Amid beefed up security at the State House, Gov. Howard Dean delivered his yearly "state of the state" address to the Vermont General Assembly Tuesday and appeared to downplay one of the most controversial issues of the coming session -- gay rights. But he repeatedly expressed his commitment to state sponsored health care programs.
Dean is an announced candidate for re-election in November, 2000. The Democrat is likely to face one of two Republicans: Ruth Dwyer of Thetford or William Meub of Rutland.
In a nine-page speech, Dean devoted only two sentences to the potentially explosive issue of gay and lesbian rights. In Dec. 21, 1999, ruling that quickly gained national attention, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that gays and lesbians must enjoy the same rights and protections afforded married couples.
While the court did not approve gay marriages, it did call on the state legislature to implement its decision in this session.
Security was heavier than usual at the State House in large part because of fears of conflicts between an out-of-state anti-gay group and local gay and lesbian activists.
Dean, a licensed physician, devoted the major portion of his address to defending Vermont's publicly supported health care initiatives, especially those offering insurance for children and elders and prescription help for senior citizens. He said the vast majority of children in Vermont -- -- 52,000 -- are guaranteed health insurance coverage.
Dwyer, who ran against Dean in 1998 and gained over 40 percent of the vote, called the speech was a model of contradiction. She said Dean opened by quoting Calvin Coolidge to celebrate traditional Vermont values such as thrift, self-reliance and independence, but then went on to defend big government programs.
She also questioned Dean's estimates that only 7 percent of Vermonters lack health insurance, saying she'd recently lost her own insurance and was repeatedly running into Vermonters who are losing theirs. She said health insurance would be the number one issue during the legislative session and the election campaign to follow.
In a press conference after his speech, Dean explained his terseness on gay rights by saying it's important to the gay and lesbian community, but not to many other Vermonters.
"I didn't see turning the whole speech upside down over an issue that – on a public policy level -- is not that complicated," he said.