Rosow attended that fateful and volatile DNC gathering with a group called the Chicago Area Draft Resisters, or CADRE, which had been publishing an underground newspaper in her high school. The sight of the activists in action brought on Rosow's faith crisis.
"I saw they were becoming exactly the thing they were rebelling against," she says. "They only wanted to shift the power to themselves."
Disillusioned, Rosow dropped out of political activism, went about her business, played sax with some jazz bands in Chicago. She eventually moved to New Orleans to complete her master's degree in social work, marry and go into private practice in psychotherapy. But now her faith has mended, stronger than before. She is ready to give her heart to the Democratic Party, but this time she's no kid. She's walking in with her eyes open and with a more pointed outrage. The reason for her return is what she calls the stolen election of 2000 and her disgust for the Bush administration, the Patriot Act, the war on Iraq, everything.
"My therapist told me if you accommodate craziness, you become crazy. And I thought we were accommodating craziness," she says. "I just got tired of yelling at the television, and I thought I am not the smartest, hippest person in this country. There has to be other people who think this way. Where are they?"
This past summer Rosow began trolling the Internet, looking for like-minded, frustrated idealists. She reached Howard Dean's presidential campaign site and began reading. She exchanged emails with Dean supporters and cyber-wandered onto Meetup.com, a site that introduces people with a common interest, anything from Chihuahuas to Wicca, so they can meet and get to know each other. It's a simple and inexpensive mechanism that Dean has exploited ingeniously.
Rosow now volunteers for Dean and co-formed Dean For Louisiana. "He is the timely candidate for our times," she says repeatedly, like a mantra. Rosow also repeats, "Dean has said it: He's here to represent the democratic wing of the Democratic Party." And like her candidate, she neglects to attribute the phrase to the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, who actually said it first. As in Vermont, so in Louisiana. Such niceties fall by the wayside when you're running a presidential campaign, especially one of such startling increase. A recent glance at the Dean For America site shows that over the past year the campaign has tallied 580,556 grassroots supporters and $40 million in contributions. At press time, a Google search of the phrase "Dean juggernaut" yields 916 results.
(It should be noted here that "juggernaut" derives from an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu whose idol, when hauled in a large cart during religious rites, aroused such an ecstasy of devotion in his followers that they threw themselves beneath the wheels and were crushed.)
Rosow also volunteered to host a New Orleans Dean meetup and brought her husband, Ben. Before too long, Rosow found herself in yet another meeting where she and other Dean supporters were trying to decide if they wanted to call themselves "co-chairs" or "coordinators." The distinction felt important to the language-sensitive Rosow, who also says she dislikes the cute nicknames "Deanies" or "Deaniacs." Too patronizing. In any event, these local Dean supporters were organizing themselves on their own initiative and without much direction from the Dean campaign headquarters in Vermont.
Rosow receives a slew of emails every day from the official campaign staff in Vermont -- but these are suggestions, not instructions. When grassroots volunteers request permission to do something in Dean's name, the national campaign staff says they neither give nor deny permission. All the ideas, energy and direction of the local campaigns come from the ground up. This is a fairly radical organizing principle -- none of the other candidates have relinquished this much of the top-down method. It has also produced a wave of what therapists like Rosow call "self-empowerment." Meaghan Charkowick, a 26-year-old graduate student in sociology and now-local fundraising coordinator, puts it best when she says, "I realized that if I waited for permission to do anything, nothing would get done."
Rosow became involved this past summer. Since then, the local Dean group has been growing so quickly it's hard to keep track of the exact number of people in the campaign. There are groups in Baton Rouge and about 50 people meeting for Dean in Shreveport, catching up on the Wesley Clark contingent, which has been strong in that city. In New Orleans, the meetups spill out beyond the usual coffeehouse limits. Now they have one monthly "mama meetup" for active members and "baby meetups" for new members.
The active members are working on long-term projects, such as fundraising or the Krewe of Dean, which is a van full of Louisiana for Dean people who are at the moment traveling to the Iowa caucus, replete with beads, jester hats and Mardi Gras music.
The next challenge for this Internet-driven campaign is to introduce Dean to voters who don't have computers. That can only be done the old-fashioned way, by going door to door. Also, the local campaign has attracted few African Americans; so far, the local Dean meetups have been mostly white. That trend may shift now that state Rep. Arthur Morrell, current member and former chair of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, has become state chair of Louisiana for Dean.
Most Dean for Louisiana members have little or no political experience, but the campaign's momentum has been boosted by the addition of a couple of experienced campaigners. Community organizer and Dillard University instructor Russell Henderson works as lobbyist for Planned Parenthood and several other family-welfare organizations. Before he could vote, Henderson campaigned for Robert Kennedy at Louisiana State University. He's earned the distinction of having his life threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, and he organized local presidential campaigns for Teddy Kennedy in 1980 and Jesse Jackson in 1984.
Even at the large meetups, Henderson rarely appears without his cell phone pressed to his ear and his reading glasses perched in the frazzled gray nest of hair atop his head. He mutters in deep concentration with one hand cupped over the mouthpiece. It's unclear if this is to filter ambient noise or to prevent people from reading his lips. Either way, Henderson appears to be engaged in top-secret strategizing at all times.
The other self-described "old war horse" of the group is Phyllis Johnson, who began her lifelong devotion to the political arena in 1962, when she joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Syracuse, N.Y. She was 14. In the ensuing years, she has worked as a lobbyist and headed the New York State Coalition for Health and Welfare. Now the media coordinator of Dean for Louisiana, she possesses many talents, among them a unique gift for silencing a noisy room full of people, by booming "Quiet! Please!" Johnson makes the word "please" sound like a command you must obey or die, with an inflection that recalls Norman Mailer's remark of Bella Abzug: "She had a voice that could boil the fat off a taxicab driver's neck."
Johnson deploys her vocal abilities one balmy evening outside Cafe Brasil during a Dean fundraising event. "It's tacky!" thunders Johnson. "They have every right to be there, but it's just tacky!"
Her black T-shirt features the words, "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?" and her earrings are two tiny dangling ruby slippers. Her face, however, is a dark storm cloud. A group of John Kerry supporters have crashed the Dean event to hand out their own literature.
It could be any typical, crowded night on Frenchmen Street. Inside, Iris May Tango is about to take the stage; on the sidewalk, people lean on parked cars without appearing too particular about whether their beer has turned too warm to be any good. All seems normal except for the folding card tables -- the stock in trade of grassroots political organizing -- set up outside the club. These are laden with flyers giving the "talking points" of Dean's campaign. A sign on the door announces, "The Doctor is in!"
Meagan Charkowick got the idea for this fundraiser in the middle of the night, which is when she gets a lot of her good ideas. She just woke up and said to herself, "Oh my God! Dean totally rocks! That's it!" Hence the name for this concert, Dean Rocks!, featuring such notables as Theresa Andersson and Charmaine Neville. When Charkowick put the Dean Rocks! idea out on the national Dean blog, it spread like a virus. Even now as Charkowick plans the next New Orleans Dean Rocks!, other Dean Rocks! are gearing up in cities all over the country.
One slurry passerby stops at the tables to ask Dean's position on legalizing marijuana. "What about personal use?" he clarifies. "Like I'm in my living room just chillin'." Johnson replies that the doctor advocates medicinal use only. "Oh, all right, OK," says the man. "That's not my highest priority, but I like to know if he has an open mind."
Someone is plucking anxiously on Charkowick's sleeve to tell her about the Kerry supporters. "Just let me take care of this," Charkowick says, keeping her cool. She turns back to the volunteers working the table to finish explaining the Federal Election Commission rules on contributions.
Charged whispers flame through the Dean ranks -- it's hard not to interpret this appearance from the Kerry camp as a hostile incursion. It's also hard to remember to be civil -- even when you're reminding yourself that you're all supposed to be playing on the same Democratic team. Beneath the polite rhetoric, however, simmers the reality, which is that at this stage of the game, they are all vying for the same prize: the Democratic nomination. So the grassroots folks tend to display the same grabby, territorial sort of schoolyard scrambling as ... well, as the candidates themselves.
The Kerry people are clustering around the corner, somewhat out of sight of the entrance to the club. They have not yet plunged into the thick of the Dean crowd. They appear a little nervous. After all, they are piggybacking on someone else's fundraiser.
"We're here because we have noticed that when you talk to Dean people, you find they are uninformed about his positions," says Tina Thompson. "They can't discuss his policies coherently. Dean people just want to discuss the cool great parties." Thompson first considered Dean, but believes Kerry is the only one who can beat Bush. Thompson is energetic and precise; she not only runs her own book design firm, but she also does exhaustive research, which she feels differentiates her from Dean supporters, and consequently has an encyclopedic grasp of Kerry's policies and why they're better than Dean's, which she shares with anyone who gives her half a minute of their time. She talks fast, too.
Thompson introduces the other Kerry people who have found each other through Meetup.com. Chase Billingham is a Tulane sophomore who switched from a political science major to French because he couldn't stand the other political science majors. Sandra Dearie is an Avon representative and former Reagan Republican. Ruth Cecire, a recent transplant from New York City with a doctorate in social ethics, has been active in feminist and social justice causes for the past three decades. For Cecire, politics is so personal that before she agrees to date a guy, she first quizzes him on his thoughts about Paul Wellstone. If the guy gives a wrong answer, then that guy can just go date himself.
"And this is my boyfriend, Steve," says Thompson, finishing the round of introductions. "He's here because I told him to be here."
"I'm wearing the buttons. I've been deputized," says Steve. Indeed, he is covered in Kerryana, and he raises his beer in salute to the evening, to Frenchmen Street, to this glorious Democratic process that embraces all viewpoints. At that moment, a man on a bicycle speeds past and screams, "America is Satan! The jihad is coming!"
Billingham picks up the thread. "Dean hasn't had a job in two years. He's the novelty candidate, a media darling," he says. "We need a president with foreign policy experience who isn't such a hothead. So we're hoping to find Dean supporters here who are somewhat disillusioned with him."
"I find it strange that Dean people are so happy," says Thompson.
Monisha Sujan is one of the first to break the ice. Sujan, who is on leave from her studies at Columbia University to work for Dean, steps up to Billingham and says she hopes they'll all be working together in March, after the primaries. Sujan is careful to not imply the Kerry people will eventually be working for Dean. Visibly relieved by Sujan's diplomacy, Billingham takes this as an invitation to progress deeper into the Dean throng. At more than 6 feet in height (like his candidate) and wearing a campaign T-shirt, Billingham is an unmissable target in this pro-Dean crowd. Soon he literally has his back against the wall, as he bravely displays the name Kerry splashed across his chest. Rosow comes over to give him "an A for effort." He thanks her as his gaze sweeps the crowd, looking for Dean people who might benefit from a good talk about Kerry. How can he tell who's wavering on Dean just by looking at them?
"There's no way of telling," he shouts above the party noise. "Just have to stand here and wait."
There are two guys who have been muttering to themselves and throwing decidedly pissed-off glances over their shoulders at Billingham. Finally one of them makes an aggressive opening gambit. "Are you here to convert us?" he asks. Billingham eagerly launches his rejoinder. He keeps his voice even and reasonable, not confrontational. One of the guys expresses the opinion that Dean is the better candidate because "he's gritty, and he'll get in Bush's face. Kerry doesn't have that kind of fight in him." Billingham comes right back thumping the Kerry line, but nicely, calmly, like a pro. Gradually it comes out that they have a lot in common -- the two guys are medical students at Tulane, not much older than Billingham. They're all white male New Englanders, like their candidates. By the end of the conversation they're practically best friends.
Billingham closes by tossing one last bouquet to his new friends: "I don't doubt Howard Dean would be a great president, but if I have a choice I'll pick the guy who has more experience, which is Kerry." He's contradicting what he had said about Dean just 20 minutes earlier. In fact, when surrounded by other Kerry supporters, Billingham dismisses Dean with undisguised contempt. But when faced with resistance, he tells his audience enough of what they want to hear to get them to think favorably about the rest of what he has to say. John Kerry should be proud to have such an agile rhetorician in his camp.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the sidewalk, Ruth Cecire favors a more direct confrontational style. She's currently going head-to-head with Dean supporter Charley Rothermel. With just a card table between them, it's getting ugly. After a sarcastic wrangle about Kerry's record with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the whole thing dissolves into a pointless competition to see who can get the last word. Cecire asks Rothermel how can he support Dean when the candidate hasn't proven himself yet.
"That's my faith in him," says Rothermel. "Like a lot of people believe in God."
"Oh, you think Dean is like God," she mocks.
Rothermel tells her he's not so sure she understands the meaning of faith. Cecire turns and walks, but then quickly returns. "That was snide," she says. "I'm not being nasty to you."
Rothermel does not answer. He appears chastened -- but not much.
"Disappointment is inevitable to some degree in politics," says Bradley Cousins. Such weariness is surprising coming from a 21-year-old. He is a senior at Tulane, a political science major, but don't ask him what he's doing after graduation because he doesn't know. Young though he is, Cousins has earned his campaign stripes. He began at age 14 when he helped his mom distribute literature for Paul Wellstone in their home state of Minnesota. More recently, he worked on Kathleen Blanco's gubernatorial campaign, and there have been plenty of other campaigns in between. Yet despite the looming potential for disappointment, Cousins says he wouldn't want to do anything else. Political activism is in his blood, and he loves canvassing. "What other job is there where you could potentially get paid -- well, actually I don't get paid very often -- to go around talking to people? It's too much fun to stop."
Cousins has formed a group called Tulane Students for Gephardt because he thinks the candidate from Missouri "is the Democrat of substance, not style." He says he has about eight other Tulane students with him on this. The group's activities were stalled by the winter break between semesters, but they plan to start spreading the word about Gephardt to other student groups and anyone who will listen. Cousins characterizes the typical Gephardt supporter as "incredibly thoughtful. They don't just attach to the first candidate who presents himself. They're not as rabid as the supporters for the other candidates."
The covers on Gephardt's official press packets feature the warning: "Fear the Turtle!" Cousins, too, speaks with such careful slowness that you can almost hear him considering where to place each comma.
A local Gephardt campaign is something of a lonely job these days, as the national staff, focused on Iowa right now, isn't paying attention to the outlying regions. Cousins is sure he is the only active Gephardt organizer in Louisiana. In the hope of a little help, he called the national campaign headquarters to let them know of his plans. "They said, 'Good job. Help is on the way. But not yet,'" he says. "They did offer their moral support."
Still, there is perhaps nothing more poignant than the cry of the Dennis Kucinich supporter. "We're not dead yet," writes Raphie Rabaleis in an email update on Kucinich, who recently qualified for federal matching campaign funds -- the only good news the local grassroots group has received in quite a while.
The Kucinich group in New Orleans is small but fierce. At least their meetups are not getting canceled due to lack of interest -- as has happened with the local Lieberman, Gephardt, Sharpton and Edwards people. (On Meetup.com, if fewer than five people RSVP by email for a meetup, it gets canceled.) So the New Orleans Kucinich group has a solid five-person core: Rabaleis, Trey Santelli, Betsy Cook, Michael Verderame and Lindsay Hickman, with more showing up from time to time.
The loyalists -- "our sewing circle," as Santelli calls it -- hold their meetings in coffee shops. The business of a Kucinich gathering tends to consist of puzzling and puzzling until their puzzlers are sore. How to get Kucinich higher than 2 percent in the polls? How to make people understand he can beat an incumbent Republican? How to make people take his idea for a Department of Peace seriously? How to make it easier for people to pronounce his name?
Amidst the puzzling, there is a lot of railing against the media for deciding arbitrarily who is a "major" candidate. Discussions tend to be more philosophical than ideological -- lurching between hope and despair, leavened with rambling dissent and a pained awareness of Kucinich's place in the polls.
"Timing is everything," insists Santelli. "At this point in 1992, no one had even heard of Clinton. So it's not over yet. I'm not giving up until July in Boston," he says referring to the Democratic National Convention.
Nonetheless, even the Kucinich die-hards have to admit they are outgunned by the Dean group. So there is a lot of railing against Howard Dean, too.
Verderame, who is a vegan like his candidate, had donated $10 to the Dean campaign last year. When Dean opted out of the federal matching campaign funds, Verderame saw that as a hypocritical flip-flop because Dean had promised to stay within this campaign finance reform system. So Verderame wrote again to Dean headquarters in Vermont and asked to have his $10 back. He has not received a reply. But that is not the point really. The point is that he made his point. And that seems to be the overall point of the Kucinich campaign itself. The local group stays tough and tenuous, hanging in the fight as much for the sake of getting the candidate's message out there as to get him elected.
"OK, we've got to get some concrete ideas," says Verderame, trying to bring the meeting back into focus. Santelli says maybe they should get Ani DiFranco to give a fundraising concert for Kucinich since the singer has endorsed him.
"Oh, everyone has endorsements," says Cook.
"We have better endorsements," answers Verderame, pounding the table.
Before too long the discussion again wanders off topic to dissect Dean and why his nomination would be disastrous for the country. Santelli, who admits he has a rep among his own Kucinich pals as a conspiracy theorist, still maintains that there is some unwholesome, underground relationship between Dean and Bush, who have similar backgrounds. They both went to Yale, he points out. And it doesn't stop there. "See, I connect the dots," says Santelli.
"Those are invisible dots, Trey," says Cook, as she tears the filter from an American Spirit cigarette before lighting up -- as if to underscore just how leather-lunged the Kucinich campaign can be.
The mood in the lobby of the Lakefront airport is cheery, despite the cold rainy weather. Two little boys have placed folded cardboard "Clark '04" signs over their heads and shout repeatedly, "Hello, hello, hello." Paula Raymond, of Ms. Paula's Olde Fashion Candy, hands out pralines that she made especially for the occasion, each wrapped in cellophane with a glued-on photo of Wesley Clark. They are waiting for Clark to arrive for a rally that had been announced only a couple of days earlier. The general is stopping in New Orleans for a fundraiser, before continuing on his sweep of the South, which they're calling the "True Grits Tour."
Clark's headquarters in Little Rock got word to the local group to quickly organize this rally. Clark has chosen the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve for this campaign swing. Brian Welsh, the state volunteer coordinator, almost didn't make it to the rally because he had been spending the holidays in the Virgin Islands. So it fell to Ross Hughes, Welsh's campaign cohort, to pull together a crowd to greet the general.
"Yeah, we really had to scramble. Couldn't have come at a worse time," Hughes shouts into his cell phone as he speeds from Baton Rouge back to New Orleans. Clark had a Baton Rouge rally before his New Orleans appearance, and Hughes takes I-10 while the general flies overhead.
In the early days, the Clark supporters who found each other through Meetup.com had gathered at a French Quarter bar called La Fée Verte, which means "the green fairy." "It's supposed to mean the green fairy that you see if you've had too much pernod," explains Ray Ruiz, who attended those early meetups. "You know it's interesting, there were five people at that meeting, and four of them were gay men."
Ruiz, who served in Germany with the 3rd Infantry, believes that Clark's military experience makes him the only candidate who can credibly rebut the usual accusation that Democrats are weak on defense. Of equal importance, for Ruiz and the other men at that first meetup, is that Clark is the only candidate who seems to mean it when he says he advocates civil rights for gay people. "Of course, it was not lost on us that he is very handsome," Ruiz adds.
Now that Hughes and Welsh have taken over the direction of the local Clark movement, membership has increased, and the meetups have shifted uptown to Cooter Brown's, thus taking on a decidedly more frat house atmosphere. (Welsh has even given a bottle of Jack Daniel's to a potential supporter.) Aside from Welsh's wife, Tiffany, you don't see many women at the Clark meetups. You do, however, encounter the ubiquitous David, who asked that his last name not appear in this story. David is ubiquitous at the Dean meetups, too. David just can't make up his mind. "I'm just here to help," he says. "I like them both. I really do."
Meetups are open to the public, of course. There is no law against going to as many different candidates' meetups as you like. However, there's an unspoken assumption that if you're favoring one candidate you don't go to the meetups for the other candidates, because you might be perceived as spying. In fact, all the meetups are pretty much the same -- rousing declarations about the candidate and then talk of letter writing, phone calling and bus trips to the caucus states. All the same, loyalties quickly polarize, and the devotees don't have much patience for browsers.
David appears unfazed by this unspoken assumption. He is an affable, chatty guy, who doesn't seem to be hampered by any of the usual filters between thinking and speaking. With an innocent eagerness, he instigates discussions at the Clark meetups, weighing the merits of Dean and Clark, and doesn't seem to notice the consternation this causes Welsh, who is attempting to run a campaign here and will only allow positive Clark remarks in his presence. During one meetup, David suggests that Kerry's physical stature makes him look more presidential -- "like Abraham Lincoln" -- than the shorter Clark. Welsh moves hurriedly toward damage control.
"David used to be for Dean, but now he's with us," Welsh chides him, semi-kidding, semi-not.
"I'm not looking to be any big deal," protests David.
"Well, here at the Clark campaign, everybody's big deal," says Welsh. "We're not herding a bunch of crunchies."
Welsh and the other committed Clark supporters bear David's presence because they have to. They can't silence him, and they don't have the power to banish him. Furthermore, they don't know yet if he's with them or against them, and so they can't afford to alienate him or anyone for that matter. By contrast, the Dean group, which is like a 3,000-pound gorilla, doesn't seem to notice or care that David has been moving back and forth across the Dean/Clark line.
David is there by the time Clark finally steps up to the microphone at the airport rally, even though he admits he has finally taken a stand. "Don't tell anyone," he says quietly. "But I have decided I'm for Dean. But I still like Clark. I really do. That's why I'm here. I really want to support him."
In all, about 40 people are here to greet Clark, many holding homemade signs. Hughes and Welsh, both wearing ties and blue blazers, have done as much as they can to whip the supporters into a modest frenzy. Clark spends about 20 minutes giving a boilerplate speech in which he expresses his love of guns and democracy, while also making it clear that Bush represents none of that.
Welsh stands off to the side during the speech, and does not move his gaze from the general's face. Welsh nods his head vigorously up and down when Clark says something he agrees is true and vigorously side to side when Clark says something he agrees is not true. At the end, people cheer as Clark moves through the small crowd to shake hands. The candidate slips away to get on his plane. A few people follow him out the door, and they stand in the pelting rain, as plane engines fill the air with deafening screams. They hold their signs aloft so Clark can see them as he flies away. One woman accidentally holds the "St. Tammany for Clark" sign upside down. But no matter. The general will surely get the point.
At the meetups for Dean there is a lot of talk about Howard Dean. And at the meetups for the other candidates, there is also a lot of talk about Howard Dean. Whether you like him or not, Dean has so far been defining this election. The startling revelation of the Dean campaign is how many thousands of people are jumping at the chance to relinquish the numbing safety of their cynicism. Cock-eyed optimism is the fuel that drives a grassroots campaign -- what else could get people off the couch and onto a bus headed toward snowy Iowa?
Optimism is exhilarating, creative, fun -- and yet the exhilaration always drags behind it the persistent shadow of risk. Consider Nancy Rosow, who has poured both time and faith into Howard Dean. What if that faith turns out to be misplaced? What if she succeeds in putting Dean in office and he breaks his promises? What if he just shifts the power to himself? What if he becomes the very thing she had worked to overcome?
"If it all turns out to be a sham, then I'll be very angry," she says sharply. "And then I'll go to work just as hard to get him out of office."
In addition to sparking optimism, Dean is creating a whole new generation of political activists. People who have never taken part in a campaign are now mastering a new skill set. At Dean's own invitation, they are learning how to put someone in the White House. That means they might also learn how to put someone out of the White House. Fair warning to Dean and anyone else who might want to be president.
- State Democratic Party executive director Scott Arceneaux addresses a Dean meetup. The Dean camp now divides its gatherings into "mama meetups" for active members and "baby meetups" for new members.
- The faithful turn up to cheer Clark in New Orleans. At first, supporters gathered at the French Quarter bar La Fe Verte; meetups have now moved to Cooter Brown's.
- Gen. Wesley Clark (pictured with state Attorney General Charles Foti) addressed an airport crowd as part of his "True Grits Tour." Behind him are Clark campaigners Tiffany Welsh, Ross Hughes and Jamal Simmons.
- Kerry volunteers Ruth Cecire, Tina Thompson and Sandra Dearie work the Saturday morning farmers' market crowd. For Cecire, politics is so personal that before she agrees to date a guy, she first quizzes him on his thoughts about Paul Wellstone.
- Jane Cassels writes pro-Dean letters to voters in Iowa and New Mexico. Other active projects include the Krewe of Dean, which is at the moment en route to the Iowa caucus, replete with beads, jester hats and Mardi Gras music.