Bridging the Dean-Kerry Gap

A tale of karaoke, international strife, and a call for immediate help from Howard Dean supporters

March 26, 2004

After driving around for nearly 20 minutes trying to find parking in the "Where's my parking karma?" Upper Market area of San Francisco, I arrived at The Mint on Market Street around 7:30 last night, worried that I had missed some important announcements about the John Kerry campaign.

My worry was for naught.

The Mint turned out to be a karaoke bar. The two Kerry volunteers organizing the Meetup don't understand how Meetups work, and so they didn't scope out the venue beforehand -- and it wasn't apparent if they'd cleared the Meetup with the bar management. The bar manager, unprepared for the requirements of a Meetup, generously agreed to give the Kerry speakers about four minutes in between karaoke performances -- which was fun, if a bit surreal, but impossible for accomplishing anything serious.

Howard Vicini, founder of Seniors for Dean (now Seniors for America and Seniors for Kerry), and I walked a couple of blocks to the LGBT Community Center to see if we could beg a space. The short butch lady at the front desk agreed to rent us a small room on the third floor for $20 -- which amounted to about a dollar per person -- that we could have from 7:45 to 9 PM. So Howard and I rushed back to the "Kerry-oke" bar and told Alec, who had the stage for a few minutes, about the deal. Alec took a vote and everyone agreed that the Meetup would work better if we weren't constantly interrupted by some college-age kids singing '80s pop songs.

With piles of clipboards, Kerry campaign literature, buttons, and other paraphernalia, we walked en masse to the LGBT Center. A small crew from Cable Channel 32 who'd been filming the Meetup at The Mint followed us.

A friendly transgendered dudette unlocked our meeting room, which was well-equipped with tables and chairs and a white board. I immediately took up a collection for the room. One guy generously donated a $20 bill to cover the entire fee, and most of the others pitched in a few bucks. In the end, I'd collected $47 that went directly into the Center's donation box. Butch and Dudette were thrilled and called me a "rainmaker."

We sat around the tables and took turns introducing ourselves. The only "Deaniacs" I recognized were Alison and Howard, but a few other attendees said that they had been Dean supporters as well. Some attendees asked questions that I thought had fundamentally been answered by the Dean campaign strategy, such as, "What can we do in the Bay Area? This region is already heavily Democratic." I was itching to answer this.

When it was my turn to introduce myself, I said that I'd like to see the best of all the Democratic campaigns implemented in this final campaign against Bush. I explained that we in the Dean campaign had over a year's worth of experience in grassroots and high-tech organizing, and that we could add a lot of knowledge, expertise, and ideas to Kerry's campaign -- and that organizers from the campaigns of Clark, Kucinich, Edwards, et al. could do the same. Everyone seemed to appreciate this statement of inclusion and unity. (I find it ironic that most of the recent statements of inclusion and unity are coming from the Dean people as opposed to from the Kerry people, but hey, what can I say, maybe they just don't have our charisma or diplomacy or big vision -- yet.)

I addressed the guy's earlier question about what we in the Bay Area can do, since we seem to be preaching to the choir here. "The answer," I explained, "is a lot."

"First, the Bay Area, even in the post dot-com bust era, is one of the richest regions in the country. We can do a lot of fundraising here simply because of its concentrated wealth. That money can go into the national campaign." Everyone nodded in agreement at this (fairly obvious) point.

Then I explained one of the most effective strategies of the Dean campaign: the handwritten letters across the country. "As we get into the summer and fall months leading up to the November election, people attending Kerry Meetups across the country should be writing handwritten letters to 'swing-swing' voters -- that is, swing voters in swing states like Ohio and Florida."

The room fell silent as the group pondered this "novel" suggestion. The film camera was focused on me and I realized that I had inadvertently become an "expert," just from my limited experience as a Dean campaign volunteer. One guy aptly asked if there actually were lists of swing voters, and Howard told him that the campaign did have such lists.

We discussed other ideas and approaches and listed on the white board some useful web sites: Kerry Northern California, Kerry the Weight, Verified Voting, and Music.com (which plans to donate stage time to politics). A number of attendees asked other questions that seemed so basic to me because I'd been spoiled by the (now astounding) level of organization in the Dean campaign. Howard, with his vast body of knowledge, fielded most of these questions. Hugh, the other Kerry Meetup organizer, mentioned that our campaign needed a "Joe Trippi" of our own.

All of a sudden, a young guy in the back interrupted the discussion to say that he couldn't hear us because he happened to be sitting next to a small group of people who were having their own conversation. Before the rest of us could react with obvious suggestions (asking the small group to save their conversation for after the meeting and asking the young man to move to the other side of the room), one of the guys in the small group fired back at him: "Do you have a problem with my accent? What, you just don't like French people?" Since I'd been out of the room during most of the introductions, I hadn't even known they were French.

"Yeah, well, you guys keep talking amongst yourselves like we're having some kind of revolution. This isn't the French Revolution! We're just trying to get some guy elected."

A young woman dressed in a very French-looking high-couture outfit replied, "But eet ees a revolution -- !" and before she could continue with what no doubt would have been, "You are trying to over-srow zat deectator Boosh!", the young man fired back with some disparaging Francophobic remarks.

Verbal chaos ensued. Some of the attendees groaned, because we had a lot to discuss in our limited time in the meeting room. Others laughed. Alec, sitting next to me, raised his hands and said, "Friends, friends! We are all friends!"

I jumped in and said, "I'm a Francophile! I love the French! I love French chocolate, French wine.…" I stopped just short of adding "French fries" to the list because I didn't want to come off as a "stupeed Amereecan." My appeasement seemed to calm the French guys somewhat. After the young guy antagonized them a bit more, the international dispute settled down.

Hugh, Alec, Howard, and I talked about house parties, how they work and how to organize them. The young guy said that he's a DJ and offered his talents for a house party. I encouraged him by saying that this was an excellent idea for getting young people involved.

But then the French guy turned to him and asked him a question, ingenuously, as it sounded, but incomprehensibly, and the young guy snapped, "I don't know even what you're saying. What are you saying?" Somehow, though, the argument didn't go any further at that point.

The high-couture French woman said that the French didn't like Bush, and asked us what they as French people could do to help the Kerry campaign. I quipped, "We need money!" but several people shook their heads at this, because we know that we can't take campaign funds from non-U.S. citizens.

"I have a connection to Yves Saint Laurent," she offered. "We could get you some nice handbags at cost. Could you sell zem at ze house partees?"

I turned back to Howard, because he knows the answers to these questions better than I. Howard said that there had been Dean Meetups all over the world, including in France. He suggested that they could start by organizing a Kerry Meetup there.

The young guy jumped in with, "What's that gonna accomplish? You can't do anything to help us!"

"But maybee zere ees some way we can help --", the French people started to reply.

"You're not U.S. citizens!" He snapped angrily. "You can't vote! There's nothing you can do to help us!"

And, with that, the tenuous American-French peace accord was broken. Howard and I didn't get a chance to explain that Meetups in other countries were helpful for getting American students, workers, travelers, and expatriates involved.

The television camera was focused on the argument as it escalated to the absurd.

"Why do you have such a problem wis ze Frensh people?"

"What are you gonna do at a Meetup in France? Sit around and, like, talk about how your food is better? Is that what you have in mind? You think you're so superior! You know that a burger has less fat than a quiche?!"

The other attendees went back to groaning and laughing and trying to stop the argument. Alec got up and exchanged seats with a hapless guy who'd had the misfortune of sitting between the two warring camps. Being very tall (and somewhat resembling Kerry himself), Alec used his height to visually block the young DJ's view of the French people.

It was almost 9 o'clock, and we started to wrap up. Several people asked, "What do we do now?" Normally, at a Dean Meetup, that question wouldn't even be asked because it'd be so obvious as to what to do next (look at the printed sheet of upcoming events, write letters, organize house parties, get involved in the DeanCorps, etc.) I looked at Alec and Hugh, who paused for a moment and said, "Come to our next Meetup!"

Howard had previously announced the Democracy for America (DFA) Meetup on April 7. I was hoping the attendees would remember to come, because then we'll show them how a "real" Meetup is done!

While we were putting away the tables and chairs, Hugh said to me, "I've been watching you guys for a long time, and I envied you so much! You had everything; you were so organized. I'm so glad you're with us now." I refrained from asking why he never showed up to a Dean Meetup to at least see how it all worked. I just said that I'm happy to help the cause.

I later heard Hugh saying that he hopes Democracy for America can compete with the powerful DNC, and that Dean can eventually replace Terry McAuliffe. This was an idea I hadn't thought of before. I realized that the Kerry supporters, despite their differences with us, generally have their hearts in the right place.

Alison came running back into the meeting room from the hallway and breathlessly exclaimed, "They're fighting out there!"

"Who, the French people and the DJ?"

"Yeah! I don't want to stare, but it's kind of funny…."

By the time I reached the hallway, I'd missed the transatlantic melee. The French people were in the elevator, waiting to descend. I hurried toward them before the doors closed and said that I appreciated their coming and that I hope they do stay involved. I said that some of us "stupeed Amereecans" love French people! They looked distraught but thanked me nonetheless.

As I walked back to the meeting room, some of the LGBT Center staffers were describing what'd happened: "They were in a heated argument, and one guy rushed at the other guy, and then he got on top of that guy, and someone else got in between and tried to separate them -- and the guy with the TV camera was filming the whole thing!" I felt myself in an awkward position for having brought physical violence -- however brief and ridiculous -- to the otherwise peaceful Center, and so I apologized to the staffers, but they assured me that they knew it wasn't my fault.

The young DJ was visibly shaken. I asked him if he was OK. "I don't know what happened," he said sheepishly. "I apologize, I apologize." I suggested that he come to the Meetup next month, but to try to avoid the French people. He smiled wanly and said that he would.

As Howard, Alison, and I stood around the front of the Center, we marveled at the downright weirdness of this Meetup, and how we'd never witnessed this sort of nonsense in the Dean campaign because we're all so respectful and almost pathologically polite. Alec, who is new to the process of organizing Meetups, listened to us and said that he greatly appreciated all of our help.

I gave Alec a ride home, and in the car, we discussed Dean and Kerry. I asked Alec why he supported Kerry from the beginning, as opposed to any of the other candidates. He said that he was an "old hippie" with a personal connection to the Vietnam War and that Kerry's philosophies were everything he was looking for in a presidential candidate. He said that he admired Kerry for being both a war hero and a leader in Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and for his later investigation into the remaining MIA mystery in Vietnam, which was the precursor for Clinton normalizing relations with that country.

I said that I agreed with all of this, but I asked him the questions I wish I could ask Kerry directly: "Why, for Chrissake, did he vote for the Iraq War? Especially since he himself was a Vietnam War veteran! And he voted for the PATRIOT Act and No Child Left Behind! Why? He betrayed everything that the Democratic Party is supposed to stand for." I was starting to feel the seething anger I'd felt for so many years at the sellout Democrats who are supposed to be the party of opposition and stand up for and protect the interests of their constituents.

Alec paused -- while I felt a bit remorseful for treating him as though he were Kerry's personal spokesperson -- and then explained Kerry's reasoning. The resolution to go to war and the PATRIOT Act were going to pass anyway, no matter what Kerry did. Having been in Congress for two decades, Kerry understood the inner workings of the legislative process, that if you wanted something to be less damaging than it would otherwise be, you'd have to promise to vote for it while fighting for the inclusion of an essential clause that limits its powers. "If it weren't for Kerry," Alec explained, "there would be no clause in the war resolution saying that we must work closely with other countries -- which Bush ignored, of course -- and there would be no sunset clause in the PATRIOT Act, which expires it at the end of this year."

I stopped fuming to think about this. It sounded like a bunch of phony excuses to me, but then my mind flashed to the scene in the silly movie Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde in which one Congressional aide after another made seemingly ludicrous deals with each other, like "I'll vote for your marijuana bill if you vote for my abortion bill," and "You want Superfund cleanup? You give me Medicare first."

"You have to understand," Alec continued in his gentle, soft-spoken manner, "American politics are never black and white, and when it comes to being in Congress, there are many, many shades of gray."

Fair enough.

I asked him why, though, during the March 20 anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, was Kerry snowboarding in Idaho instead of campaigning as Bush had in Florida. Alec said that Kerry is caught in a bind; on one hand, if he were campaigning, he'd be asked why he's not participating in the antiwar demonstrations. On the other, if Kerry did participate, he would be questioned on his supposed "support" for International A.N.S.W.E.R., the dubious organization that puts together these events.

"This is what concerns me," I said. "This very bind is what Republicans will exploit, because they'll say that Kerry waffles and that he dances between one side of an issue and the other. And, frankly, we in the Dean campaign thought there was some truth to this."

Alec conceded this point, but said that I should watch one of Kerry's speeches, because he explains some of this, and it'll turn me into a "believer." I suggested that he burn this video onto DVD and show it at the next Meetup.

We talked about the logistics of preparing DVDs for Meetups (again, something that seems so basic to us Deanfolk). Alec said that we needed a Meetup steering committee to organize these types of things, and I told him that I'm hesitant to volunteer to serve on such a committee because I'm busy with my own pet project (organizing the Vote 2004 Project contingent in the upcoming LGBT Pride Parade).

When I got home, I regaled my partner with the evening's surreal events. After he finished laughing, I remarked, "I just don't understand how Kerry could have possibly won the Primary when his local organizations are in such an appalling state of disarray!"

My partner explained his theory. Kerry's approach to the Primary was the tried-and-true method that's always worked for the Democratic Party: ignore all the states except for the first two or three Primary states, and focus heavily on those campaigns to the exclusion of everything else. Kerry's campaign was (and still is, it seems) managed as a traditional centralized, top-down hierarchical structure, which is advantageous for accomplishing the main goal (winning Iowa and then New Hampshire), but leaves local organizations and grassroots volunteers adrift. Dean also made some missteps, which Kerry capitalized on, just as Edwards capitalized on Gephardt's missteps.

Looking back on the events of January and February, I remember that I'd felt angry at Kerry because I'd heard that his campaign used vicious push-polling campaign methods against Dean. But mostly I felt angry at the media and the Democratic Party establishment who treated Dean so unfairly and irresponsibly, and at the gullible undecided, fickle, and squeamish voters who believed them.

But that was then; this is now. Things change, and they change quickly. The Bush war chest has $130 million and counting; whereas, the last I heard, Kerry's campaign is in debt. My fellow Deaniacs, unless you feel like enduring four more years of Bush, and then paying my way into Canada, we have to help these people. I strongly believe that Kerry can't win without Dean's help and the help of his supporters.

Helping the Kerry volunteers can be mutually beneficial. I'd love to see Hugh's idea come to fruition, that Dean could replace Terry McAuliffe as the Democratic Party leader. Kerry himself doesn't like McAuliffe, so he might be open to the idea of sharing power in the Democratic Party with Dean. If we help Kerry, he might help us.

I'm trying to help bridge the Dean-Kerry gap. I've got both Dean and Kerry signs on my mantle, and I've heard discussions of wearing Dean and Kerry buttons concurrently, as well as affixing Kerry bumper stickers next to -- instead of on top of -- Dean stickers on the backs of cars.

Alec said that he's working 60 to 80 hours a week on the local Kerry organization, and that there's a small crew of eight people who do everything. He's overwhelmed. Let's try to help him and other Kerry organizers as much as we can. He's planning to attend the DFA Meetup on April 7, so you'll have a chance to meet him.

Thanks for reading this lengthy treatise. Please contact me if you have any questions, comments, or ideas.


Copyright 2004 Mariva H. Aviram. All rights reserved.