APRIL 24, 2006
Last year, a major Democratic donor from the 2004 presidential
campaign received a call from some operatives at Howard Dean's
Democratic National Committee (DNC). Dean was coming to town in a
few days, they told him, and they wanted to schedule a meeting.
Political fund-raisers normally make such calls a month in advance,
and so the seat-of-the-pants approach didn't go over well. "You
can't call me the week before and say, `Hey ... we'll be there
Monday, want to hang out?'" says the donor. "They had all these
fucking hippies. ... These are people that are great to raise a
few$500 checks, plan a party at a nightclub. But they're not the folks
you need to give you [the resources] to do the things you want to
Up until recently, the DNC was the last place you'd expect to find
such amateurism. Dean's immediate predecessor, Terry McAuliffe,
learned his craft from legendary House Democratic moneyman Tony
Coelho in the 1980s, then went on to become "the greatest
fund-raiser in the history of the universe," as Al Gore has
claimed. McAuliffe once grappled with a 280-pound gator to seal a
contribution from a Florida Indian tribe; he has passed many a
"three-brunch, three-lunch day," as The Washington Post has put it,
frolicking among donors. Not surprisingly, McAuliffe believed his
job as DNC chairman consisted mainly of one responsibility:
stockpiling money for the upcoming presidential election. And he
was fabulously successful at it. In 2004 alone, McAuliffe raised
$350 million, helping the DNC out-raise its GOP counterpart for the
first time ever.
But, of course, we all knew Howard Dean wasn't going to spend his
afternoons sipping Bloody Marys with the Diners Club set. In a
sense, that was exactly the point. This was a man who, after all,
based his insurgent presidential campaign on bashing the party's
Washington mandarins. What's so remarkable about Dean's brief
tenure at the DNC is not that he's stayed true to his populist
roots. It's that he's actually turned the most insider institution
in all of Democratic politics into a weapon in his battle against
the party establishment.
Symbolic of Dean's early efforts to remake the DNC was a man named
Lindsay Lewis. Lewis had spent most of the 1990s as a fund-raiser
for Dick Gephardt before eventually signing on as a midlevel Dean
staffer in 2003. After Dean dropped out of the Democratic
primaries, he hired Lewis to oversee fundraising for his grassroots
organization, Democracy for America. "There weren't a lot of people
dying to live in Burlington, Vermont, at that point in time," is how
one former Dean campaign official explains the hiring.
Dean sprung Lewis from Burlington to be the DNC's finance director
in early 2005. Not long after, Lewis and his team kicked off their
cultural revolution with a purge, sidelining key McAuliffe-era
staffers. "They didn't include a lot of the old gang ... in any
meetings, planning," says one former DNC official. "A lot of them
got frustrated and left." (Lewis says most staffers had decided to
leave before he arrived.)
But it quickly became clear that Lewis's staff had little clue about
how to court wealthy donors, which accounted for over
$100 million of McAuliffe's 2004 haul. "One day, I ran into one of
the people in finance--the high-dollar folks," says a McAuliffe
holdover not directly involved in raising money. "I said, `How's it
going?' They said, `We've got a lot of work to do to teach these
people about grassroots fund- raising.' I said, `You're in
[high-dollar work]. What are you talking about?' It was the
disconnect of a young kid who didn't understand the business." Some
major donors also became disenchanted. "I don't think [Lewis] had
the right staff in place at the time to move the agenda forward,"
says Chris Korge, the granddaddy of Florida donors.
A big part of the problem is Dean himself. Unlike McAuliffe, Dean
had little entree into the world of big-time Democratic donors when
he took over as chairman; most of the money he had raised for his
presidential campaign had come from small, online contributions.
Culturally, too, Dean remains the antithesis of a Washington
eminence. He still resides in Vermont, and, unlike McAuliffe, who
owns a home in McLean, Virginia, Dean stays at a hotel during the
night or two a week he's in town. You could stake out powerbroker
haunts like the Capital Grille or the Caucus Room for weeks before
ever seeing him.
Little surprise, then, that Dean's fund-raising take proved
disappointing in 2005. True, the DNC's
$56 million was $12 million more than the party had raised during
the last nonelection year. But McAuliffe didn't build the party's
massive donor list until 2004. The more useful measure is the
relative drop-off among the two parties from 2004 to 2005. The RNC
fell off by about $180 million; the DNC dropped nearly $300
Once every four to six weeks, Dean sits down somewhere on Capitol
Hill with the two most powerful Democrats in Washington, Senate
Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
One topic of conversation comes up regularly: the DNC's spending
priorities. Reid and Pelosi believe the party may be poised to win
back Congress after over a decade in the wilderness. They want Dean
to pony up for the cause. Dean's response to their invitation is
invariably the same, according to a senior Democratic congressional
staffer who has attended the meetings. "He'll say, `I hear you. But
that's the problem with Democrats. We have to think big.'"
It's fitting that the idea animating Dean's tenure at the DNC is a
big one. Dean, after all, effectively sacrificed his future
presidential ambitions to pursue his current job. The only reason
he would do such a thing is that he considers the DNC post more
important than even the presidency. And, in some ways, it is.
Dean's goal is nothing less than saving the party by laying the
groundwork for a future Democratic majority. The way he has pursued
it is by giving states money and power that Washington had been
hogging for decades. Not long after taking over at the DNC, for
example, Dean quickly committed millions to hiring
operatives--organizers, strategists, spokesmen--in each of the 50
states that didn't already have these personnel.
Dean's approach has a powerful logic to it. Consider a state like
Texas. In 2004, the political birthplace of George W. Bush became a
majority minority state. But, because the Texas Democratic Party
was basically defunct--it didn't boast a single full-time
staffer--Democrats had next to no ability to reach out to the local
black and Latino population. Since 2005, however, the DNC has hired
three permanent staffers in Texas, who have in turn recruited dozens
of local volunteers. The state is unlikely to swing Democratic in
2008. But there's no reason it couldn't do so by 2020.
Of course, no one objects to building up parties in, say, the eight
or ten red states where it's likely to have the most effect. The
skepticism relates to Dean's all-or-nothing approach. "You can't
sacrifice '08 for the benefit of 20 years from now," says Korge,
who is generally supportive of Dean. "The country just cannot
afford it." Dean recently generated some good buzz by replacing
Lewis with a fundraiser named Carl Chidlow. But even the
well-respected Chidlow has had trouble overcoming these concerns.
At heart, Dean's persistent messianism is simply at odds with the
DNC chairman's traditional role as loyal servant to the eventual
Democratic nominee. Several months ago, one top Democratic
fund-raiser took him aside and explained that the DNC wouldn't
raise much money unless Dean committed himself to making an endless
stream of self-abasing phone calls. "He was not argumentative,"
says this person. "But I didn't feel, after that, that he was
willing or capable of making those calls.... He was more interested
in seeing who can do this for me."
One way or another, Dean's moment of truth will come in March 2008,
when a Democrat effectively locks up the presidential nomination.
If the past is any indication, the nominee will insist on boring in
on the 20 or so states most likely to clinch 270 electoral votes.
But Dean, according to those who know him, will continue to insist
on funding his 50-state strategy. "Any Democrat running for
president needs to understand that ... Howard is not going to throw
that over the side of the ship," says Steve Grossman, a Dean ally
and former DNC chairman. And if they don't? "It's going to be a