Off and running: Howard Dean hits South Beach on his way to Washington
Off and running: Howard Dean hits South Beach on his way to Washington
Steve Satterwhite

The Great Liberal Hope

"No names," insisted Bud Russell. That was the first ground rule if Kulchur wanted to attend a private $1000-a-head South Beach fundraiser for former Vermont governor Howard Dean's presidential campaign. Normally Russell would be thrilled with the publicity. The Atlanta-based financial consultant and Democratic Party activist has made it his personal mission to ensure that come July 2004 and the party convention, its triumphant nominee is Dean. To that end he's been crisscrossing the Southeast, drumming up support from the gay community -- particularly its wealthier figures, many of whom, like Russell, keep second homes in South Florida.

"There are going to be some people there who are still in the closet," Russell cautioned of this Dean fundraiser at the home of prominent gay party promoter Jeffrey Sanker. "They may not be comfortable with having their names printed in the newspaper." But as Kulchur began to explain that he's not interested in outing anyone's sexual orientation, Russell chuckled. "No, no," he broke in. "Everybody's out of the closet about being gay. These are Bob Graham backers who are closeted about supporting Dean."

Russell was only partly joking. As Kulchur reported this past October, in some circles Florida Sen. Bob Graham's presidential bid is viewed as coy positioning for the vice-presidential slot on the eventual Democratic ticket. The 2004 campaign's opening battles -- the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary -- may be nine months away, but the race among leading Democratic hopefuls is already in full swing. And no candidate has more buzz right now than Dean, from both media pundits and grassroots volunteers.

"I am Howard Dean and I'm here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," the ex-gov announced this past February, drawing a visceral response from those despondent over the Dems' attempt to refashion themselves as amorphous centrists. To the left-leaning faithful, Dean is nothing less than the Great Liberal Hope. He's for rolling back President Bush's tax cuts and enacting universal healthcare coverage. He unabashedly supports a woman's right to abortion, even controversial "partial birth" abortions. He offers no caveats about maintaining affirmative action. And in a move that made him a national hero to the gay community, as governor of Vermont (a position he held for an unprecedented eleven years before choosing to run for president) he signed a marriage-style "civil union" law. Gay couples in Vermont now have the same rights to employee benefits, child custody, inheritances, and hospital visitations as heterosexual couples.

But it's the enthusiastic support of antiwar activists that has truly buoyed Dean, grabbing headlines in New York and San Francisco as the size of his campaign events dwarf the Democratic competition. Dean continually reminds audiences that he's the only Democratic candidate to oppose invading Iraq: "I didn't support the president on Iraq, and I'm not ashamed of it."

"When I was back in my twenties, the Vietnam War was going on," Dean recalled at a New Hampshire rally last month. "There was a lot of opposition to that war. And in this state, in 1968, there was a senator named Eugene McCarthy who drove an incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson, out of the race.... And that's going to happen again."

Much of the Democratic Party's leadership, however, identifies Dean with a different Vietnam-era crusader: George McGovern. Thanks to a groundswell of primary support from antiwar activists and younger liberals, McGovern leapfrogged over the party's more moderate favorites to win the 1972 presidential nomination. Yet in the subsequent election against Richard Nixon, he proved to be so detached from the American body politic that he led Democrats to their most overwhelming defeat of the postwar era. In the process, many of the party's core constituencies were so alienated they weren't pulled back into the fold until Bill Clinton's ascendancy.

Democratic Party insiders are fearful of replaying 1972 and returning to the political wilderness, particularly as Dean sheds his dark-horse status. A recent New Hampshire poll has Dean tied for first place with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry at 21 percent. None of the other presumed front-runners -- John Edwards, Richard Gephardt, or Joseph Lieberman -- even breaks into double digits.

Also the $2.6 million Dean has raised so far is much more than analysts predicted. And though it's eclipsed by Kerry's $7 million and Edwards's $7.4 million, Dean's war chest is still more than enough to keep his operation rolling.

Of course, with the fall of Baghdad and the resulting disarray of the antiwar movement, it remains to be seen if Dean's momentum will slow. But Dean himself has not let images of Iraqis dancing in the streets temper his criticism of Bush's war plans. "We've gotten rid of him -- I suppose that's a good thing," he said of Saddam Hussein at a Washington, D.C., candidates' forum last week. "But there's going to be a long period when the United States is going to be maintaining Iraq, and that's going to cost this country's taxpayers a lot of money that could be spent on schools and kids."

As outlined in a new position paper, Dean's own vision of reconstructing Iraq calls for control by the United Nations, not the U.S. military. "I reject the notion that the United States can put Iraq back together alone with the help of Britain and presumably Eritrea and Uzbekistan as part of the coalition of the willing," he scoffed. "Whatever else he may be, Donald Rumsfeld is no Douglas MacArthur."

It's easy to see why so many people are jazzed about Howard Dean. Inside Jeffrey Sanker's high-rise condo, the only thing more striking than the view of the Beach's southern tip was Dean's command of the room. About 50 people gathered in a semicircle facing him as he laid into all things Dubya. "This president has the same economic policy as Argentina: borrow and spend, borrow and spend," he said to knowing laughter before moving on to the issue dear to this crowd's heart: the gay "civil union" bill he signed into law six months before running for re-election in 2000.

"When I signed that bill, 60 percent of the state was against it," he explained. "But I knew that if I was willing to sell out the rights of a whole group of people, just to get elected, then I was wasting my time in public service. I spent the next few weeks talking to a whole lot of pissed-off people around the state, but I won by the same margin as my last election, and against a better-financed opponent."

The key, he concluded, is to do what's right and "stick to your guns." People respect someone who's very clear about his beliefs, even if they personally disagree. And though the 54-year-old, self-described WASP isn't shy about his patrician roots -- Park Avenue-raised and Yale-educated before ditching Wall Street for medical school and a private practice in Vermont -- he avowed that "equal rights are for everyone, not just your friends and the people you play golf with."

It was a bravura performance, full of confidence and singular in its contrast to the effete manner most associate with modern-day liberalism. Little wonder, then, that more than a few wags have begun calling Dean the West Wing candidate, seeing him as that television show's fictional president come to life: a former New England governor with both gravitas and a liberal heart.

"For a Democrat, his delivery is unusually forceful, his body language almost cocksure," wrote William Powers in The National Journal. "Next to the rest of the Democratic field, who tend toward a soft-and-squishy rhetorical style, he can seem refreshingly robust."

Yet for all his fire-breathing attacks on Republicanism, Dean is an old-school fiscal conservative. "You cannot have social justice without a balanced budget," he declared at Sanker's, and his record as governor is a testament to that conviction. "For his entire term, the left wing of our party called him a Republican," recounted Vermont Democratic business leader Harlan Sylvester to the Wall Street Journal, citing Dean's refusal to abolish spending caps -- even cutting taxes during the late-Nineties revenue boom while liberals were howling for further social expenditures.

That same iconoclasm extends to foreign policy. While the "no blood for oil" camp may love his pronouncements on Iraq, they'll be less cheered by his take on the Palestinian peace process. He has little patience for the "blame Israel" school of thought common to most leftists.

After Dean finished speaking at Sanker's condo, a grizzled, fiftyish fellow stepped forward and delivered a harangue about the Israeli government. After a dramatic pause, he growled at Dean: "Your wife is Jewish. So I want to know -- are you with Likud or are you with the Jewish Labor Party?"

The room fell silent, jarred by the anti-Semitic tone. But as worried glances were exchanged, Dean didn't miss a beat. "Well, I'm not an Israeli citizen, so neither," he quipped to relieved laughter. Most aspirants for higher office would gamely move on, but Dean wasn't finished. He added that, like Bush, he'd refuse to talk to PLO leader Yasser Arafat. And he supported the Israeli army's construction of a "security fence" physically dividing Palestinian communities on the West Bank from Israel proper. He's convinced it's the best way to isolate extremists and move forward to a two-state solution. It was a Likudnik position offered up to a largely peacenik crowd. Not exactly a typical political tactic. But then Dean is hardly a typical politician.

Sitting with Kulchur afterward, Dean was still visibly pumped. Waves of energy seemed to ripple off him. The subject of his self-comparisons to Eugene McCarthy sparked him to practically leap out of his chair. "I said that once," he grimaced with a shake of his head. "Thanks to Lexis-Nexis" -- a sprawling news database -- "everybody reads it and repeats it!" But he wasn't about to stop glorying in his outsider status. When Kulchur suggested that the Democrat he may most resemble is George McGovern, Dean immediately flipped the equation.

"I think I'm the only Democrat who can beat George Bush," he countered firmly. "People don't like this president because of his policies. People like him because he has a clear message and he knows exactly who he is. Bill Clinton said the American people will always vote for someone who is strong and wrong before they will vote for someone who is weak and right. Most Democrats will say anything to get elected ... and that's why we lose."

On the matter of "strong and wrong," Kulchur returned to Dean's opposition to the war in Iraq. In lieu of unilateral force, Dean has spoken of Clintonian "constructive engagement." He foresees a "Marshall Plan" for the Middle East as the best way to combat radical Islamists: massive economic programs to help build vibrant middle classes throughout the region, which in turn would foster currents of democracy. It's a nice idea but it seems like little more than wishful thinking, particularly when Dean told Kulchur that Jordan is proof of this notion's merit.

Jordan, an oasis of stability compared with many of its neighbors, is still a dictatorship, one in which al Qaeda sympathizers are kept under control only by the apparatus of a police state. And despite being flooded with billions of dollars in U.S. aid, even ostensible American allies such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia remain both brutally repressive and hotbeds for Islamic fascism. So how is merely dumping more money on these governments going to change anything?

Alas, that would be a question for another day. Dean's aides swooped in -- he was late for his appearance at Nerve.

Follow that car! Dean and his entourage piled into a silver sedan -- no limousine liberals here -- and sped off while Kulchur and a photographer weaved through traffic after them. Dean was en route to his 6:30 p.m. speech at Nerve, a recently opened Beach nightclub hosting a fete in his honor. The event's organizers had been hoping for a turnout similar to the packed frenzy that greeted Janet Reno's Level appearance during her gubernatorial run last year. And by scheduling his appearance to coincide with "Sperm" -- a new early-evening tea dance hosted by Jeffrey Sanker -- Dean's people had been predicting a standing-room-only throng of 300 gay partiers, antiwar folks, and local pols all cheering their man on.

Unfortunately, while the association of Sanker's name is usually enough to fill a club, the shirtless masses were curiously absent at Nerve. Only about two dozen people wandered about, hollering into each other's ears amid the thumping house music and flashing lights, trading explanations for the empty club. What was to blame: Poor publicity? A lack of local liberals? "Nobody on South Beach knows where Vermont is," cracked Dean volunteer Lorenzo Lebrija.

Kulchur walked out to the street just as Dean's car zipped past and several campaign workers shouted out in recognition. But as the minutes ticked by, the candidate himself was still missing in action. Back inside, one of Dean's staffers ominously pointed out Kulchur to a volunteer, who then asked Kulchur to leave: "This event is closed to the media."

It was an odd turnabout. Moreover there was no action here to be ejected from. Kulchur refused to leave without an explanation, which soon produced an even stranger announcement. Owing to a "scheduling problem," Dean would not be able to speak -- he was making a dash for the airport. One woman angrily demanded her money back as campaign staffers broke the news to the remaining stragglers.

Were Dean's staffers worried about losing face if such a meager display of support were reported? "He could have at least come in for five minutes, just to speak with people personally," remarked Kate Bono, a 26-year-old Miami social psychologist and disappointed Dean booster. Danny, a drag queen roused from bed specifically for the occasion by Nerve co-owner Rudolf Pieper (at the ungodly hour of 6:00 p.m., no less), was even less forgiving. Raising a cross eyebrow beneath his blond wig, he snapped, "For this I put on my heels?"

Perhaps sensing some looming bad press, just ten minutes later, Dean was on his cell phone with Kulchur, ready to answer a few more questions -- though whether he was being chauffeured to his flight or relaxing at the Biltmore Hotel with the rest of his staff was unclear.

"We do low-end fundraisers all the time," Dean said, dismissing any thoughts of disappointment over the lackluster crowd at Nerve. He was more interested in discussing campaign strategy. "Half of [Ralph] Nader's votes will go to me," he predicted, a significant pool of support overlooked by many. Bob Graham as his vice-prez? "He would definitely be on the short list." Getting his message out with limited funds? "Be very clear."

On that note, Kulchur circled back to one of the centerpieces of Dean's public persona -- his courageous endorsement of gay "civil unions." In Sanker's living room he stressed that as president he'd ensure federal benefits flowed to gay couples in states that passed "civil union" laws similar to Vermont's. But he wouldn't enact a federal "civil union" law. The more Kulchur mulled it over, the bigger the loophole seemed to grow.

"I'm not anxious to have more federal intrusion," Dean explained, launching into a defense of states' rights that eerily recalled Southern segregationist governors during the Sixties. But what if some governors, citing the wishes of their constituents, ignored President Dean and simply refused to pass "civil union" laws for gays? "We'll deal with that then," he said testily. "I don't have a plan."

You'll deal with that then? Aren't you the candidate who doesn't stick to safe answers?

"You're now beginning to tick me off," Dean bristled before returning to his measured argument against "too much federal power." Kulchur pressed on over Dean's protests, invoking the image of Alabama Gov. George Wallace embracing the mantle of states' rights as he literally blocked a university doorway to bar a black student's entry, stepping aside only after President Kennedy called in troops. If a president is unwilling to use federal power to enforce civil rights -- for blacks or gays -- how are things ever going to change? "Look, you go ask any of the other candidates for president if they support civil unions!" Dean shouted angrily.

But an awful lot of people in the gay community think a Dean presidency means civil unions will be legalized nationwide. They're going to be mighty disappointed in you when they find out you're waffling.

This, apparently, was the line you cannot cross with Dean. A typical politician would now demur to an aide, issue a platitude ("A pleasure speaking with you"), or just hang up the phone. But again, Dean is no typical pol.

"Don't you ever talk to me like that!" he roared. Kulchur, taken aback, fell silent. But an enraged Dean was just getting started: "I've risked my political career on this issue! I had to wear a bulletproof vest when I was campaigning in some parts of Vermont -- how dare you say that I haven't stood up for this community!"


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