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Howard Dean will not challenge Phil Scott for governor in 2024

A man in a suit and white collared shirt with no tie speaks at a wooden podium topped with several microphones from various local news organizations.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Former Gov. Howard Dean announced Monday, May 20, that he would not run for governor against incumbent Gov. Phil Scott. He said closing the gap between himself and Scott would require a "scorched-earth negative attack," a brand of campaigning he’s unwilling to engage in.

Former Democratic Gov. Howard Dean ended weeks of suspense over whether he’d challenge Republican Gov. Phil Scott this year when he announced Monday morning that he will not be a candidate for elected office.

Dean said a poll that he commissioned recently found that even with his high name recognition, he would still only get to within 10 points of defeating the popular incumbent in a general election matchup.

"There’s only one way to close a 10-point gap between two well-known candidates, and that is to run a scorched-earth negative attack campaign like ones being run all over the country."
Howard Dean

Closing that gap, he said, would require a brand of campaigning to which he’s unwilling to stoop.

“In theory, this is a winnable race, but I’ve been in state and national politics for a very long time. And there’s only one way to close a 10-point gap between two well-known candidates, and that is to run a scorched-earth negative attack campaign like ones being run all over the country,” Dean said at a press conference in downtown Waterbury Monday morning.

Dean said vicious personal attacks have yielded electoral success in states such as Texas and Florida. He said he does not want to introduce that approach to politics in Vermont.

“I don’t know if a campaign like that could get me elected,” he said. “But I do know that it would be really harmful to our state and to our values.”

After Dean’s announcement Monday, Middlebury educator Esther Charlestin remains the only candidate so far in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Dean said he’s spoken with Charlestin.

“I think she’d be a good candidate,” he said. “And there may be others, so I’m not going to throw my lot in with her right at this moment.”

Dean said whoever runs against Scott will need, at minimum, a $2 million campaign war chest in order to mount a viable campaign.

“That I can raise because of my past national associations, but the money will be hard for [Charlestin],” he said.

Charlestin, who co-chairs the Vermont Commission on Women, said in an interview with Vermont Public Monday that she doesn’t disagree with Dean’s emphasis on the importance of money in the race.

“I definitely agree, and I would say it probably is a little bit more than that, or a lot more than that, I suspect, as far as how much money is needed,” she said.

While she doesn’t have the name recognition that Dean enjoys, she said she’s working hard to change that.

“My campaign is grassroots, so it is about going all across Vermont, letting folks know my message and building my campaign from there,” Charlestin said.

Charlestin said she’s been embraced by the Vermont community since she moved here in 2019. But she said she’s struggled with many of the same economic challenges that make it so difficult for low- and middle-income residents to eke out a living. And she said her campaign will highlight policies to alleviate those hardships.

“Securing livable wages so people can not only work but live off of what they make, and expanding Vermont’s access to attainable housing,” she said.

Charlestin said she supports income tax increases on high earners to fund affordable housing initiatives. She said she’ll also focus on climate policies that reduce the state’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Dean said he’s spoken with other high-profile Democrats who were pondering a run against Scott. He said none of them are planning to move forward with a challenge. The filing deadline for all candidates is May 30.

Ever since WCAX first reported late last month that Dean was seriously considering a run for the state’s top elected office, Vermont’s political class has been abuzz over the prospect of a marquee challenger to Scott, who’s demonstrated virtually no vulnerabilities at the ballot box during his four terms in office.

In a letter to reporters earlier this month, Dean, who served as lieutenant governor from 1987 to 1991, and as governor from 1991 to 2003, previewed the issues he’d spotlight if he did run again.

He warned of a “coming fiscal crisis in Vermont” that has placed the state “in real danger of losing much we have fought for and much of what we have accomplished.”

Dean lauded Scott for his “grace, common sense and a devotion to science” during his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. But he lambasted the Republican governor’s plan to address next year’s double-digit percent increase in statewide property taxes.

More from Vermont Public: Gov. Phil Scott on plans for reelection, property tax rates and bringing balance to the Statehouse

Scott has called on lawmakers to buy down those rates by effectively loaning school districts cash.

“We must NOT finance today’s programs by borrowing from tomorrow’s Vermonters,” Dean wrote to members of the media. “It took us a number of years to regain our excellent bond rating after doing that three decades ago, and we should not do it again!”

Scott, who announced his bid for reelection on May 13, will again try to convince voters that he’s the only check against supermajorities in the House and Senate that have sought to expand the role of government and increase the taxes that fund it.

“During my four terms as governor, my team and I have worked to grow the economy, make Vermont more affordable and protect the most vulnerable,” Scott said in a statement announcing his campaign. “I’ve done my best to rise above partisanship to solve problems, and help people … While we’ve made progress over the years, we still have more work to do.”

Scott has also signaled a new willingness this year to use his influence to build the Republican Party’s ranks in the Legislature.

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