BRATTLEBORO—Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Google executive Matt Dunne is in constant motion.
On a recent Friday afternoon, he paced back and forth, framed by Mocha Joe’s windows on Main Street, talking on his cellphone as quickly as he moved his feet.
Once inside the coffee shop, Dunne said “no” to coffee. He didn’t need the caffeine.
Dunne, 46, is an intense presence and speaks with passion about improving the economy, pulling struggling Vermonters from poverty, and creating affordable housing.
It isn’t enough to achieve those goals, he said. The state must also reach a point of sustainability.
Yes, government policy must aid in helping those who need them to find shelter, and food, and health care, Dunne continued. But policy can’t stop at survival. Vermonters must also develop resources and structures that allow people to thrive, Dunne said.
People can’t move the state forward when they’re living lives built around being one flat tire away from poverty, he said.
“We have to be aggressive on this,” Dunne said.
If elected, Dunne said he would enact a $15 minimum wage, close the gender pay gap, increase child care subsidies, create “real universal” health care, make affordable housing more accessible, and tackle the opiate crisis.
According to Dunne, the rate of poverty in Vermont is increasing. The state is facing a housing crisis. He said 10 percent of the children in the North Hero school system, for example, are homeless.
“It’s a very, very precarious direction this state is heading in,” Dunne said.
Second try for governor
This is Dunne’s second run for the governor’s office.
In his first run in 2010, most of the other candidates outspent him, putting him at a competitive disadvantage. The other candidates’ deep pockets, however, aren’t why he dropped out.
His brother had a stroke a few weeks before the August Democratic primary, Dunne said.
“What do you do? You leave the campaign,” he said. “It made not winning very, very easy to take.”
Dunne finished fourth with 20.8 percent of the vote — ahead of state Sen. Susan Bartlett, but behind eventual winner Peter Shumlin and runners-up Doug Racine and Deb Markowitz.
The experience taught him two things: first, how to run a better campaign. This included stepping down from his position at Google to run full-time.
Second, Dunne learned the state’s health care system needs more than reform. It needs an overhaul.
According to Dunne, the increasing cost of health care is “outrageous,” and the candidate views a single-payer health care system as a cost-containment system.
While he outlines specific plans on his website, in brief, Dunne would start fixing some of the state’s health care issues by fixing the Vermont Health Connect website. He would also call for an assessment of Health Connect’s long-term sustainability.
Next he would look to change how health care providers are paid. Instead of fee-for-service, he would emphasize a “public health model” that other legislators have worked toward that pays hospitals for keeping people healthy.
Until every Vermonter has a primary-care physician, the state can’t solve its health care issues, he added.
Dunne served three years on the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center board.
Better childcare, housing needed
Providing affordable child care and early education is also on Dunne’s list.
Doing so will help children’s skills and support working parents, especially women, trying to get out of or stay out of poverty, he said.
Dunne notes that for many Vermonters with few financial resources, the necessary services they receive often hang on the “benefits cliff.” He would change the hard income cut offs in favor of a graduated step down if a family’s income rises.
Another dollar in the paycheck shouldn’t cost families their services, Dunne said. There are people holding back their careers for fear of losing necessary benefits.
“We have to fix that and we can,” he said.
Next to fix? Housing.
According to Dunne, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB) estimated last year that the state needs more than 9,000 additional affordable rental units. The rental vacancy rates in most towns are below the recommended 5 percent.
If elected, Dunne would grow the state’s affordable rental market through a variety of programs.
For example, fully funding the property-transfer tax allocated to the VHCB. Dunne estimates that in fiscal year 2017, the tax will raise a total of $38 million. State statute calls for half the amount raised — $19 million — to go to the VHCB.
Dunne also looks to use bonding programs, like a $100 million Energy Savings Company bond, to pay for energy efficiency upgrades in multi-unit buildings.
These improvements would “encourage additional capital investment that puts Vermonters to work” while lowering the energy bills of low-income residents.
Dunne anticipates some of his proposals would take funding mechanisms traditionally held by the Legislature and give them directly to agencies like the VHCB.
“But we have a housing crisis, we need to front load capital right now,” he said.
The country is experiencing a trend, he said. Young people and elders want to live in a walkable downtown. Neither of these groups traditionally have extra money to play with.
Dunne also wants to move the state’s reliance on property tax towards a system based on people’s ability to pay. Whether this means reworking income taxes, or changing the prebates, he doesn’t yet know.
Rebuilding Vermonters’ trust in their government is crucial, in Dunne’s opinion. People lose confidence when their taxes keep going up without a clear indication of how that money gets used.
He’s disappointed the Legislature didn’t pass campaign finance reform or lauched an ethics’ commission this year.
Pointing to the recent debacle with the Burke Mountain project in northern Vermont, Dunne said the people involved used loopholes in the state’s campaign finance laws to contribute to politicians’ campaigns.
“What else needs to happen?” asked Dunne, who earlier this year gave back campaign donations from corporate sponsors.
Dunne feels grateful for the variety of leadership roles he’s held. All have prepared him for the statehouse.
He likes to say that on the first day of his governorship, he would move his desk out of the governor’s office and closer to the people doing the state’s work.
On the last day of his governorship? He would feel it’s a success if the economy is stronger and fewer people live in poverty.
A lifetime of activism
Dunne grew up in Hartland. His father went to prison for participating in civil rights protests, then became a country lawyer, Dunn said. His mother, a professor, became the first woman to obtain tenure at Dartmouth College.
When his father died suddenly, Dunne said his 13-year-old self learned the power of community.
The people of Hartland embraced his family — with food, with emotional support, with picking up Dunne and his brother for school and other events, Dunne said.
He credits that same community’s support for carrying him to Brown University and then, at age 22, electing him to the Vermont House of Representatives. He spent seven years in the House and two years in the Senate.
President Bill Clinton tapped Dunne to lead the AmeriCorps-VISTA program. This experience highlighted for Dunne the depth of poverty on a national scale.
His latest gig, almost nine years at Google, had him, as Dunne likes to say, “bringing Vermont values to a large internet company.”
At Google, Dunne helped coordinate the company’s entry into — mostly — rural communities.
Many of Google’s data centers are located in former manufacturing towns, he said. Dunne set up a number of “authentic philanthropic” programs such as free wifi to school, laptops for students, and programs to encourage young girls to learn coding.
Grades 6-8 are critical for girls because those are the grades in which they identify what is possible for them, Dunne said, and he wants to “change the story” for them around technology and computer science.
With its myriad cultural resources and high quality of life, Vermont could become the telecommuting capital of the world, he said, but only when the state solves its connectivity issues.
“Broadband is the electricity of our time,” he said.
Dunne speaks enthusiastically about his days with Google.
So why is he running for the governor’s seat?
“This is my home,” he said.
Dunne and his wife, Sarah, have three children in elementary school, and want them to grow up in a Vermont that is thriving.
According to Dunne, this will mean expanding the economy from the bottom up.
“There’s always resources for the right things,” Dunne said.