Howard Dean’s winning campaign for Democratic Party chair

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(Host) How did Howard Dean put together the winning strategy to take charge of the Democratic National Committee? VPR’s Bob Kinzel takes a look at the key elements of Dean’s successful plan.

(Sound from 2003 presidential primary campaign) “Howard! Howard! Howard!”

(Kinzel) It was just a year ago that Howard Dean addressed hundreds of his supporters at a crowded ballroom in Burlington to announce that he was dropping out of the Democratic presidential race. Dean told the group that although he wasn’t successful in winning the party’s nomination, he was proud of his campaign’s accomplishments:

(Dean) “What we did show is that by standing up and telling the truth and not worrying about polls and focus groups you could actually get support in this country from voters.”

(Kinzel) Dean used the same message in his campaign to become the new DNC chair. The effort often resembled the early stages of his presidential campaign when Dean constantly met with small numbers of voters in Iowa.

There are 447 members of the DNC. Vermont Democratic Party Chairman Peter Mallary says Dean’s strategy was simple: talk directly to as many of these members as possible:

(Mallary) “This was person to person politics and Howard Dean is very good at that and he used those skills on the phone primarily. I heard a wonderful story through the grapevine today of somebody who heard Howard Dean on the other end of the phone and thought it was one of those robo-messages and just paused and laughed and then finally believed it was actually him because he’d made that kind of contact with hundreds of delegates.”

(Kinzel) When Dean entered the DNC race, he was far from a shoo-in. He faced six other candidates, including some former members of Congress.

Regional meetings of the DNC were held throughout the country to give the candidates an opportunity to talk with local members. At the meetings, Dean emphasized his organizational skills more than his policy positions. He cited his ability to raise money using the Internet and his campaign’s success in bringing new people into the political process. Dean stressed the need to rebuild the party from the grassroots up and he pledged to work closely with local officials.

Dean’s message resonated with many DNC members because a lot of these state officials were very unhappy with the DNC leadership back in Washington. So while key national Democratic leaders opposed Dean, many local members embraced him. Jay Parmley is the chairman of the Democratic Party in Oklahoma:

(Parmley) “Howard Dean understands that you can’t win the presidency in 19 states, that there are multiple races in all 50 states plus our territories and we should have a national strategy that helps every state. And that is a radical shift. It’s almost an about-face. It’s a very different approach than what we’ve had certainly in the last eight years.”

(Kinzel) Vicki Walker is a former state representative in Missouri. Walker thinks Dean will energize the party’s base and help attract younger voters:

(Walker) “And when you have more control at the local level you get more people involved and that is his great strength. I look forward to a 50-state primary for the presidential election, which is exactly what we need. I look forward to the energy and the young people he’s going to bring back to the party and watch out!”

(Kinzel) There were two key turning points in Dean’s campaign. First, long time party activist Harold Ickes, who is closely associated with Bill and Hillary Clinton, announced his support for Dean. Then the association of state party chairs rejected the recommendation of their executive committee to support one of Dean’s rivals. Instead the group voted to back Dean by a three to one margin.

Some of the party’s more moderate members are concerned that Dean is viewed as a northeast liberal and that this perception will hurt the party, particularly in the south, and make it easier for Republicans to elect candidates in these states.

Wayne Dowdy is the chair of the Mississippi Democratic Party. He’s a lawyer in Magnolia, Mississippi. Dowdy thinks Dean’s position on key social issues are hardly liberal and he thinks many southerners appreciate Dean’s forthrightness:

(Dowdy) “On abortion he’s identical to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudy Guiliani – and are the Republicans going to excuse them from their party? On the gay union issues his stands are somewhat similar to those of Vice President Dick Cheney – is Dick Cheney going to be kicked out of the Republican Party because of that liberal stand? The liberal tag won’t stick.”

(Kinzel) Dean’s first order of business is to move into his new office this week and then meet with dozens of DNC staff to lay the groundwork for his new approach for the organization.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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