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In early August, when former Vermont Gov. Howard B. Dean was riding high, a friend who was working with me in Dean’s New Hampshire campaign proposed a scenario. Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., would be the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. He would appropriate Dean’s rhetoric, imitate his style and walk away with the nomination. John Kerry would win by becoming Howard Dean.
At the time, Kerry’s attempts to imitate Dean’s plain-spoken, hard-hitting style were so ludicrous that my friend’s scenario seemed about as plausible as Ann Coulter stealing the mantle of liberalism and leading the Democrats to the White House. But as Dean has left the race and Kerry wrapped up the nomination, some have started to say that what we joked about in August has actually happened.
Kerry has gotten a lot better on the stump. As much as I hate the phrase “bring it on,” it’s a thousand times more rousing than the patrician senator’s old rallying cry: “Well, this is a nuanced issue, Bob.” He has started to take on Bush far more aggressively than he ever did in the Senate. Listening to him speak these days, I can almost sense passion in his words.
But Dean’s message was more than just rhetoric.
Dean’s obvious passion was an important part of his appeal, but it wasn’t the whole thing. Dean created a new model for political organizing. By taking tough issues head-on and using stark language to portray the differences between Democrats and Republicans, he inspired a movement—a force that could replace political elites and large donors. To understand this political blueprint and its implications, it helps to know Denise Elliott.
Before Jan. 27 of this year, Elliott, who is in her late 30s, had never voted. It wasn’t that she is civically disengaged. As the child-care provider for most of the children in her Nashua, N.H. public housing project, Denise is known and respected by every one of her neighbors. Nor is Denise apathetic. Her face still lights up with righteous anger when anybody mentions the Nashua Public Housing Authority. She can recite from memory the grievances of every one of her neighbors: Pat’s son got cut from Medicaid; Gary can’t get any formula for his daughter; Nicky’s husband has three jobs and she hardly sees him any more.
But for Denise, elections were something that other people did. For decades, she had seen politicians come to Nashua to compete in the New Hampshire primary. They paraded through the affluent North End, traipsed down to Ward 4 for a photo op, then flew off to South Carolina or Michigan or New York.
Dean didn’t compromise with the other side, as if policy issues were just intellectual disputes where reasonable people would naturally disagree. He portrayed policy issues as moral crusades, and he asked his audiences to join him in fighting these battles. The “anger” that led some to question Dean’s “electability” convinced Denise, and many others like her, that these causes were worth fighting for.
I met Denise after a neighbor convinced her to get involved in Dean’s campaign. As a Dean staffer, I helped Denise become a Dean organizer in her community by working with her to host an informational meeting in her home. Almost every resident of the 11th Street Project where Denise lived showed up at the meeting. Everybody in the room had a story. Some were about the housing project itself; some were about healthcare; some were about the economy. Most had something to do with the children who were running in and out of the room. After everybody had spoken, I asked who in the room had voted before. One hand shot up. The woman had voted for Clinton in 1992.
Before the polls closed on primary day, when it was already clear that Dean was not going to win the New Hampshire primary, I went back to see Denise.
She had voted, she told me, and so had her neighbors. She had pulled them out of their homes, just as she had pulled them out for her house meeting, and they had all walked the short distance to the polling place together.
Denise created a political community in her neighborhood that had never existed before. The neighbors who met at her house for the Dean meetings have already formed a tenant’s organization in their housing project. Denise guided the group through the complicated municipal system for such organizations. She recruited people to run for leadership positions, facilitated an open election, circulated a petition and planned a community meeting where project residents will present their grievances to the mayor.
Kerry may have taken the fire in Dean’s belly. But to truly capture what made Dean exciting, he must grasp the logic of Dean’s campaign. Dean’s passion built a movement that will last long after the 2004 election. If Kerry is to be worthy of that movement, he must understand why Elliott and others like her gave their time and effort to the Dean campaign. If Kerry, and the Democratic Party, learns this lesson, that will be Dean’s victory.
Samuel M. Simon ’06-’07 is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. He was a field organizer for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in Nashua, N.H.
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