Fringe Friday: Dennis Steele
For week three of "Fringe Friday," we feature independent candidate for governor Dennis Steele, a burly web-preneur from the Northeast Kingdom who says Vermont must secede from the United States — or else.
Fringe Friday is Seven Days' weekly web series about the independent and minor party candidates running for governor, U.S. House and U.S. Senate — many of whom are pitching more radical ideas for bettering the lives of average Vermonters.
While "fringe" might seem disparaging, we don't mean it that way. Vermont has a strong tradition of putting independent and third-party candidates on the ballot, giving voters the option to choose from a wide menu of ideologies. Still, these candidates rarely garner more than 1 percent of the vote, perhaps due to their less traditional ideas, or poor organization or even lack of media exposure. As such, they remain on the fringes of the state's political system.
Candidate: Dennis Steele
Office Sought: Governor
Education:California Polytechnic State University (BS in liberal studies, minor in anthropology, 2003) Cuesta College (two-year degree in math and general science, 2000)
Family: Steele grew up in Kirby, Vt., on the same street where he lives today. His father was a carpenter and his mother worked a factory job manufacturing industrial scales. Steele has Abenaki Indian blood and he's been researching his geneology to connect with his native roots. His wife, Amber, is a stay-at-home mother and the couple have two kids: Angela, 6, and Luke, 3.
Platform: Secession. Steele's an active member of the Second Vermont Republic movement (publishers of Vermont Commons newspaper) and thinks Vermont must secede from the United States to avoid economic and social catastrophe. He believes the United States has lost its "moral authority" and that deepening federal deficits make it a "sinking ship" that Vermont should jump off of. Seceding would keep Vermont afloat, he believes, by reclaiming the $2 billion Vermonters currently pay into the U.S. Department of Defense budget. (Steele served in the U.S. Army for three years in the early 1980s — he joined to get money for college — and served as a helicopter crew chief.
We caught up with Steele at Langdon Street Café in Montpelier earlier this week.
Seven Days: Where were you stationed with the Army?
Dennis Steele: I served in South Carolina, Virginia and Hawaii. And then I ended up staying in Hawaii for another four years after I got out. I had all my paperwork to get into the warrant officer program and I got my real estate license. I looked at my landlord and he was driving a Mercedes Benz and the pilot was driving a Mazda 323. So I was, like, all right, I'm going to give the real estate thing a try. I failed the first time. I put three deals in escrow and they all fell out. Didn't know what I was doing. So I was working at Radio Shack, had to call my dad to pay my rent. I saw an ad for Brothers' Auto Sales that said you can make $5000 a month. Used cars. I was a used car salesman. This old Vietnam vet was the sales manager and he took a liking to me and hired me. The first month I made $5000. I was happy. Then I moved to California and was there for 14 years. I was teaching chess to low-income kids in San Luis Obisbo.
SD: How did your politics evolve?
DS: For me, the awakening started to happen in 2003 when we decided to go into Iraq. It didn't make sense to me. I was living out in California. My in-laws were die-hard Reagan Republicans and here I was the only veteran in the family that was antiwar. And getting kicked out of family dinners and basically family arguments every time we were at the family dinner table. In 2006, I moved back to Vermont. In 2007, I was back in California visiting the in-laws. I was sitting on the couch with my father-in-law — he watches Fox News 24 hours a day. And on this thing came the O'Reilly show and there was Thomas Naylor, Second Vermont Republic. Vermont wants to secede from the Union, and I was just going, 'Holy shit! What's this? There is a revolution and it's happening in my back yard.' As soon as I got back here, I looked up the website, ordered the Vermont Commons, got the flag (pictured) and everything. I thought the movement was way bigger than it was. You see it on TV like that, you have different expectations.
SD: Up until that point, what had your politics been?
DS: I voted for Ross Perot. I knew Bill Clinton was lying right way. Oh — I got involved with Ron Paul, of course. I was, like, 'This is the most intelligent person I've ever ever heard run for office.' I was actually leaning toward Obama because he was talking about ending the wars and everything. One night I decided to turn on the Republican debate. I wanted to see what the warmongers were going to say. And this little guy, 76-year-old man, said, 'Close all the bases. Bring all the troops home. Foreign policy of nonintervention.' I about fell out of my chair on the floor. I was watching this guy all night tearing these neo-cons apart. The neo-cons completely sabotaged his campaign. So I called Thomas [Naylor] back up and said, 'I'm back in the movement. The system's broken and ungovernable.'
SD: Why secede?
DS: What other alternatives are there?
SD: Well, why don't you just explain why you think it's a good idea?
DS: The U.S. government has lost its moral authority. It's owned, controlled and operated by corporate America, Wall Street and the Israeli lobby. It doesn't answer to the people anymore, so what choice do we have? Most people are in denial. The only thing I can do is try to wake people up and make them understand that Vermont's pro rata share of the U.S. Defense Department budget is $2 billion per year. And what could Vermont do with that money? A lot.
SD: Explain how it would work.
DS: Well, we want to take the peaceful approach and we have to have the political will of the people. And it's gonna take time. But as things start to crumble and the dollar devalues, I really think it will become easier for people to come on board. We'd have to get the state legislature to call a special session and debate becoming an independent republic. Let's crunch all the numbers, let's really take a good look at it and see if we'd really be better off. The metaphor is the Titanic. There's three types of people on the Titanic. There's the status quo politicians who are, like, 'It's the Titanic. It's not going down. I'm going back to the bar for a drink.' Then you've got the people on the boat who know there's something wrong but they really don't know what to do about it. Then you got us, the Second Vermont Republic. We're, like, 'Get your stuff, get on the boat, we're getting out of here. The ship is sinking.'
SD: So we'd need a majority of the Legislature to vote out a bill calling for secession?
DS: Yes, and if they say yes, you serve articles of secession to the President. Say we're done. Then you hope the political will of the people is strong enough to resist.
SD: And what do you think the U.S. government's reaction to this is going to be?
DS: A lot of people think the United States is going to invade us. But the fact is that there's only 13 brigades in the United States Army. Most of our troops are overseas. What would they want with tiny Vermont, anyway? We don't have any strategic value whatsoever. Are they going to come in and burn our sugar maples and kill our Holstein cows? We really have nothing. We're just going to be a nuisance to them. They'd be better off just saying, 'Let the dummies go and see what happens. They'll be begging to come back in in a year.' I think that we'd be fine — I know that we'd be fine as an independent republic. We would like to use Switzerland as a role model. Vermont could become the tax haven of North America.
SD: Tax haven? Meaning what? That criminals could put their money in Vermont banks?
DS: Yeah, we could go into the banking industry just like Switzerland does. That's just an option. I'm just putting that out there. They have a system that works well. We could also use Luxembourg or whatever. But we need to decentralize, put the power back in the hands of the people. Local government, local schools.
SD: How would trade policy work in an independent Vermont republic?
DS: Hell, I don't know. I've never had any experience with that. But we'd be our own country. I talked to a guy in Waterbury who said that we could set our own prices for tariffs on different things. When you import something in the United States, there are certain tariffs when you're importing certain products. For instance, jeans. If we're not producing jeans in this country, then we don't have to put a tariff on the jeans. Some products might actually be way less expensive because we're not producing them.
SD: Wouldn't we get hit with tariffs on stuff we imported from the United States?
DS: Yeah. True. Maybe.
SD: And wouldn't that be to Vermonters' detriment?
DS: Yeah, but what's worse? That or...? See, you're of the belief that the system's not going down.
SD: I'm not of the belief of anything. I'm just asking the questions that, I think, are presenting themselves.
DS: Then that question would be, is the U.S. government sustainable? Can we just continue to spend $1 trillion on our foreign policy without paying some sort of repercussions, without the dollar falling in value?
SD: Your plan is to secede. I'm saying, once that happens, let's talk about some of the consequences of that.
SD: Do you think it's hard to sell secession if a lot of these specifics aren't worked out? I'm sure I'm not I'm not the first person asking you, What do we do about energy? Or, what do we do about defense?
DS: The Vermont Commons does that. But really, does it matter? When we're dealing with a crumbling empire? We're going to have to set sail and break away.
SD: I would think it would matter for average people trying to weigh the pros and cons of staying with that sinking ship, as you call it, or separating. I would think it would all be in the details, but that's just me.
DS: You're going to have people who want all the details. It's going to be driven by fear and anger. Fear of a collapsing dollar, fear of a collapsing economy. The details will be worked out later.
SD: Would Vermont have a military?
DS: We could, if we follow somebody like Switzerland or what John McClaughry and Frank Bryan put in their book The Vermont Papers. It would be up to the people whether they want to have a military, or a militia.
SD: What role would you see yourself playing the Republic of Vermont? Would you run for president?
DS: That's a bridge we'd cross when we get there. But if I ran for governor and we were able to bring about secession, then you'd have to run for president. But, like I said, I like the model of Switzerland and decentralizing the power from a central authority. The solutions don't lie with one person. They lie with the local people in local communities. Because what works for Kirby and the Northeast Kingdom isn't necessarily going to work for Burlington.
SD: What do you envision happening when the U.S. government collapses?
DS: Well, hopefully Vermont will have gotten in the lifeboat and gotten the hell out of the way. If we wait until the United States collapses and there's complete chaos, it's not going to be a pretty sight. I mean, 33 percent of Vermont's budget comes from the federal government. It's going to be going away. If we wait, would there be anarchy and shooting in the streets? I don't have the answer.
SD: Why not work within the system and advocate for higher taxes to solve the government's money problem?
DS: Good luck. Go for it. I actually think it would be easier to secede than to change Washington.
SD: A lot of people think this is a crazy idea. Why do you and the folks in your movement think that you're right, and all these people are wrong?
DS: People are in denial about what the reality is. The mainstream media, maybe, have a lot to do with it. All I know is, there are certain things that will wake people up that we have a problem and, when that happens, we'll accept them into the movement. During the American Revolution, only, like, 25 percent of the people wanted to secede from Britain. Other people thought it was a crazy idea. But it happened.
SD: What do you do for fun?
DS: I go to music festivals. I'm one of the guys who likes to go to the very front of the stage and just completely gets enthralled in the music and just goes for it. I've always been a dancer. And I hunt. I hunt deer up in Kirby, up on Kirby Mountain.
SD: What are a few of your favorite Vermont bands?
DS: Electric Sorcery from Lyndonville. Dubnotix from Waterbury — they sing a song called "Secession." Pulse Prophets. There's a lot of anti-empire music out there in Vermont. 35th Parallel.There are a lot great Vermont bands.