Adding color

Can the Dean juggernaut find innovative ways to reach young, black voters?

You'll generally find two cautionary questions tucked inside otherwise glowing press accounts of Howard Dean's stranglehold on momentum in the Democratic presidential race: Can Dean build on his progress from unknown to frontrunner? And, can his campaign attract black support the way it has attracted support among young, white voters?

The two questions are related, because if Dean is to have a prayer in the South and carry his momentum into the primary season, his campaign must begin to look more like America. The real question seems to be whether Dean's camp can be as innovative in reaching young black voters in communities where there's a developed hierarchy of lever-pullers who get out the vote in every election, as it has been in capturing the imaginations of young white people.

Because from a political perspective, that's been the fun thing to watch about the former Vermont governor's campaign — how it's brought in young voters and non-voters. Many were reached by the campaign's unprecedented use of the Internet matchmaking service Meetup.com to organize de-centralized, neighborhood-based meetings the first Wednesday of every month.

In March, Creative Loafing ventured to one of just a handful of Atlanta-area "meet-ups" at Manuel's Tavern in Virginia-Highland and found a crowd of about 75 mostly young, eager supporters extolling the virtues of all things Dean. But there were only two or three black faces in the crowd, a problem the organizers, to their credit, acknowledged.

Last week, CL returned to Manuel's for September's meet-up, where organizers were collecting supplies for local schools, and could barely get in the door. About 200 people clogged the lower bar, but again, there were only a handful of minorities in attendance. In fairness, Manuel's is situated in a majority-white neighborhood, but it's within minutes of black enclaves.

Clark Atlanta University political scientist William Boone says Dean's problem is a difficult one.

"The question for Dean is whether or not he can afford to run along several tracks at the same time in the black community," Boone says. "That is, the traditional track ... with established groups and then at the same time try to make contact with these other groups without alienating that established structure. It's a delicate kind of thing that he has to do."

Boone cites groups for young black professionals, such as a local organization for MBA graduates, as one possible avenue and adds that he received an e-mail Monday morning from the Dean campaign asking professors at historically black colleges and universities for contacts in the student body. "The point is, they are trying these other ways to get through to the black community, bypassing what you would call the established and traditional sources."

But on Boone's own campus, it seems Dean has barely made a dent in the consciousness of the students. Of more than a dozen students asked about the governor on a recent afternoon, only two knew of him. Yet, time and again, the students, all of whom said they had voted in previous elections, said the way to get people engaged is to simply show up where they are. They want personal contact.

Bryan Britt, a Clark Atlanta junior, suggests it's a chicken and egg dilemma. Young black people haven't historically turned out to the polls in high percentages, he says. But maybe that's because candidates rarely take their messages directly to that potential constituency.

The Dean campaign may have tuned in to the need for more targeted contact. In the key primary state of South Carolina, the Dean campaign just purchased $50,000 of airtime on radio stations that reach predominately black audiences. Radio isn't as personal as Dean knocking on every door in the black community. But the narrow demographics of most stations will allow him to address specific concerns of African-Americans.

Dean clearly needs more people like Anita Omitowoju. She went to an August meet-up and then spent the next weekend walking the World Congress Center handing out fliers at an event for black women.

"Clark Atlanta is my next target," Omitowoju says. "Part of the Dean philosophy is building from the grassroots up. Unfortunately, unless you get involved with the churches — which I also plan to contact — there's rarely really a forum where you have a large cross-section of African-Americans."