Cows outnumbered people in Vermont as recently as 1963. But Google's Matt Dunne, a Democratic candidate for governor, thinks the still bucolic state has the potential to attract a new generation and lead the nation.
"When I think of 'the Google governor,' what I think of is being a part of bringing Vermont into a new era of innovation and democracy," said Dunne in an interview with ABC News when asked to explain how his experience at the Internet search giant would shape him as governor.
Dunne, Google's manager of community affairs, was in Washington, D.C., last week to raise money for his campaign and to meet with officials at the Democratic Governors Association.
Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican, announced earlier this year that he will not seek re-election after completing eight years in the state's top job.
Dunne now finds himself in a crowded field of five Democrats vying for the chance to take on Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, the likely Republican candidate for governor in 2010.
Winning the Democratic nomination for governor will not be easy because the field features several potentially strong contenders: Secretary of State Deb Markowitz currently occupies statewide office. She is tapping into the Emily's List national network of donors who support female candidates who support abortion rights and she was recently introduced to the DGA's national donors during a conference in Washington, D.C.
State Sen. Doug Racine, a former lieutenant governor, has strong ties to organized labor and is well-known statewide after having lost a three-way 2002 run for governor by two points.
State Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin is regarded even by his rivals as the strongest public speaker in the race. Shumlin, whose family started Putney Student Travel, has hired Kate O'Connor, the longtime aide to former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
The fourth Democrat competing with Dunne for the nomination is state Sen. Susan Bartlett.
First Elected to State Legislature at 22
The rap on Dunne, voiced in private by his opponents, is that he is "a young man in a hurry."
Having unsuccessfully challenged Dubie for lieutenant governor in 2006, Dunne's detractors say that he should run again for lieutenant governor in 2010 now that Dubie is trying to move up to governor.
Dunne, who is 40 years old, responds to the criticism by noting that Dean, who ran for president in 2004, was 42 when he first took office. He also points to two other former Democratic governors -- Phil Hoff and Thomas Salmon -- who were 38 and 40, respectively.
Dunne, a married father of two, also notes that his youthfulness does not equal inexperience: Beyond his current job at Google, he has 11 years under his belt in the state legislature and two and a half years of experience running AmeriCorps VISTA under Presidents Clinton and Bush.
"My father passed away when I was young," he said. "The community I grew up in, in many ways, raised me during that period of time and helped out in the way that Vermont communities do. And then when I graduated from college, they turned around and asked me to represent them at 22 in the Legislature.
"I've had those opportunities earlier than a lot of people," he added. "It's an incredible gift and sense of responsibility."
High-Tech Proposals: Real-Time Energy Use and Universal Broadband
In his policy positions, Dunne sees some high-tech paths to prosperity.
To promote energy independence and to fight climate change, Dunne wants to make Vermont the first state to guarantee its residents the right to know what their energy use is in real-time so that they can "use their frugal, cheap, Yankee ways to shave megawatts off the grid."
"There are a lot of lessons from Google. One of the big ones is that information is power," said Dunne.
Once smart meters are in place in every home, Dunne thinks it will open the door to the first electric car grid in the nation.
"A true electric car grid would want to be able to have a vehicle powered at the time when power is least expensive. So you need to have some kind of smart meter interface to be able to know when that happens," said Dunne. "This allows the true market to work."
To promote new economy jobs, Dunne wants Vermont to guarantee broadband Internet access and cell-phone coverage for every home, including those in rural parts of the state. He would seek to accomplish this by (1) adjusting regulations so that companies can string fiber optics along the lower-half of utility poles and (2) by putting "some real dollars on the table" to enhance the state's existing broadband authority.
"This is the equivalent of electricity. It's the tools to be successful no matter where you are," said Dunne.
Reimburse for Health Care Outcomes, Not Procedures
Dunne thinks the current efforts taking place in Washington to overhaul the nation's health care system do not go far enough. He is hoping, however, that the final legislation will allow for state experimentation.
To lower health care costs, Dunne wants Vermont to self-insure all of the state's residents the way big companies do.
The goal for Dunne is not to get the government involved in administering insurance. In fact, he would bid out the administrative task to a non-governmental entity. The goal for Dunne, who used to work at Dartmouth's Rockefeller Center for Public Policy, is to change the way health care providers are reimbursed.
Drawing on research conducted at Dartmouth, Dunne thinks that health-care providers should be reimbursed for medical outcomes rather than for the number of services they can squeeze into a 10-minute increment.
"What's clear is that with the entrenched interests in Washington it is going to be very difficult to get comprehensive health care reform that really bends the cost curve," said Dunne. "I think we will end up doing some good things for people, like finally getting mental health parity. But that's not going to change the cost curve the way that actually changing the way that we do reimbursement will."
Student Debt Forgiveness -- But How to Pay For It?
To encourage young people to perform two years of national service and to help them afford the cost of higher education, Dunne is proposing a new debt forgiveness program.
"Vermont has the unfortunate notoriety of having the highest debt load for students," said Dunne. "We have the opportunity to actually turn that on its head and say that every Vermonter who attends the University of Vermont or one of our state colleges, and commits to two years of national service can graduate debt free."
"The freedom that that would give is tremendous," he added. "They would have the opportunity to pursue new entrepreneurial dreams, new social innovation, or even get involved in the political process."
But when asked how he'd pay for the debt forgiveness, Dunne did not cite a specific revenue stream.
Tapping Vermont's Creative Potential
ABC News first caught up with Dunne in White River Junction, Vt., on the day after Christmas 2004.
Dunne, who was serving in the state senate at the time, had caught the attention of the network's political unit through his efforts to promote the "creative economy" in Vermont.
A devotee of Richard Florida's "The Rise of the Creative Class," Dunne believes that the engine that drives economic growth is creativity and that what creative people want most of all is the company of other creative people.
Back in 2004, Dunne persuaded his colleagues in the Vermont legislature to set aside $30,000 to help cartoonist James Sturn turn an old department store in downtown White River Junction, Vt., into the Center for Cartoon Studies, "America's only two-year cartooning program."
"In the beginning," said Sturn, "it really helped to be able to say that the state was behind us."
After Dunne secured the state funding for the cartooning school, Sturm was able to tap some of the biggest names in the cartooning business: "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening donated animation cells for auction. Peter Laird, co-creator of the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," contributed $150,000 for studio and classroom space.
Dunne sees the Center for Cartoon Studies, which features an "all types welcome" sign, as contributing to what Florida, an urban studies theorist, calls "a cycle of self-reinforcing growth."
"The old model," said Dunne, "was to offer tax incentives to a big company in the hopes that they will choose to locate one of their campuses in your state. The new model is to recruit and retain creative people while preserving your sense of place.
"If it looks like everywhere else," said Dunne, "you don't get that creative juice."
ABC News' Josh Miller contributed to this report.