MIDDLESEX -- File folders full of letters and faxes to then-Gov. Howard Dean’s office over the gay marriage issue and other materials from the former presidential candidate’s 12 years as Vermont’s chief executive were opened Thursday to the public.
Dean’s agreement with the Secretary of State’s office to seal the records for 10 years when he was preparing to launch a campaign for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination sparked a long legal battle over access to the materials.
The state Supreme Court ruled in 2005, after his failed bid for the presidency, that he could seal the collection and 80 boxes of documents and correspondence remained closed to the public until now -- 10 years after Dean left office, Jan. 10, 2003.
Dean, who visited the Statehouse on Thursday for Gov. Peter Shumlin’s second inauguration, said he had no objection to the records being opened.
"Look, the reason 20 percent of the records or whatever it is were closed, is because it was stuff that people who know what they’re talking about -- lawyers -- think was executively privileged. It’s fine with me," he said.
Dean said some of the records were boxed up in a hurry in the waning days of his administration. He said he did not fear any revelations that might paint him in an unfavorable light.
"I’m sure there’d be some interesting tidbits of gossip in there, but who knows?" Dean said.
Scott Reilly, a state archivist, spent much of the last six months arranging the records in preparation for their being opened to visitors at the Vermont state archives in Middlesex.
"There are lots of big topics here," he said. "As you look through the records, you’ll see his handwritten notes on certain things, directions to people on how to respond. It’s amazing just the breadth of issues the governor’s office deals with," Reilly said.
The letters and faxes poured in shortly after the Vermont Supreme Court ruled in December 1999 that the state had to find some mechanism to give same-sex couples the rights and responsibilities of marriage.
Most of the documents praised the decision. A separate tally sheet kept by people answering the phones in Dean’s office showed 433 in favor of the ruling with four opposed.
But despite strong support for what came to be known as civil unions, the state Supreme Court’s ruling provoked one of the most bitter public policy debates the state had ever seen.
On July 1, 2000, Vermont recognized civil unions, a term coined by the state lawmakers crafting the law. Just days before the law was to take effect, Dean wrote a letter to the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, which serves Catholics for the entire state.
Dean asked then-Bishop Kenneth Angell, a vigorous opponent of civil unions, to join him and work to keep the debate civil.
"There have been an increasing number of incidents in Vermont where gay and lesbian people have been the targets of deeply wounding personal attacks and epithets. I am increasingly concerned as feelings on this controversial issue become more intense," Dean wrote on June 27, 2000.
"As you know, Governor, the Roman Catholic Church has itself endured centuries of hatred, intolerance, and indeed, persecution," Angell responded the next day. "Hence, you will never have to ask us to promote peace and loving acceptance of all children of God, no matter how much we may disagree with their beliefs."
Since Vermont legally recognized civil unions, it and eight other states expanded their laws to allow same-sex marriage and the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on the federal law that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman.