Brainstormin’ with Mr. Google

The candidate works the room.

The candidate works the room.

Matt Dunne, former state senator, current Google exec and Democratic candidate for governor, is slow-rolling his campaign unveil with a series of Community Forums around the state. On Tuesday night, he made a stop in downtown Montpelier; about 20 people gathered in the upstairs offices of Local 64, a coworking space. (Appropriately trendy location, yes?) Some nibbly snacks were on offer, as well as appropriately local beer. (Your Reporter contented himself with an excellent iced tea purchased at the North Branch Cafe downstairs.)

The takeaway: ehh, it was a perfectly cromulent way to low-key a campaign launch. Nothing wrong with the idea. But I have to admit, I take these kinds of events with a massive grain of salt.

First, it’s not exactly a new concept. Bruce Lisman reintroduced himself to Vermonters with a Listening Tour, and Phil Scott spent a few nights last winter holding Economy Pitches. If Matt Dunne is trying to present himself as a different kind of candidate, borrowing chapters from the Phil Scott Playbook isn’t the best way to make that case. (Nothing against Phil, he’s just not a cutting-edge kind of guy.)

Second, when I walk into a room containing oversized pads of white paper on easels and a goodly supply of Sharpies, something inside me shrivels up a little. I guess it’s all those idea sessions I sat through in my previous working lives. The assembled are addressed with great earnestness, we offer ideas, they get written down on the white pads, the full pages get taped to the walls, everybody leaves, and — in my experience — nothing much comes of it.

Dunne promised otherwise. “The whole list will be posted online,” he said at the event’s conclusion. After seeking further input, he said, the ideas gathered at the forums “will be incorporated into our platform.”

I kinda hope not. But we’ll get to that later.

Dunne was a fine host — welcoming, inclusive, encouraging, energetic. He did his best to focus the discussion and make the suggestions as specific as possible. He began the evening with a brief retelling of his personal biography — born in Vermont, lost his father at age 13, the whole community rallied around; as an adult, he had successes in the public, private, and educational sectors, and served in the State Senate; he’s now raising a family in the very same farmhouse where he grew up.

He then gave a brief, and sobering, overview of the challenges facing Vermont.

I’m running because I’m convinced that Vermont is in a precarious place. Poverty is increasing, the middle class is losing ground, income stratification is growing. At the same time, employers can’t find the workers they need.

It’s clear that the economy is not working for Vermonters and for all of Vermont. We have to take action to turn things around. The good thing is, Vermonters are resilient and optimistic. There are glimpses of entrepreneurism and hope. [We need] a different approach to economic development.

I would have liked some hints on what the Dunne approach might be, but that wasn’t on the agenda. Having set the stage, Dunne opened the floor. One of the white pads was labeled “CHALLENGES,” the other “OPPORTUNITIES.” We spent about a half hour on each.

The quality of the input was, in my view, inconsistent. Dunne was looking for simple declaratives; some attendees couldn’t resist the urge to soliloquize. A few voices dominated the discussion, which is what usually happens in these settings.

It was also a pretty homogeneous crowd: white, liberal, mostly middle-aged or older. Which is only natural; it was a self-selecting audience, consisting of those interested enough in liberal politics to spend an evening with a gubernatorial candidate and a couple of white pads.

There weren’t any Republicans or moderates. There weren’t any union types, as far as I could tell. If there were any entrepreneurs, they were from the creative economy. There weren’t very many who actually, you know, make products for a living.

The ideas, well, you can kind of guess. Even the CHALLENGES often had a self-congratulatory edge. Many of the OPPORTUNITIES were things near and dear to the hearts of central Vermont liberals. You know, things like young farmers and microbrews and yes, the creative economy. Higher education was cited as a positive — with no reference to its discouraging cost. Someone (in this roomful of white folks) actually cited Vermont’s “diversity” as a strength.

Which brings me back to “I kinda hope not.”

Dunne’s campaign manager Nick Charyk assured me that some of the other forums had much more diverse audiences. That would be a good thing, because if Dunne is crafting a platform based on input from self-selected liberals, it’s gonna be awfully narrow.

Also, call me crazy, but I prefer a politician with some clear ideas and goals, a person whose vision for state government exceeds my own. Indeed, I’ve been given to understand that this is precisely Matt Dunne’s appeal: he has fresh insights, new ideas, a desire to innovate, a boldness that (his supporters would argue) is uncharacteristic of the usual Statehouse suspects. If he’s building a platform from the odds and ends collected at these forums, then he’s gonna fall short on the vision thing. On the other hand, if the crowdsourcing merely provides some decorative trim, then participants could rightly feel a bit used.

I fear this post is coming across as more negative than it’s intended to be. There’s nothing wrong with pre-starting the Dunne campaign with a tour like this. It’s a reasonable way to soft-launch a candidacy with almost a full year to go until the primary, and to reintroduce a person who’s been out of the state political spotlight since 2010. But as a wellspring of new ideas, well. color me unimpressed.

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3 thoughts on “Brainstormin’ with Mr. Google

  1. JP Isabelle

    I was there and want to raise a few points. One Im part of a union and involved in the union. Not sure I meet the sterotype of union type but Im involved. Second I may have been the youngest person in the room (no one checking IDs). I left feeling energized. Dunne is looking for input. He hasnt been in the game so to speak so gathering thoughts from VTers will be helpful. Its a first step among many I am sure. Raising the issues of opportunities will result in a hopeful energized message. Great first step and only one of maybe 20 or so hes holding around the state. Grassroots at its best imo. Please excuse typos. New phone.

    Reply
  2. Lachlan Francis

    I agree with JP. While I was not at the Montpelier event, I have found Matt to be a very engaging speaker who has a clear vision for Vermont’s future. To me, the fact that he’s meeting with Vermonters in every county shows that he’s serious about bringing new leadership and a fresh start to to Montpelier. As a young Vermonter, I’m excited about his candidacy.

    Reply
  3. newzjunqie

    I believe Dunne could make VT the Silicon Valley of the northeast and more. I’d like to see the IBM campus happy again following Shummy’s epic fail and nearly handing the entire farm of economic investment to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

    Reply

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