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Six Months After the 'Roller Coaster'

Gore campaign manager Brazile reflects on controversial election

By Imtiyaz H. Delawala and Imtiyaz H. Delawala, Crimson Staff Writers

Packed boxes lay scattered around Donna Brazile's Kennedy School office, where the former campaign manager for Al Gore `69 has served as a spring fellow at the Institute of Politics (IOP) for the last three months.

Still on the shelves are four large black binders, each filled with news clippings and articles on state efforts at electoral reform after the 2000 presidential election. Her computer screen shows a copy of a report she has been compiling, providing recommendations on ways to overhaul the voting system in the United States.

"I still don't know who to submit it to," the charismatic Brazile laughs as she looks over the report. "That's the difficult question. Who wants it? Who cares?"

"I care," Brazile adds with characteristic straightforwardness. "I deeply care how states will improve their system of voting to ensure every vote is counted."

Besides the candidates themselves, few people had a greater stake than Brazile in the outcome of the November election-an election that lasted through December, ending with the Supreme Court injunction to stop a recount in the state of Florida, the deciding factor that propelled then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush into the While House over former Vice President Gore.

Brazile has moved on since then, returning to Washington, D.C. last week to delve back into national politics after a brief stop to discuss the election and politics with students at the IOP.

But exactly six months after Election Day 2000, Brazile still carries the memories of one of the most controversial and hotly contested presidential elections in United States history, using the outcome to teach her valuable political lessons for the future.

A Lifelong Passion

A Louisiana native, Brazile started her political involvement early, volunteering for local city council elections by the age of nine, and working her way up to become a precinct coordinator for the 1976 Jimmy Carter presidential campaign at the age of 16.

Brazile-who last year became the first African-American woman to ever manage a leading presidential candidate's campaign-says she was inspired into public service by the civil rights movement in the South.

"I longed for the day when African-Americans and women and minorities would not have to fight to end discrimination to participate in the political process," Brazile says.

A desire to help the working poor also influenced Brazile, who was one of nine children. Her father worked as a janitor and her mother worked as a maid.

"All my life I've wanted to do something to help people," Brazile says. "I know what it's like to live in poverty. I know what it's like to go to bed hungry."

After graduating from Louisiana State University in 1981 with a degree in psychology, Brazile began her meteoric rise through the behind-the-scenes world of politics, working on 18 mayoral, 55 congressional and six presidential campaigns before becoming Gore's campaign manager last fall at the age of 40.

"I believe I climbed every step on the political ladder, from precinct captain to field director to campaign manager," she says. "I reached my goal of making it to the top."

The Election That Never Ended

While Brazile says she would have managed a presidential campaign for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) if he had run, she says she immediately jumped onto the Gore campaign team when the position was offered to her.

"It was like a proposal," Brazile says of Gore's offer. "He held my hand and looked in my eyes and asked me if I would be willing to go down to Tennessee to run his campaign."

Brazile agreed, and after a long campaign season, the Gore-Lieberman ticket went into Election Night on Nov. 7 in a virtual deadlock in the polls with Bush-Cheney, with most analysts as well as the American public unsure of what the outcome would be.

Brazile says the day started out rougher than most, with the campaign ending a final 24-hour swing through several key states-including Florida-before settling in Nashville.

As state returns began coming in, Brazile says that the first projection of Florida going to Gore gave the campaign an immediate boost.

"That was a very high moment," she says. "We knew that if we had those 25 electoral votes plus California and other states, that we had enough to take us over the top."

But as became the norm for the night, the projection of Florida did not last long, with the television networks returning the state to the "too close to call" column. And after several long hours, Florida was finally called for Bush, giving him enough electoral votes for the presidency.

"The mood of everyone went from great excitement and exhilaration to depression in less than two hours," Brazile says.

But only after Gore had called Bush to congratulate him and began preparing a concession speech did the tide turn once again, with the announcement that Florida was once again too close to call, and would have to undergo an automatic recount.

"I was very elated," Brazile says of the decision to retract the concession. "In campaigns you never give up or give in. You fight because there's something worth fighting for."

None of her previous campaign work, however, prepared her for the long recount battle in Florida that ended only 35 days later.

"That was the worst emotional roller coaster, something you can't describe with words," Brazile says. "We knew it would be tough, so we were just trying to keep our people focused."

"We had a principle that was guiding us that every legal vote that was cast should be counted, and that was our goal," Brazile adds.

But the U.S. Supreme Court's deeply divided 5-4 decision in Bush v. Gore on Dec. 12 stopped the recount, effectively ending Gore's chances for the presidency.

Brazile herself lives near the U.S. Capitol, and says she had to drive home past the Supreme Court after the decision had been made.

"That was the toughest moment of my life," Brazile says. "For the first time I was so angry and so disillusioned with our government to not only stop the count, but to use the equal protection amendment to stop the count."

Even after losing the decision, as Gore prepared to deliver his nationally televised concession speech Dec. 13, Brazile wanted her candidate to simply withdraw from the election, and not concede defeat.

"I was bitter, I was angry, I was heartbroken, I was dispirited," Brazile says. "I couldn't sleep. I was very emotionally drained."

The Reform Crusade

But despite the outcome, Brazile says she has used the election to renew her commitment to politics and public service.

"If the campaign did anything, it revived my faith in the American system of government," Brazile says. "It's not a perfect system, but it's endured for over 200 years now."

She says the irregularities in voting in Florida and other states have given her new political goals-election reform, voter education and more youth involvement.

"There's no place in our democracy for hanging chads, swinging chads, or pregnant chads," Brazile says. "There's no place in our democracy for long lines at the voting booths. There's no place for untrained poll workers."

Brazile cites the thousands of black voters misidentified as felons who were purged from voting rolls. One of Brazile's own sisters who lives in Florida had to produce three forms of identification on Election Day.

"These are problems that we can solve, that we should solve," Brazile says.

Some efforts have been made towards election reform. Last week, the Florida state legislature passed a bill to replace outdated polling equipment, provide more funding for poll worker training and voter education, and create a statewide standard for manual recounts and ballot irregularities.

A joint task force between MIT and Cal Tech is also working to produce new technology for voting booths.

But while more than 1,500 election reform bills have been introduced in individual states since December, no major proposals have yet been made at the national level.

"There's no national movement afoot now to solve the problems," Brazile says, criticizing President Bush for not including funds for election reform in his recently released budget. "Congress and the Bush Administration should provide matching grants to states to update their systems, as well as grants to train and recruit Election Day workers."

Brazile also says more should be done to educate voters and encourage more political participation. She says that one of the most important parts of her time at the IOP was encouraging students to get more involved.

"Part of my job in politics is to bring other people in," Brazile says. "I tried to demystify the political process and encourage young people to take their place at the table."

Back in the Beltway

While Brazile's time at the IOP has given her months to reflect on the 2000 election, she says that the Bush Administration has given her even more motivation to return to the political scene.

Brazile gives the beginnings of the Bush Administration a grade of "D." While she commends President Bush's handling of the Chinese plane collision, she not too surprisingly criticizes his environmental policies and his domestic goals.

"I grade him on his priorities," Brazile says. "His priority is on a huge tax cut which will hurt the economy and not get us back on its feet. I grade him on campaigning as a centrist and governing from the right wing. I believe he said he would change the tone in Washington and he hasn't."

But even though she believes Americans agreed with Gore on the majority of issues, she says that people should not criticize Bush's abilities.

"There's this perception that the President is not a very smart and capable fellow, but he is," Brazile says, describing how the Bush campaign was able to lower expectations during the presidential debates. "He's very smart and very shrewd. He understands politics and he is a very educated man."

And while Brazile accepts that Bush is the president, she has now returned to Washington, ready to help prepare the Democratic Party for the 2002 midterm elections, drawing on lessons from her IOP study group.

"We spent a lot of time talking about the election and things we could have done better, which allowed me to think about things we can do better in the future," Brazile says.

And while she is unsure what her exact future holds, she will remain in the political world, both as a Washington insider and an active citizen.

"There's a part of me that wants to go back out there and give it one more try," Brazile says. "Not as a campaign manager, but as a voter and informed citizen who can work to educate and train other citizens."

"I gave up practically everything to work for Al Gore, and now I have to basically rebuild my life," Brazile adds. "Hopefully I'll be able to find something challenging and interesting, but there's nothing like a presidential campaign."

-Staff writer Imtiyaz H. Delawala can be reached at delawala@fas.harvard.edu.

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