Dean camp catches fire, endures missteps

Candidate's supporters learning as they go in Net-driven effort

Howard County

October 06, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's innovative, Internet-driven campaign for president has stirred lots of attention among Howard County Democrats, but a group of local supporters who attended a computer-arranged "meet-up" in Ellicott City has learned that grass-roots democracy can be confusing.

One Dean booster had electronically suggested meeting at a restaurant near Columbia instead of at Ellicott City Senior Center, and got enough votes on to establish it as a confirmed place for a second gathering.

The problem was, no one told the manager of the crowded restaurant.

So Dawn M. Popp of Elkridge went there and directed everyone to the senior center, which might be why the turnout of 18 Wednesday was fewer than half the 43 people who gathered at a meeting in September in Oakland Mills.

"I missed the first part of the meeting," Popp said.

Still, organizer Jim Mellicant of Ellicott City said the Dean campaign's innovative approach to politics is having a strong effect across the nation.

Without a paid staff and using volunteers who connect via computer, Mellicant told the volunteer supporters, 115,000 Americans were registered for a Dean meet-up, held nationwide at 7 p.m. the first Wednesday of every month.

"If nothing else, Howard Dean is going to revolutionize the way politics is done. No more top-down. Now it's going to be bottom-up," Mellicant said in describing the American political dynamic.

Dean has collected nearly $15 million from 187,000 donors in the past three months and is ahead in Iowa and New Hampshire, according to polls.

His donation rate broke a quarterly record of $10 million for a Democratic candidate set by President Bill Clinton in 1995.

At the Ellicott City meeting, the group wrote short pro-Dean letters for mailing to the Rev. Jesse Jackson and former Vice President Al Gore, watched a brief Dean campaign video on the screen of a laptop computer and planned their next meeting at a restaurant in the Columbia village of Kings Contrivance.

Dean's supporters appear enthusiastic and the meet-ups have a reputation for attracting people new to politics.

"I don't feel powerless anymore. I can do something," said Mindy Burstein of Clarksville, who attended the Ellicott City meeting.

"Dean says what he thinks. He's there, he's genuine. It's our country, not Bush and his friends," said Dave Monroe, also of Clarksville.

"If Dean gets the nomination, I'll be voting for someone and not against someone," Popp said.

Some Democrats, such as Howard Del. Neil F. Quinter, worry that Dean will be vulnerable to attack from the Republican right if he wins the nomination, another general election disaster like Walter Mondale's loss in 1984.

Although Dean has garnered more visible support locally than any of the other Democratic contenders, he also has begun attracting criticism from rivals that he has changed moderate or conservative positions on issues such as Social Security, Medicare and free trade - flip-flopping from his days as governor of Vermont.

Adil Shamoo of Columbia, who teaches biochemistry and ethics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, is one of Dean's biggest volunteer supporters in Howard County. Shamoo said Dean's "honesty, integrity and forthrightness" is what attracted him to become politically active, 15 years after his last foray, helping U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's campaign.

Shamoo said he believes that Dean's positions are "evolving" as he grows from the governor of a small New England state to a candidate for president.

"You are changing your thinking from one state to the whole nation. I would be more concerned if his policies do not change as he goes through the campaign. He has grown," Shamoo said.

Despite the criticism from rival Democrats, several at the meet-up said their main goal is to defeat President Bush, no matter who the Democratic candidate is.

"If they dig up Lyndon B. Johnson, any Democrat, even a dead Democrat is better than George Bush," Mellicant said.

"I don't like Bush either. That goes without saying," said Shaila Pai of Jessup.

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