The Army of Dean


Broad grins greeted Howard Dean’s late arrival for Sukkoth at the Lincoln Square Synagogue, and Dean grinned back, buoyant in the easy style of a winner.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” said one elderly congregant with an embarrassed smile. “He certainly is a nice-looking man.”

The woman, who asked not to be identified, revealed that she was considering support of Dean’s bid for the presidency. Her impressions of him came through the grapevine, and in large part, she liked what she had heard. Except for one troubling rumor.

“You know,” she whispered, “I heard that he said Israel is acting like a terrorist state.” This she found shocking.

If the message got a little muddled (and it did; Dean usually refers to Israel as a “ally”), it didn’t seem to put the woman off. In the easy style of a winner, the former governor from Vermont is convincing people that his stubborn ways and independence mean they’ll disagree, occasionally. More importantly though, he might just beat Bush, and that’s what counts.

Dean’s independence extends to the laissez-faire attitude his national campaign has taken to local organizing, leveraging the grassroots to advantage in states where he doesn’t have an official presence. In cities like New York and Philadelphia, local organizers simply mobilized bigger and earlier than the campaign did.

Dean’s supporters call this arrangement empowering. As many as 800 groups have formed around the candidate, a number rapidly on the rise. And this growth spurt defies easy labels. Dean followers now include self-described geeks, dykes, security moms, and expats, along with graphic designers, hackers, economists, and the unemployed. They call the campaign “intoxicating” and “electric,” and they treasure their autonomy. As long as supporters make clear that they aren’t campaign staffers, they’re free to organize as they like.

But seasoned political operatives say there are reasons campaigns tightly stage-manage publicity, and those reasons might become clearer as the Democratic field thins and Dean’s “message” falls under closer scrutiny. Muddled messages mean points, they say, possibly the difference in a tight race.

From the outside, Dean’s great innovation appears to be his willingness to trust; certainly the network of activism that cradles him depends heavily on it. From the perspective of the Dean HQ, this means relying on the activists to faithfully echo his positions on the issues. That shouldn’t be difficult—the Internet is Dean’s indispensable confederate, and his disciples say it not only provides them a community and a voice, but also all the tools—like posters and position papers—that they need to become, in the words of one supporter, “Dean franchisees.”

Dean’s side of the bargain is, on the surface, even simpler: His supporters count on him to dethrone George W. Bush. “This campaign is about hope and change,” said Thomas Chew, speaking as he passed out Dean flyers at a gathering of activists near Prospect Park last weekend. “It’s about hoping to change the president.” If that sounds scripted, it wasn’t.

For all the idealism and bliss that attaches to Howard Dean—the rapture recalls Bill Clinton’s first run for president—his supporters spend a lot of time talking about pragmatism. Even those who disagree with him on various policy positions, especially his stands on gun control, the death penalty, the embargo on Cuba, and NAFTA, seem content for now to gloss over the differences.

“I’m an idealist,” said Chew, who recently became a U.S. citizen. “But I realize there’s a lot to politics. I like the foundations of this campaign, and I don’t believe he’ll compromise.”

However this Dean machine functions—and the campaign denies there’s a system—it does work. Dean released his third-quarter fund-raising tallies last week, revealing almost $15 million raised from 168,000 donors, whose average contribution was $73.69. The Dean for America daily blog quivers with activity; each news item seems to draw hundreds of mostly thoughtful responses.

To his army, Governor Dean can do no wrong.

The experience of pastor Patrice Nelson illustrates both the benefits and the potential dangers of the Dean revolution.

Nelson belongs to the Philly for Dean group, one of the largest and most visible of the grassroots movements to sprout up around the candidate. She is also actively trying to alter the widely held perception that the campaign is too white. She now heads the Philadelphia chapter of the Dean DREAM Team, a coalition of minority groups that the campaign hopes will grow. Nelson said she has never worked on a campaign before and was attracted by Dean’s uncommon approach.

“It suggests to me that he might have new and different ways to run a country,” she noted during a phone interview. “The underlying philosophy of his campaign is that we all count. So I trust that any compromises he makes come from that philosophy.” And like many of her fellow supporters, she calls herself a pragmatist, and believes Dean is electable. “I cannot afford to waste my vote,” she said.

In early August, Nelson introduced Dean at a Philadelphia rally, and a few weeks later, they got a chance to talk. “He looked me right in the eyes,” she recalled. Nelson asked if the campaign could provide DVDs for her outreach work in lower-income neighborhoods, where Internet access is spotty. She also asked for position papers and flyers in Spanish. Vermont listened, and gave her everything she requested. She called this responsiveness typical of the campaign.

Jennifer Powers, who sits on the steering committee of the Philadelphia group, agrees. “I think I talk to the campaign almost every day,” she said, though she couldn’t recall exactly what they discuss. “It’s mostly just to keep in contact and to let them know the kinds of things that we’re organizing down here,” she said.

These days, Philadelphia is preoccupied with its mayoral contest. Incumbent Democratic mayor John Street is dodging charges of cronyism in the wake of an FBI investigation into his family finances, and since the FBI won’t say why it placed bugs in the mayor’s office, no one is actually sure what the investigation is about. For his part, Street maintains his innocence.

“I believe Street,” said Nelson. “I personally think the way Street is being treated is an issue of race, and I know the majority of the African American community here feels the same way.” Nelson confides that she would be happy if the Dean campaign supported Street. Dean has not commented on the election, except to say that he always supports Democrats over Republicans.

Nelson stresses that Dean’s involvement is not a priority, and further, she isn’t sure it would be best for his campaign.

“That’s the reality of race in our country,” she sighed. “You get cut off at the knees.”

Rebecca Schoon thinks she knows the mind of Howard Dean. And she likes it. So much, in fact, that she gave her share of the Bush tax cut to the Dean campaign. She shows all the signs of addiction, including an affinity for buzzwords like community.

If Schoon is addicted, she’s certainly not powerless. “I find Dean comprehensive without being reductive,” she said, after a day spent preaching to hipsters in DUMBO. She is now an active volunteer for Dean in New York and a pretty effective booster, too: “His thought process is logical. I understand the causal links and the nuance.” And she likes that her opinions won’t change his positions—even the ones she doesn’t agree with. “He won’t even pander to me,” she said.

And while Schoon feels strongly about “effecting change,” she too is a pragmatist: Bush is the target. Welcome to the Dean Army.