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Editorial: Governor’s race gets interesting

What’s common about Democrat Matt Dunne and Republican Bruce Lisman entering the Vermont gubernatorial race this week is both candidates are portraying themselves as outsiders with national business experience and outside-the-box political perspectives. Both will also face well-respected, long-time legislative leaders.
From that snapshot, it’s a race pitting political experience against an outsider’s perspective; and to fit in with the popular narrative, they are the anti-establishment candidates bringing new solutions to fix a failed system.
But neither Dunne nor Lisman can truly be considered political outsiders.
On the contrary, Dunne, who is 45, spent 12 years in the Vermont Legislature as a young man. First elected to the House at 22 years old in 1992, he spent four terms representing Hartland and West Windsor, including being the youngest House Majority Whip in the country when he was elected to that position in 1997. During those years, he also co-founded a software company, leading a multi-million dollar sales effort that ballooned the company’s fortunes. After serving in the Legislature for seven years, President Bill Clinton recruited Dunne to serve as director of AmeriCorps VISTA, which at the time was an organization of 6,000 volunteers fighting poverty.
Returning to Vermont in 2002, Dunne was elected to the Senate for two consecutive terms, during which he also served as assistant director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy at Dartmouth College. In 2006, he ran for lieutenant governor of Vermont, losing to incumbent Republican Brian Dubie. In 2010, he ran in the five-way gubernatorial primary race as a Democrat, finishing fourth in a tight race among the top four candidates. Since 2010, Dunne has worked as a Google executive, representing the firm as its national head of community relations. Certainly, Dunne has done well in a distinguished career as a businessman, political leader, head of a national organization and now an important player in of one of the nation’s leading tech firms.
Lisman, on the other hand, has never held political office, but he has been actively involved in politics for the past four years. Raised in a middle-class Vermont family, Lisman, 68, was born in Burlington’s North End and graduated from UVM in 1969, after which he moved to New York City, where he started as a file clerk, taxi cab driver and bartender to make ends meet. He joined Bear Stearns in 1984 and worked his way up to serve as co-head of Global Equities for 21 years. The firm crashed in the Great Recession of 2008. A year later, Lisman left the city to live full time at his Shelburne home. About four years ago, Lisman formed the political organization Campaign for Vermont, which has been an active player in trying to influence state public policy.
Both candidates will face tough primary races against established political leaders.
Lisman faces incumbent Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who appeals to the moderate mainstream on both sides of the political aisle. In a state where you can vote in either political party’s primary race, that favors Scott. Money, however, favors Lisman. A well-funded candidate in a close primary race could eke out a victory as Shumlin did in 2010 when he outspent other candidates by as much as 3-1.
Dunne faces current House Speaker Shap Smith, who has earned kudos for his political skills as Speaker for the past six years as well as his deft approach in balancing the moderates of his party with the state’s more liberal Progressives. Smith’s political record, nonetheless, also presents a handicap as all political leaders ruffle feathers among various constituencies, costing them as many votes as supporters.
The wild card candidate is Democrat Sue Minter, 54, current Vermont Secretary of Transportation, who says she will announce whether she will run for governor shortly after the Labor Day weekend. If she enters the race, she also presents a fresh face as a rising political leader and will benefit from the popularity she gained as the face of VTrans in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene.
In a three-way race among three capable and popular Democrats, it’s anybody’s race to win.
On the Republican side, it’s easy to categorize the race as one candidate with money against the other with popularity, and if former Republican candidate Rich Tarrant is any indicator, the road for Lisman won’t be easy. But Lisman also has the luxury to devote his undivided attention on the campaign, and he has listened to a wide group of Vermonters on a wide variety of issues over the past several years. He gets Vermont in a way Tarrant never did. He’s also focused on a tight business-oriented agenda: job growth, quality education, affordable health care, government accountability and ethics, lowering the cost of living, and government competency — pocketbook issues that draw supporters. Assuming Scott opts to run for the state’s top job, it’ll be a close race to follow.
— Angelo S. Lynn

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