Once liberal Vermont surprisingly divided

November 06, 2000|By Ellen Goodman

THETFORD, Vt. -- This is not Vermont at its finest. The autumn leaves that turn this state into a foliage theme park have gone by. And Vermont's image as the benign, harmonious state that dines on Ben & Jerry's and sends the only Socialist to Congress is being shattered.

This fall, a heated, angry governor's race hinging on civil unions for gay couples has divided neighbors and split the seams of what everyone now describes as Two Vermonts.

The split is easy to see in Thetford, where some folks go to the bean and ham supper at the community hall Sunday night and others commute across the New Hampshire border to Dartmouth College on Monday morning. The country store here stocks both Vermont beef jerky and bottled Starbucks, the local paper and the New York Times.

Thetford is also the home of Ruth Dwyer, the right-wing Republican candidate of a counterrevolution with a motto posted on the side of a local maple sugaring shack: Take Back Vermont.

This race was set to boil last winter when the state supreme court ruled that Vermont must extend rights given married couples to gay couples. In response, the legislature passed the first law in the nation granting gay civil unions. Since then more than 800 gay couples -- most from out of state -- have been united, and Vermonters have been divided: native against newer Vermonters, rural against urban, one church against another.

As Ms. Dwyer says, "Civil unions was the first thing that rocked people out of their daily routine. They said, civil unions? Where did that come from? Were they paying attention? No. Are the paying attention now? Yes!"

On this day, the strong-minded farm woman has come home from campaigning to keep the wood stove stacked and the 50 cattle, the 40 sheep, the four horses, the donkey and the eight golden retrievers fed. A 42-year-old who arrived at the University of Vermont in 1976 with a Reagan bumper sticker and a boa constrictor, she's been running for governor and tending the farm alone since her husband left her a year ago.

Now she is within striking distance of unseating Howard Dean, the long-term moderate governor who signed the civil unions bill. The three-way race, with Progressive Party candidate Anthony Pollina on the left, may end up being decided by the legislature.

Sitting in her kitchen, Ms. Dwyer describes the campaign as a "clash of outlooks." Two Vermonts? She says that hers is the independent "mind your own business" state that turned down federal aid in 1929 after a flood because "you take care of yourself." The other, she says, consists of new people who make the rules for others and "don't listen."

This is the mantra of the counterrevolution: the legislature didn't listen, the governor didn't listen. That's been a simmering complaint over many issues in this state, including education, but especially the gay issue.

But what if you do listen? Ms. Dwyer bristles at caricatures of her as a "Nazi" or bigot or homophobe. An Ayn Rand devotee, she opposes abortion, sympathizes with the South in the Civil War, describes welfare mothers "out there with their boyfriends" while the kids sit home with a bowl of Cheerios and believes that the National Education Association has a pro-homosexual agenda.

As for gays? She insists she is not a polarizing figure, that the court and the legislature ruined Vermont's live-and-let-live attitude toward gays. Yet when asked, she answers, "I'm a Christian, and I believe the Bible says homosexuality is a sin. It tells you to identify the sin but forgive the sinner."

And what if gays don't want forgiveness for a sin but acceptance as equals? Ms. Dwyer shrugs. On her coffee table are two books about a "cure" for homosexuality.

Not long ago, a Dwyer supporter confronted Howard Dean accusingly, "You people are forcing us to teach tolerance and diversity." The governor replied, "What's wrong with that?"

In fact, where one side sees "force," the other sees "tolerance" and "diversity." These are the irreconcilable differences that "listening" can rarely breach.

This is what gay rights issues come down to in Vermont and states like Nebraska and Nevada where ballot measures in "defense of marriage" would prohibit civil unions: One side's right is another's abomination. In Oregon, too, a ballot measure would bar any classroom instruction about homosexuality: One side sees teaching as promoting homosexuality, the other as promoting tolerance.

Ms. Dwyer is at once sharp and vulnerable, real and far right, more a protester than a governor. She may turn out to represent Vermont's silent minority -- or its majority. But for the moment, this farmer is the designated hero of those who swear to "Take Back Vermont" and have ended up splitting it in two.

No, this is not Vermont at its finest.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist with the Boston Globe and her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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