Whither the Deaniacs?

Still here, and still fighting — but not necessarily for Kerry

Howard Dean's campaign for the Democratic nomination was unique for many reasons, but for two most of all: his ability to transform political agnostics into ardent believers and, in turn, their ability to take an obscure governor's campaign and make it their own. What other candidates could list so many "unofficial" websites devoted to their campaigns, and from such disparate demographics? There were Catholics for Dean, Jews for Dean, Expats for Dean, Dykes for Dean, Seniors for Dean. There were Pilots for Dean and even Republicans for Dean.

In Georgia, Dean supporters devised one of the campaign's most aggressive and vibrant operations. At one point, more than 14,000 Georgians subscribed to Georgia for Dean's e-mailed newsletters. There were county chairmen and Meetups and letter-writing parties. There was canvassing and sign making and a zeal that comes only from the converted. And then on Feb. 18, it ended.

"It got big. It was a tsunami. And when a tsunami crashes, it has a pretty big effect," says Kimberly Krautter, who for months co-chaired Georgia for Dean before stepping down last month. Dean left in his wake disappointed followers angry at the media and disillusioned with Democratic leaders. But it wasn't all bad, Krautter says. "The positive effect is this massive body of people who are engaged in their communities. That's what we're all trying to figure out now. What do we do next, and how do we do it?"

Not long after he dropped out, Dean announced he would harness the energy of his grassroots followers into an organization that would further his progressive agenda. "We are determined to keep this organization as vibrant as it was throughout our campaign," he said in a Feb. 26 speech.

The problem is, details of that organization won't come until March 18, a full month after Dean's withdrawal. For a machine that propelled Dean to the top of the polls with Internet campaigning and impromptu Meetups, and where state organizations were entrusted to campaign as they saw fit, a month has been too long to wait. Deaniacs have taken matters into their own hands, pledging continued support for their man in ways both tangible and symbolic. How those efforts will jibe with Dean's program, however, remains to be seen.

Krautter has signed on to Grassroots for America, a nonprofit formed by Dean supporters that will be a resource for local grassroots movements around the country. Like many other Dean-inspired groups, Grassroots for America (www.grassrootsforamerica.us) is backing a "unity statement" that pledges to ensure that Dean's delegates remain a voice at the Democratic Convention, to adhere to Dean's principles, and finally, to work to get George W. Bush defeated in November.

Georgia for Dean, however, declined to sign on to the unity statement. Chairman Tim Cairl, says, "That's something that has to come from each individual. I don't think 70 or 80 people can speak for 14,000."

But Georgia for Dean also was impatient for Dean's announcement. "We didn't want to wait," says Catherine Smith, a Georgia for Dean volunteer. "We were losing momentum." Already, a few hundred subscribers had asked to be taken off the Georgia for Dean e-mailed newsletter.

And so on Saturday, March 13, Smith and other Georgia for Dean members will formally launch Georgia for Democracy, a group that espouses much of Dean's agenda, but is geared more toward progressive issues in general than to any specific candidate. In fact, Georgia for Dean has all but folded; its website now refers visitors to georgiafordemocracy.org. The group's legal status prohibits it from raising money for or endorsing individual candidates. Instead, Georgia for Democracy will pursue a more fundamental agenda: registering and educating voters, recruiting candidates for local office, and raising awareness of so-called "progressive" issues such as universal health care.

Reached by phone for an approximately 33-second interview last week, Dean responded to news of Georgia for Democracy with characteristic enthusiasm. "That's great!" he said. "That's great they've gone ahead and done that." At which point he referred further questions to his spokeswoman, Kate O'Connor, who couldn't be reached.

What CL didn't have time to ask the former Vermont governor is whether his monthlong wait in announcing his own organization is leading to a splintering of efforts across the country, and what he and his people can do to elect John Kerry, the presumptive nominee. After all, the first priority among all Deaniacs, presumably, is to get Bush out of office. But much to the Kerry campaign's chagrin, Dean has so far refused to release his list of 640,000 supporters to Kerry. Even if he did, Deaniacs clearly would not work for Kerry the way they did for Dean.

"Do I think the same level of energy will be expended for Kerry as it was for Dean? I don't think it's possible. No one can sustain that much energy," Krautter says.

Jennifer MacDonald, one of the Georgia for Democracy founders, agrees that her energy for Dean can't be transferred. "It wasn't just a movement for a movement's sake. It was because of this man and his platform." Dean was not a cookie-cutter candidate, nor did he represent the Democratic establishment. It was that iconoclasm that created such fervor in his supporters, a fervor that is not easily duplicated.

Smith, who co-chaired Georgia for Dean's efforts in Fulton County, says her support for Kerry will be more logistical than anything. "I will definitely give money either to Kerry or to MoveOn or to the Democratic National Committee — or to all three — to help get him elected," she says. "But I think it would be difficult to try to integrate into the Kerry organization, just because I've been such a Dean devotee. That said, I think the efforts we're going to be making in terms of voter registration, voter education and get out the vote issues are clearly progressive issues, and will contribute to Kerry's success in Georgia."