Enthusiastic supporters from Berkeley crossed the Bay Saturday to hear presidential hopeful Howard Dean address 1,100 unionized health care workers in San Francisco.
“I had to show up to support Dean. He’s our best hope” said Quinn Costello, who was among at least a dozen Berkeley residents attending a Dean rally in Yerba Buena Gardens after the union event.
The former Vermont Governor whose grassroots Internet-based campaign has propelled him to the top of the Democratic field for the 2004 nomination has found particularly fertile ground in Berkeley.
Last Wednesday approximately 130 residents swarmed Au Coquelet and the public library for the most recent of their monthly Dean campaign meet-ups—events held the first Wednesday of every month in cities across the country that give Dean supporters, connected through the Internet, a chance to meet in person to further the campaign.
Six other East Bay towns held Dean meetings last Wednesday, but attendees in San Leandro, Oakland and Alameda estimated attendance at 35-50 people.
Dean fever has spread to the UC Berkeley campus as well. Dave Borelli started Berkeley Students for Dean in April and after months of diligent recruitment the fledging club boasts 250 members, making it one of the largest student groups on campus.
Student groups for Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Rep. Kucinich of Ohio are just getting organized.
At first glance, Dean and Berkeley progressives seem like odd bedfellows. Dean fancied himself as a moderate governor who balanced budgets and even opposed stricter federal gun control laws.
But in both style and substance Dean has seduced progressives. He has campaigned as the anti-Clinton, abandoning empathy for anger, and tapping into the Left’s furor over the Bush administration.
His take-no-prisoners style was on display in San Francisco, where Dean told members of Service Employee International Union Local 250 that he would send Attorney General John Ashcroft back to Mississippi and House Majority Whip Tom Delay back to Houston.
“He has chutzpah and speaks to the anger a lot of us have about Bush,” said Paul Hogarth, a Berkeley Rent Board Commissioner, who co-hosted a house party for Dean last June that raised $4,000.
Dean’s credentials as the standard-bearer of Berkeley progressives derive from two key acts: his opposition to the war in Iraq and his signing of the most comprehensive gay partnership benefits of any state in the country.
The bulk of his support comes from young voters, gays and pacifists—all of which Berkeley has in abundance. Many supporters at the San Francisco rally sported Dean buttons emblazoned with rainbow flags or peace signs.
Berkeley progressives say Dean’s willingness to take politically dicey stands, combined with the lack of a viable candidate to his left and their disgust for President Bush, have allowed them to stomach his moderate positions on other issues.
“He isn’t as progressive as most of us in Berkeley,” said Hogarth—who like many Dean backers considered supporting Rep. Kucinich until he determined the Ohio Democrat stood no chance in a general election. “It’s not that we love Dean; it’s that we hate Bush.”
Pragmatism has become the mantra for local progressives, who after the disputed 2000 election are eager to return to the Democratic fold, but want a candidate they can rally around.
Dean appears to be their compromise with the rest of the party. After three successive elections of being asked to swallow a moderate candidate who party leaders thought could appeal to the Left, progressives see Dean as a liberal who could appeal to moderates.
“After the war we felt like we needed to do something. We thought Dean was the right person to make the push,” said Berkeley resident Dan Robinson.
While Dean’s Berkeley base is fired up, many traditional Democratic constituencies remain lukewarm to him. After addressing the diverse union audience, Dean staged a rally attended by about 500 supporters. Like those at his Berkeley meet-ups, nearly everyone at the rally was white.
Dean stressed his commitment to minority voters Saturday, telling health care workers that instead of pandering to swing voters he would focus first on, “people who have been with us from the beginning: African Americans and Latinos...”
After the rally, Dean told reporters that he supported a recently signed California law granting drivers licenses to illegal immigrants.
Inside the convention hall many union members said they were impressed, but didn’t know much about Dean.
“I hadn’t heard of him,” said Mabel Davis, a home care worker. “His vision is for a younger, 20-something group.”
At local meet-ups, Dean’s core supporters are trying to transmit their enthusiasm beyond Dean’s predominantly white base. Last month supporters formed a Latino Outreach Committee, which will concentrate on largely Latino neighborhoods like Fruitvale and West Berkeley and seek endorsements from Latino civic organizations.
Monika Plazola, one of the leaders of the effort, said issues that have galvanized support for Dean so far—support for gay marriage and opposition to the war—won’t resonate with Latinos. “Those issues haven’t come up,” said Plazola. “People are more concerned with immigration, the economy and civil rights.”