Howard's crowd is branching out
Howard Dean's South Burlington office is a lot emptier than in the heyday of his presidential campaign, but reminders of those heady times are everywhere. On the wall to the left of the door hang huge photos showing thousands of jubilant supporters waving blue Dean signs at rallies in Seattle and Philadelphia.
On another wall hangs a floor-to-ceiling quilt hand-stitched by a volunteer known as "Grandma J." Each of the 50 states has a panel. Surrounding them on all sides are pictures of Minutemen and slogans, both official and unofficial, that appeared on the blog and on volunteer-created merchandise that spread across the country: "People-Powered Howard," "I See Dean People," "You Have the Power."
The office itself is considerably smaller -- half of it has been abandoned. Stray filing cabinets litter the offices. In the large central room, a lone wire hangs from the ceiling. Stacks of folding tables and cubicle dividers lean against walls stained with inky fingerprints.
The only sound is the intermittent ringing of the receptionist's phone. "Democracy for America," she answers, then pauses. "I understand," she tells the caller. "We're doing our best to keep John Kerry on message."
But many calls these days are coming from groups who want to schedule Dr. Dean for their events. Despite his defeat, he's earned a reputation as an inspirational speaker. He addressed the Vermont Democratic convention last week, and next weekend will give the keynote address at the State Democratic Convention in Hawaii. He's receiving an award at the Take Back America Convention in D.C. in June, and will appear at DeanFest, a volunteer-organized Deaniac reunion, in Northampton, Massachusetts, in July.
Indeed, it seems as though things are finally picking up for the governor. His fledgling organization has identified more than 600 candidates -- running for everything from student-body president to U.S. Senate -- who say they've been inspired by Dean to run. On May 12, DFA 2.0 (DFA version 2, get it?) announced its first "Dean Dozen," 12 candidates for statewide or local races that have received Dean's stamp of approval. DFA 2.0 is also trying to provide them with organizing training, tech support and, eventually, cash.
DFA 2.0 Executive Director Tom McMahon promises more Dean Dozens to come. "If you fund grassroots candidates and build the talent pool, in four to six years, you have candidates who can run at the federal level." McMahon, who was Dean's Deputy Campaign Director during his presidential bid, says that DFA 2.0 is not just a vehicle to keep Dean's popularity alive. "We're trying to change politics as we know it today," he says.
As the summer campaign season heats up, there's good reason to believe that Dean already has. Two of the obvious changes: the vernacularization of the word blog, short for weblog, a website where you post a news item and receive comments; and the introduction of Meet Ups -- from meetup.org, where visitors find out about gatherings of their favorite interest groups, be they witches, goths or presidential candidates.
But change is happening on less obvious fronts as well. From the Dean Dozen to staffers who have joined other campaigns to volunteers who refuse to quit, Howard Dean's failed bid for the presidency is still transforming the American political landscape. Here are a few stories that illustrate how.
When Howard Dean arrives at his office for our interview, he doesn't look like a beaten man. He stretches out in his chair and puts his hands behind his head. Wearing jeans and a button-down white shirt with a tie, he appears rested, relaxed and eager to answer questions from a hometown reporter. When asked how he's feeling, the 55-year-old ex-governor says he's doing great. "I'm just lamenting the schedule, which is becoming more and more like a presidential campaign every day," he says.
Dean admits things were a little slow after he left the presidential race. "The first thing I did was take a break and clean out my garage," he reveals. And yes, he's been spending some time writing a book. But most of his energy is now focused on DFA 2.0. "When you build a grassroots organization of three-fourths-of-a-million people, you want to keep that going," he says.
Dean notes that the challenge now is to harness the bottom-up flow of ideas that was a hallmark of his presidential campaign, while imposing some of the top-down structure necessary to keep a large national organization together. "It's a delicate balance," he observes. "[We need to take] a lot of direction from the grassroots. But they expect direction back." That's what the Dean Dozen is about, he says. It's his attempt to focus the grassroots energy.
The governor cites the Gary Hart and the John McCain presidential campaigns as models. "They also energized a base like this," he says, "but then it went away. And I think what we've tried to learn from that is, don't let it go away. 'Cause it's still there. Just point it in other directions. Electing Kerry is a piece of that. I mean, we're not going to revolutionize the country by electing Kerry, but he's certainly an enormous improvement over George Bush. So why not put some serious effort into that?"
While Dean is wary of a Kerry-McCain ticket, popular now among the pundits, he says he's at least willing to consider it. "I think it shows the kind of imagination and bold thinking that John Kerry needs," he says. "I think the discussion is a very good discussion. And if it happens, I'm open-minded. I'd like some assurance on the choice issue and some of the other conservative positions that McCain's taken. But I like that kind of talk."
One kind of talk Dean scrupulously avoids is the kind that mentions feelings. As in, how does it make you feel that hundreds of thousands of people have been inspired by you? "It's a big responsibility," he says, looking down at his tie and running it between his fingers. He smiles. "I'm certainly a less flippant person than I was."
As for the drubbing he took in the media, he'll concede only that it was "hard." "Politics is a tough game," Dean says.
He's learned by now to be more cautious in his optimism, but he can't help getting a little caught up in the enthusiasm he still sees around him. "I'm not much for hype," he says, "as you may recall from my gubernatorial career, but I am actually beginning to believe that we may have actually started a revolution."
That sounds so much like his pre-Iowa, optimistic self that he feels compelled to qualify it. "On cable they carry on about this stuff," he says, "and I never believe anything they say on cable television anymore, but there is an enormous vigor out there, and it continues to go past the campaign, which is important. I mean, every day we get away from the campaign, and the vigor continues, and the enthusiasm continues, the more evidence there is that we really have done something that's substantive, and that's going to last."
When Democracy for America announced its first round of endorsements earlier this month, Ken Campbell made the list. The 30-year-old small-business owner and Democratic first-time candidate for the South Carolina House of Representatives was inspired to run by Dr. Dean.
"I appreciated his candor more than anything else," Campbell says in a phone interview from his home, a.k.a. campaign HQ. "Regardless of whether I agreed with him, here was a guy who was going to say exactly what he felt. Just that approach to politics was really refreshing to me."
The automotive marketer gave Dean some money over the Internet, and he hand-wrote a dozen letters to undecided Iowa voters whose addresses he downloaded from Dean's website. And as a result of his political awakening, he made the South Carolina Statehouse website his homepage when he logged onto the Internet.
"I just saw so much of what goes on in our legislature in South Carolina driven by special interests and back-room deals," he says. "And you just realize that these people are going to run unopposed."
When Campbell contacted the local Democratic Party, they welcomed his candidacy, he says. Now his campaign staff is full of former Dean people. Since the DFA endorsement, traffic on his website is way, way up, and he's raised at least a couple thousand dollars as a result. "It really has been amazing to have this standing army of supports just waiting to lend a hand," Campbell says. He's cautiously optimistic about his chances, and says he's connecting with plenty of people in Oconee County who are ready for change.
Campbell is certainly ready. "It was really Dr. Dean's call to action for regular folks to get back involved in politics," he says with a slight Southern drawl. "It re-energized me."
When he left the Dean campaign in late February, Deputy National Finance Director Larry Biddle needed a break from politics. He and his partner, David Warner (a contributor to Seven Days), headed to Barcelona for some R&R. "We arrived on the day of the terrorist attacks in Madrid," says the 63-year-old moneyman. While on vacation, they watched thousands of people take to the streets and reject a Bush-friendly government. Biddle saw it all as a ray of hope.
Today Biddle is working in Florida -- Bush-Bush land -- as the Deputy Campaign Manager for Betty Castor's bid for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Bob Graham. Castor, a well-known Florida politician and former president of the University of South Florida, faces a Democratic primary at the end of August.
"I'm trying to take the Dean experience and adapt it into a statewide effort," says Biddle. This week the Castor camp will use 10,000 email addresses to launch http://www.BettyNet.com . The site will allow supporters to communicate with each other, form online Castor-related groups, and create their own pages, complete with fundraising thermometers. "I could email it out to my friends saying why I want to raise $3000 for Betty Castor," explains Biddle. "And it's all independent of campaign staff."
Supporters will also be able to download flyers, voter-registration forms and absentee-ballot requests from BettyNet, as they did from Dean's site. And BettyNet will feature a blog. "It'll be the first time that the Dean innovations have been translated into a statewide effort," says Biddle. "There's pieces of these things in other campaigns, but there's nothing trying to be so much like Dean's... Most websites are about the candidates, but the thing that we did was to make it about the people out there who want to be engaged. We're thinking that's going to happen again here."
Now if they can only get former Attorney General Janet Reno to sound excited when she says, "Join the conversation. Be the buzz. Be on the BettyNet."
While most Dean alums now endorse John Kerry for president, only a few are actually working on his campaign. Amanda Michel, former national director of Generation Dean, is one of them.
Scoring an interview with someone who's working full-time on a presidential campaign is no easy feat. When our conversation is finally cleared by the press office, Kerry spokesperson Kathy Roeder joins the 25-year-old Michel on speaker-phone.
The UVM philosophy major is part of Kerry's Internet team. Right now she's working on "the Media Corps" -- she provides research to volunteers who write letters to editors and call radio shows. Rising gas prices are her bailiwick of late.
Michel says she had little tech experience before her political debut. "When I first joined the Dean campaign," she says, "I didn't know what a blog was, so I Googled it." The Dean campaign experience also taught her the importance of getting feedback from the grassroots. Great ideas often percolated up from below. "And it's not just keeping the channels open," she says. "It's about honoring them, taking time to move suggestions to the appropriate people."
When asked if her new employers welcomed her with open arms, Michel describes them as "extremely warm and supportive." Who wouldn't be after they've won?
Roeder interrupts to say what a huge asset it is having people on board like Michel, who've been through the primary process. There are others, too, from the various defeated camps.
Though she's working seven days a week, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Michel seems almost guilty admitting it, as if the next natural question is, "That's all?"
"Right now we're pacing ourselves," she says. "We're in this for the long haul."
When Ralph Nader announced he'd be seeking the presidency again in 2004, frustrated Democrats let out a nationwide groan. For months, former Nader voters had been urging the consumer advocate not to run via a website called "ralphdontrun.net." Tricia Enright, Howard Dean's former communications director, sums up why. "Frankly," says the 37-year-old political operative, "we know that Karl Rove is yukking it up in the White House because progressive and Democratic voters are going to be divided, and it's going to help George Bush."
When Nader was in the news recently for meeting with John Kerry, Enright and her new team -- two of the guys behind the "Draft Wesley Clark" movement and a former Gephardt aide -- launched their latest endeavor, a website called "thenaderfactor.com."
Enright doesn't agree with what she calls the "scorched-earth mentality" of those who are pressuring Nader to drop out of the race. She points out that he received 2.8 million votes in 2000. "I don't think that attacking Nader supporters makes sense," she says. "We hope we can reach out to progressive Democrats and help give them a voice so their issues will be heard and will be part of the discussion."
The eight-year veteran of the Clinton administration cites her experience on the Dean campaign as the most rewarding of her political life, and says it has influenced her tactics.
Along the right-hand margin of thenaderfactor homepage, a green box asks, "Slept with Nader, woke up with Bush in 2000?" It invites visitors to share their stories, which will be posted on the site in the future. Enright says the jaunty tone of the site illustrates what she learned as a Dean staffer. "This shouldn't be boring," she says. "This should be fun."
Megan Matson, of Bolinas, California, has three reasons for starting Mainstreet Moms Oppose Bush. "They're 1, 3 and 5 years old," she declares in a press release on her website, http://www.themmob.com .
Matson, a 37-year-old freelance creative director for advertising and marketing firms, got political early in 2003, when she and her teacher husband started observing "Fuck With George" Fridays (FWG in front of the kids). Each week they'd take an action to disrupt the Bush agenda. Then they connected with Howard Dean, and before long, Matson was attending Meet Ups at the local pre-school.
Unwilling to be derailed by Dean's defeat, Matson started MMOB to reach out to the mom vote. She enlisted Reed Hundt, the former FCC director under Bill Clinton and writer Annie Lamott for her advisory board. And she developed a logo -- a cartoon mom running with a raised rolling pin -- that she's splashed onto various types of merchandise, for sale through the site.
Since the organization's debut on April 28th, Matson estimates she's gathered 450 members. For her "Adopt a Swing State" project, she's borrowed a page from the Dean playbook and sent 50 letter-writing party hosts 6000 addresses of unregistered Floridian single moms, hoping to persuade them to register and vote. They're focusing on mom-to-mom or peer-to-peer contact. "We want to eliminate as much of the Iowa outsider problem as possible," she says, referring to the Dean campaign's unsuccessful invasion of Iowa. Several candidates for office have already contacted her and asked for help registering women in their districts.
Matson credits the Dean campaign for making her politically active outside her home. "It hooked so many people on what it feels like to take action and organize, she says. She fully intends to disband the MMOB when George Bush is defeated next fall. But, she says, "I can't imagine going back to a normal life."
Her official title during the Dean campaign was "Director of Online Outreach and Organizing," but Norwich, Vermont, native Zephyr Teachout has always preferred the off-line world. The 31-year-old activist loves meeting, connecting and energizing people, and she loves a challenge.
When the Dean campaign ended, Teachout applied to an organization called "America Coming Together" (ACT), which bills itself as the largest voter-mobilization project in history. But she didn't ask for just any job. "We have a huge operation in the 17 swing states," she says. "My job is the other 33. Basically any state that is considered irrelevant is one of mine."
Teachout has taken on the challenge of motivating voters in states everyone else is ignoring, building Democratic operations in "blue states" such as New York and California, as well as in such "red states" as North Carolina, where she got her law degree (at Duke University) and lived for several years before moving back to Vermont to work for Dean. "We don't want to just leave the South behind us," she says. "We want to start building networks. If we start building this network we can start winning back the South."
For Teachout, who telecommutes from Montpelier, this means recognizing the power of volunteers. "Volunteers are usually the last thing campaigns think about," she says. "I think the Dean campaign started to show, and we can continue to show, that volunteers are our most powerful resource."
Right now, she's working with former "Clarkies" to help ACT volunteers organize something like a Meet Up, which will happen on the second Saturday of every month. She's also helping to provide them with software and downloadable campaign materials to reach out to a million Democratic voters who stayed home in North Carolina in 2000. Bush carried the state by a third of a million votes.
Teachout sounds surprisingly convincing when she says the Democrats could conceivably take Jesse Helms' home state by tapping into grassroots volunteer energy. "We showed that there was that power out there," she says. "The next trick is to use it effectively."
In February of 2003, Joe Trippi predicted that Howard Dean could raise millions of dollars -- enough to be a competitive candidate -- online. Few people believed him.
More than anyone else, except possibly the candidate himself, it was Trippi, Dean's campaign manager, who engineered the governor's meteoric rise -- and, depending on whom you believe, brought about his equally meteoric fall. It was Trippi who masterminded Dean's use of the Internet, both as an organizing and a fundraising tool. "The talent of Trippi," says Dean, "was to mobilize the grassroots. He knew what the asset was more than we did when he got here."
These days Trippi says he's taking it easy, decompressing. "I killed myself," he says melodramatically in a phone interview from his Maryland home. "I hadn't slept in two years."
Of course, Trippi's idea of relaxation is a little different from yours or mine. On the day we speak, he's gotten up at 4 a.m. for an appearance on the "Today Show." He's also writing a book (which, despite its Amazon.com listing, will not be called The Revolution Will Not Be Televised). And he's still working as a political consultant to a few candidates, and speaking at conferences, such as the recent Internet Global Congress in Barcelona and the upcoming ACLU conference in San Francisco. And he's a pundit on MSNBC, and he started a political organization, Change for America, and so on. Like Dean, he has managed to retain some of his celebrity status. He was right about a few things, after all.
Trippi's home has also become the unofficial crash pad for ex-Dean staffers. He's hosting a reunion over Memorial Day weekend. "Hell, most of them live here," he says. "It's been kind of like Grand Central Station, in a good way. There's, like, three of them here right now."
And just as he hasn't really slowed down, he hasn't stopped making wild predictions, either. "You're not going to see the full impact of the Dean campaign for 10 to 20 years," he says. "A lot of 25-year-olds are going to be members of Congress who ran Meet Ups, and their first political experience was working for Howard Dean. . . A lot of the tools we developed made the party stronger, made Kerry a better candidate, and will have a major impact on the country for years to come."
Julie Ann Thayer
Julie Ann Thayer traces her interest in politics to last year's Tunbridge World's Fair. That's when someone handed the 59-year-old Williamstown mother of two a Howard Dean campaign flyer. The Dean campaign quickly filled a void in her life she hadn't known existed. She gave money, hosted House Parties, went to Meet Ups, and wrote dozens of letters to undecided voters. She even traveled to New Hampshire and Iowa to canvass for Dean. And then, suddenly, there was no more Dean machine. What to do?
Thayer's break from campaigning was short-lived. In early March, a Dean connection hooked her up with the AFL-CIO-sponsored Show Me the Jobs Tour, a gimmick to highlight job loss on the Bush watch. Thayer, a self-employed peddler of novelty bras and boxers, boarded a tour bus with 50 other representatives -- one from each state and the District of Columbia -- and embarked on a whirlwind eight-day, eight-state, 18-city bus tour. "We had 2000 people in Greenville, Wisconsin," she boasts. "The whole town turned out."
The tour also took her to Washington, D.C., for the first time. There she met with the Vermont congressional delegation and attended a 1000-person protest in front of a Bush fundraiser. She's been back to D.C. since, for the March for Women's Lives.
These days Vermonters can spot Thayer outside her local Wal-Mart, registering voters next to a handmade sign that reads, "Your Voice Is Your Vote, Make It Loud." She says she hasn't campaigned for Kerry yet, but she wrote him a check. "And," she adds, "a note telling him what I expect him to do."
When she's not registering voters, Thayer is updating their information on the Orange County Democratic voter lists. "It's tedious, but it has to be done," she says with a sigh, sounding like a pro. "It does win elections."
Usually it's a bad thing when someone drops out of college, but for 20-year-old Zack Rosen, things are turning out fine. A sophomore computer-science student at the University of Illinois in Champaign/Urbana, Rosen approached the campaign in the spring of 2003 to ask for a job. As a member of the Dean team, he worked on a project called Deanspace, an open-source software program that sought to connect Dean volunteers and their various interest groups -- Virginia For Dean, Latinos For Dean, etc. -- online.
But when the campaign ended, Rosen's work was still unfinished. So he made his way to San Francisco and met with a venture capitalist, and now he's developing CivicSpace, software that will help activists create websites and forums, run a blog, keep track of members, generate mailing lists, and synchronize their calendars with other like-minded groups. But whereas most campaigns pay software engineers and Web designers to handle this business -- Dean, in fact, paid quite a bit -- Rosen aims to offer up the whole package for $50 a month, tech support included. That's big news for low-income progressive technophobes. "We're trying to lower the barrier for entry," he says. "The tools that are out there don't do enough and generally cost too much money. We think we can do it better and not charge as much as other people do."
Rosen's work has already attracted considerable attention. Dan Gillmor, a tech columnist for SiliconValley.com, writes in his May 12 ejournal, "Zack Rosen just showed me a new project he and Neil Drumm have been working on, and I'm impressed." That project is called "Progressive Pipes." Its motto: "Juggling 38 progressive mailing-list subscriptions so you don't have to."
Rosen says CivicSpace will likely debut next month. "We're harried and coding late into the night to get this thing ready," he says. "If I hadn't gone through something as crazy as the Dean campaign, there's no way I would be able to take on this kind of responsibility. You learn how to drink from the firehose and do your best... If Dean hadn't done what he had, I'd still be in school. I'd be dreaming about the day when I might be doing something interesting."
Not all former Dean aides have returned to politics -- 22-year-old Ryan Davis is directing a play. His production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch starts its four-week run in Rochester, New York, this Friday, May 28. Davis takes a break from rehearsing light cues to deliver a rapid-fire monologue on his cell phone about what politics and drama have in common. "Politics is definitely a form of entertainment," says the former photographer and videographer for Dean. "It's just got higher stakes."
This time the stakes took a toll on Davis, a seemingly obsessive character who entered college at 16 but left to devote more time to work in theater, film and politics. He admits he burned out of the presidential race before it was over. He departed Iowa two days before the caucus, convinced the end was near. Soon after, he managed an unsuccessful primary campaign in Maryland. Now he says he's done with politics, at least until the next election cycle.
In the meantime, Davis aims to change minds through art. He concedes that the character of Hedwig, a frustrated German transvestite singer, has little in common with Howard Dean. But, Davis says, "Hedwig has the power to really open people's eyes to transgender issues, homosexuality and poverty."
The show, financed by a group called Northstar Productions, has a budget of $110,000. "The toughest part of theater and politics," Davis notes, "is raising money."
To that end, he and other Dean alums -- speechwriter Joe Drymala and Web-consultant Nicco Mele -- are planning a campaign to change Broadway. The director won't mention specifics, just that it will debut in July, and that the name of the company is "Populist Productions."
"The same things that are wrong with politics are wrong with professional theater," Davis declares. "Too much big money controls everything."