The early days

Inside stories from an improbable presidential campaign

Sept. 5, 2001

BRATTLEBORO — As Howard Dean plotted out a potential campaign, he struggled with another important decision - whether he was ready to leave the governor's office.

Leaving a job you've enjoyed for more than a decade isn't easy to do, even if you are thinking about running for president. But by fall, after months of going back and forth, Howard was relaxed, upbeat, and clearly comfortable as he told a small crowd of local news media, staff, and other onlookers gathered in front of the Vermont State House that he would not be running for re-election in 2002.

After, we walked back to his office. Howard was happy, but I felt otherwise. Howard asked me why and I told him that it was emotional knowing that something was coming to an end. His response was, “It's not the end, it's just the beginning.”

The announcement surprised the press and public. But it didn't take long for people to speculate about what Howard would do in the future.

Howard had done nothing publicly to signal that he might run for president, but that didn't stop the Rutland Herald from running a front page story, “President Dean? Not That Crazy an Idea.”

The Boston Globe jumped in by editorializing that “should he run for president, Vermont's civil-unions law will take some explaining in less tolerant corners of the land. But a candidate running a campaign based on expanded access to health care, protection of the environment and equal rights would at least have something to talk about.”

Dec. 19, 2001

The American Prospect, a monthly political magazine, described Howard's political action committee, Fund for a Healthy America: “Compared with the burgeoning and well- oiled machines being assembled by some of his would-be Democratic rivals, Dean's PAC is charmingly modest.”

That was an understatement. We began 2002 without an office or a staff other than Howard (the PAC's chairman) and me (the PAC's treasurer). Our only other assets:

1. A little more than $110,000 in the bank.

2. A cardboard box.

When we formed Fund for a Healthy America we didn't have a national database of supporters to draw upon, much less a computer.

The closest thing was a well-worn cardboard box filled with hundreds of business cards, letters, and scraps of paper containing the names and contact information of people Howard had met during his political career.

He had made many of the contacts through his work as chairman of the National Governors Association and Democratic Governors Association; others had heard him speak at events where he discussed health care, children's issues or civil unions. In 2002, Howard signed the first law in the country granting gay and lesbian couples many of the same rights and benefits as heterosexual couples, which made him a popular speaker at gay and lesbian events nationwide.

It had been close to a decade since Howard had been in touch with many of the individuals whose names were scrawled on the scraps of paper. Finding 50 manila folders - one for each state - I filed the names in alphabetical order and marked each to indicate if the individual had the potential to be a donor or an organizer.

Lack of hard drives aside, Howard was confident that he had what mattered most - a message he believed in - and he told it to anyone who would listen.

July 21, 2002

Howard's first nationally televised appearance as a presidential candidate was on NBC's Meet the Press.

He was invited to appear on the show because he was the first Democrat in the race. We recognized that it was an amazing opportunity to introduce him to Americans, but we weren't nervous about it. In the beginning, we focused on the best outcome, not the worst, something that was easy to do when we had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

It would be the first time Howard would go head to head with the show's moderator, Tim Russert, who had a reputation of being tough on his guests. We did little preparation, however. In fact, we spent more time deciding what Howard would wear than discussing what he would say.

Howard couldn't be scripted and he wasn't going to start just because he was appearing on national television, so there was no point in trying to get him to memorize answers. Howard, press secretary Sue Allen, campaign manager Joe Trippi, media consultant Steve McMahon, and I did discuss one issue, his signing of the civil unions law. At the time, it was seen as an obstacle to him winning the nomination, so we knew it was going to come up. It was a short discussion. Howard had his answer: “I signed it and I'd do it again.”

* * *

Howard, Sue, and I flew to Washington, D.C. the Saturday evening before the Sunday show to have dinner with Steve McMahon at his home in Virginia. Howard arrived carrying a plastic grocery bag filled with every tie he owned.

Before dinner, he dumped the ties onto the kitchen table so we could decide which one he would wear. Steve, Sue, and I divided them into three piles: good ties, ties that could be worn only in Vermont, and ties that needed to be destroyed.

Three ties were deemed good; more than half were sentenced to death.

Sept. 1, 2002

In September, we packed up our card tables and metal folding chairs and moved the Dean for America headquarters to Burlington. For us, the move was significant. We had a website and an expanding database. We were taking contributions online and sending email newsletters to Dean supporters weekly. And media interest in Howard was at an all-time high.

We moved out of our two 12' x 12' rooms and into a 2,500-square-foot space in a professional building. Walking into the new space for the first time made the sum total of our work hit home.

We were still a small campaign, but we weren't the same organization that was just an idea a year earlier. We now had tangible proof of our progress. An elevator took us to our office, state maps and charts filled the walls, and we looked out windows that faced the city's downtown park.

It didn't take long for the office to fill up. The day we moved, our full-time staff tripled from one to three (obviously small by most standards) and we hired a part-time fundraiser. A dozen interns from the city's five colleges, including the University of Vermont, became central to our operation.

We stuck to our frugal roots and filled the space with used furniture. Howard donated an orange couch that had been sitting in his garage for years and an old dining room table the legs of which had been gnawed on by an unknown animal.

We bought furniture from the University of Vermont, and in November we proved that price trumps party by buying desks, chairs, and wastebaskets from the newly elected Republican governor's campaign.

We traded in our one line telephone and invested in a real telephone system, one with multiple lines, voice mail, and even a hold button. We also purchased new computers in order to keep up with the online interest in Howard.

The signs of our progress were all around us, but there was one indication of future success that was hard for us to ignore. The Secret Service, the law enforcement agency that provides protection to the president of the United States, had just moved its offices into the space directly across the hall.

Feb. 21, 2003

It was the first time he addressed members of the Democratic National Committee as a presidential candidate; they didn't know what he was going to say and neither did we. He had notes on the back of an envelope, but exactly what he was going to do with them was a mystery.

After a few seconds of silence for dramatic effect he began:

“What I want to know is why in the world is the Democratic Party leadership supporting the president's unilateral attack on Iraq.

“What I want to know is why are Democratic Party leaders supporting tax cuts. The question isn't how big a tax cut should be. The question should be can we afford a tax cut at all with the largest deficit in the history of this country.

“What I want to know is why we're fighting in Congress about the Patient's Bill of Rights when the Democratic Party ought to be standing up for health care for every single American, man, woman, and child in this country.

“What I want to know is why our folks are voting for the president's No Child Left Behind bill that leaves every child behind, every teacher behind, every school board member behind, and every property tax payer behind.

“I'm Howard Dean and I'm here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party!”

The DNC members who packed the room went wild. The sound of applause, cheers, and coins rattling swirled around the room.

The crowd was on their feet, which led to a few awkward moments for the DNC officials sitting up on the stage, particularly Chairman Terry McAuliffe. Howard's speech was an indictment of Democratic leaders on a national level and the crowd was enthusiastically supporting him.

McAuliffe sat on the stage unsure of what to do. If he joined in the applause he would be agreeing with Howard, but if he didn't, he would look out of place among the screaming Democrats.

His dilemma was captured by the giant video screens set up on each side of the stage that magnified his image for all those who weren't in the front row to see it. He eventually had no choice but to stand up, his discomfort obvious by the forced smile on his face.

* * *

The Howard Dean who addressed the DNC was a Howard Dean no Vermonter had seen before. The excitement of the speech surprised many, but none more than me and the Vermont delegation at the meeting.

In Vermont, Howard was not known for his oratory skills. As governor, he gave two formal speeches each year, a budget address and a State of the State address. The dry subject matter combined with his dislike for reading from a prepared text made for a lethal combination.

The new Howard Dean was mobbed as he walked through the hotel lobby. Eager DNC members, who hadn't paid any attention to him before, lined up to shake his hand and have their pictures taken with him.

Before his speech ,we had feared that only a few of the DNC members would visit the campaign's hospitality suite, preferring instead to spend their time with the better-known candidates.

To avoid embarrassment, we enlisted the help of two Vermonters who we knew could draw a crowd: Ben & Jerry. We put a sign in the hallway offering free ice cream to anyone who came in to talk to Howard. But after the speech we didn't need the ice cream.

Howard Dean trumped Ben & Jerry.

March 1, 2003

Joe Trippi had not managed a presidential campaign before, but he brought two things to the organization: an interest in the Internet and experience organizing in Iowa. He worked in the state for Ted Kennedy in 1979, Walter Mondale in 1984, Gary Hart and Dick Gephardt in 1988, and Jerry Brown in 1992.

Joe was a character. A profile in The New York Times said this about him: “Charitable descriptions liken Mr. Trippi, 47, to an unmade bed; nastier ones compare him with the 'Peanuts' character Pigpen. His wrinkled suit coat inevitably has in its pocket one of the dozen Diet Pepsis he downs a day, while his fingers constantly replenish the cherry Skoal tobacco in his cheek.”

When Joe arrived, Howard suggested that the two of us share an office. The space was so small that the only way we could fit was to put our desks together facing each other.

Joe's habit of chewing tobacco, eating McDonald's cheeseburgers, and drinking an endless amount of Diet Pepsi drove me crazy. Because I traveled with Howard, I was rarely in Vermont, but when I was I would start the morning off picking up hamburger wrappers and empty soda cans. I would obsessively vacuum the entire area to remove the remains of dried chewing tobacco that covered everything with a layer of cherry smelling dust.

We were like the characters in the Odd Couple. Joe's habits annoyed me, and I know I had some that annoyed him, but despite our differences we got along quiet well.

But the honeymoon didn't last. Shortly after Joe arrived, we had a disagreement over how the campaign should operate, specifically what Howard's role should be. Joe wanted Howard to do everything he recommended without asking questions and without seeking input from others.

We were sitting face-to-face in our office when he asked me to use my “influence” with Howard to convince him to agree to this approach

I had worked for Howard for 13 years and knew how much he valued the opinion of others. As governor he always took the responsibility for making a decision seriously and never blindly followed anyone.

And I didn't think he should start just because he was running for president. It was, after all, his independent nature that was attracting people to his candidacy. Why change that by putting his every move in the hands of a Washington consultant?

When I made my views clear, Joe yelled at me from across the desk.

June 23, 2003

Burlington, Vermont, is Howard's hometown. He raised his family there, he did his medical internship at the city's hospital, and it was where he began his political career by representing a section of the city in the state Legislature. And there was never a doubt that it would be where he would make his campaign for the presidency official.

The last time Church Street, Burlington's pedestrian market place, was shut down for a political event was in 1995 when President Bill Clinton took a stroll down the street.

Then, Vermonters, standing behind barricades set up by the Secret Service, lined the street hoping for a glimpse of the sitting president. Now, more than 5,000 people from all around the country swarmed the street waiting anxiously to hear their candidate for president of the United States make his campaign official.

New supporters joined with Howard's earliest to celebrate the announcement. My parents, who helped Howard in 1986 when he first ran for lieutenant governor and who gave us the money to buy our first roll of stamps for Fund for a Healthy America in 2001, stood alongside new supporters from places like Washington, D.C., Michigan, and New Hampshire.

For the new supporters, the Howard Dean who energized and inspired them with his fiery speeches was the only Howard they knew.

But for Vermonters like my family, it was a side of him they had never seen before. They knew him as the man who hated to give speeches, who wore his cheapness on his sleeve (literally, when he wore his JC Penney suit), and who was known for blurting out whatever he was thinking, no matter the consequences. Now they stood alongside thousands of people who saw Howard as the hope for the future of the country.

Standing under the clear blue sky as a slight breeze blew over the market place, the crowd began celebrating long before Howard took the stage. They listened to the music that blared from speakers and enjoyed a special treat made just for the day by Ben & Jerry. They cheered as Vermont senators Jim Jeffords and Patrick Leahy talked about why they supported Howard. Things had come a long way since the two men listened politely as he first told them of his plans to run for president a year and a half earlier.

The announcement was short on glitz. A stage was set up in the middle of the street, but there was no manufactured backdrop, no blue curtain, no signs advertising the campaign's website or 1-800 number, and no risers holding cheering supporters. Instead, all that could be seen was the simple brick church that anchored one end of the street.

* * *

Howard took the stage to the thunderous applause of his supporters. The woman in the red suit standing next to him was unknown to most in the crowd. She was his wife, Judy, and when she joined him on the stage it marked her first appearance at a campaign event - ever.

Vermont doesn't have a governor's mansion and, when Howard held the state's top job, there was no expectation that a spouse would give up his or her life to serve the state in any capacity.

Judy was a practicing physician and hadn't traded the title of doctor for first lady. She made one public appearance each year. In even numbered years she'd attend the election night celebration and during odd numbered years she'd hold the Bible at Howard's inauguration.

Now she found herself standing on a stage watching more than 5,000 people cheer her husband on as he announced that he was running for the nation's highest office - a position that would make her the country's first lady.

Howard stood behind the podium and read from the text I had emailed to the office just hours earlier. He looked relaxed and casual in his red tie and pale blue shirt with its sleeves rolled up.

The crowd cheered and he grinned in response when he stated what his supporters were eager to hear, “Today I announce that I am running for president of the United States of America.”

The thousands who packed the street hung on his every word. The supporters who pressed up to the bicycle racks that held them back in the front row stared up at him, appearing mesmerized by his presence.

Those who couldn't find a space on the street leaned out of open windows three stories up. For his part, Howard looked out at the sea of blue campaign signs and smiled in delight.

While he talked about health care and a balanced budget, the speech was more about inspiration as he told the crowd, “This is a campaign to unite and empower people everywhere. It is a call to every American, regardless of party, to join together in common purpose and for the common good to save and restore all that it means to be an American.”

The 30-minute speech was interrupted by applause, cheers, and chants of “We want Dean!” from the crowd who, along with campaign signs, waved small American flags high in the air.

He ended his speech with a call to action.

With fire in his eyes he pointed to the screaming crowd and told them, “You have the power to take this country back! You have the power! You have the power! We're going to take our country back! You have the power!”

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