Old friends and new rally for Dean

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(Host) On Monday, old friends and new political supporters gathered on Church Street for Howard Dean’s campaign kick off. The crowd of several thousand included people who worked with Dean in his early days as a community activist in Burlington.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) A little more than 20 years ago, the Burlington waterfront was a jumble of railroad lines, rusting fuel tanks and warehouses. Howard Dean was a young physician who saw the waterfront as a neglected resource. He wanted to convert the old rail line into a bike and pedestrian path. Tom Hudspeth met Dean at an early community meeting.

(Hudspeth) “I still can’t remember exactly how it happened but we got in touch with each other at a bike path event where we were trying to increase interest in taking the abandoned railroad bed and converting it into a hike and bike path.”

(Dillon) Hudspeth, who works at the University of Vermont environmental program, teamed up with Dean and Rick Sharp, a local lawyer. They formed an organization called Citizen Waterfront Group and tried to get the city council behind the idea.

(Hudspeth) “They laughed at us. I remember a city councilor literally laughing at us and saying, ‘You got to be kidding!'”

(Dillon) That was Dean’s entry to local politics. The group was successful in getting a bond issue for the bike path on the ballot. Several legal cases later affirmed the public’s right to use the land. Today, the bike path is hugely popular. The city owns a bustling waterfront park, and a plan for a luxury lakeshore hotel was withdrawn.

Hudspeth says Dean’s political skills were obvious in that early campaign for public access to Lake Champlain:

(Hudspeth) “Many of the same things that he displayed as governor were very evident and apparent right then. Very bright, he’s a brilliant guy, great extemporaneous speaker, one of the most articulate people I know. Very hardworking. He does his homework, and he tells it like it is, he’s very direct.”

(Dillon) Besides the old friends like Hudspeth, the streets of Burlington were filled with new, younger Dean supporters. The swayed to the blues music of Big Joe Burelle, and talked about how a Vermont governor inspired their work on a national political campaign.

Chip Robinson of Morristown, New Jersey says he came to Vermont as part of an extended road trip for Howard Dean.

(Robinson) “Well, we went up to New Hampshire to knock on doors for Governor Dean for two days then we’re stopping in Vermont then we’re heading back to New Jersey.”

(Dillon) Robinson says Dean has the charisma and conviction to win the White House.

(Robinson) “I first met Governor Dean at a national young Democrats convention in Tuscon, Arizona two years ago and he spoke there and he was just so incredible. He just blew me away and at that point I knew if he ever ran for president that I would back him. And I saw him on TV at the California convention. I’ve heard him speak several times and each time I heard him speak, I’m even more amazed. He’s got the speaking ability and the charisma of RFK, of Kennedy of Clinton. He’s just really inspiring. Every time you hear him you just want to go and help him out.”

(Dillon) Like other Dean supporters, Robinson doesn’t believe Dean is too far to the left to be elected. And Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle, a Progressive who’s also run as a Democrat, says Dean is wrongly identified as a unelectable liberal:

(Clavelle) “What’s interesting to me, as a longtime Vermonter and one that’s worked with him and at times disagreed with him, is how the outsiders are attempting to label him as this wild eyed radical lefty. I know a lefty when I see one and Howard Dean’s not one. He’s very moderate and I think would do a superb job of leading this country down a moderate path.”

(Dillon) Dean will need longtime friends and many, many new ones if his campaign is to be successful.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Burlington.

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