was 83,000 Democratic and 27,000 in the uncontested Republican primary. In 2008, Vermont voted on March 4, when the Democratic race was still raging. In the GOP contest, John McCain had only token opposition from Mike Huckabee; turnout was 155,000 Democratic and 40,000 Republican. Obama beat Hillary Rodham Clinton, 59%-39%, but Obama got three times as many votes and Clinton twice as many as John McCain did in winning the Republican primary, 71%-14%.