One of the latest Howard Dean "Meet Up" events, this one at the Irish Center in Squirrel Hill on Sept. 3, was beginning to seem like a real love-fest, with both speakers and audience members extolling the many nation-saving virtues of "the doctor" (Dean is an M.D.) and current governor of Vermont. Such talk is exactly the sort of fix that Democrats crave to make them feel like their old selves again -- but also the thing that raises hopes in a way that often feels too naively earnest for post-Reagan skeptics.
One the attendees who stood up for Dean was even named Ernesto, for crying out loud. Ernesto Sanchez, a corporate manager from Aliquippa, told the crowd how he'd been getting more and more disgusted with George W. Bush, had decided to get to work right away against him, and had chosen Dean as the best candidate, even though he's not in total agreement with him. "Even though I don't agree with everything Dean says, this is the United States of America, not the United States of Ernesto," he added.
Sanchez first got involved at last month's "Meet Up" -- ad hoc meetings of Dean supporters spawned online at www.meetup.com. He came out of curiosity and ended up on the press committee. Dean's 200 local volunteers -- no one here is paid by campaign headquarters -- are more numerous any other would-be Democratic candidate's supporters. They've also been the most active, holding do-it-yourself meetings since January.
"This more of a movement than a campaign," said Highland Park attorney Rob Beckwith, who served as a master of ceremonies, comparing Dean's rising tide to the anti-Vietnam War activism.
For some it was alike: Volunteer Sherri Akitoye of Monroeville has both a daughter and a son-in-law in the Marines and was last involved in politics supporting George McGovern.
Yet the tone of liberal revival changed when Ernesto Sanchez introduced his next-door neighbor in Aliquippa, Charles Showalter, a federal law enforcement officer. Showalter is also a Persian Gulf War veteran and described himself as a "child of Reagan." "That's right," he told the crowd of about 70 with a smile, "I'm prepared to do violence to protect you." The audience giggled nervously. "Many other people like myself are burning their Republican cards. This is not the country I put on my bulletproof vest for." Showalter said later that he had become upset with Bush when his administration began to disparage federal employees after Sept. 11.
Sanchez and Showalter may be quintessential Dean supporters -- enthusiastic yet dissimilar in outlook. A show of hands turned up one libertarian, one independent, two formerly apolitical people, five Republicans, three conservative Democrats and 11 moderate Democrats, although the majority -- about 30 â€“ self-identified as "liberal Democrats." When Beckwith asked how many had worked on a campaign before, only three people said they had. "The standard line about Dean is 'liberal activists support him,'" Beckwith said. "How can you say someone who's never been involved in politics is an activist? That doesn't sound too activist to me."
The Irish Center Meet-Up was one of four Dean gatherings that night in Homestead, Shadyside and North Side, which reportedly attracted 100 others. Veteran activist Casey Capitolo of East Liberty put together the Shadyside gathering with her 16-year-old daughter, Raf, and Capitolo said that all of the approximately 30 attendees there were new to political activism.
The split of the Pittsburgh Deanies came with a small internal controversy, played out on two Yahoo listservs between factions that supported greater coordination of campaign efforts and a faction that believed that the campaign's strength was in a sort of wholesome anarchism. Though some of the e-mail exchanges made participants fear that local Dean efforts could go up in flames, veteran Democrat foot soldier Renee George Martin wasn't shaken. This argument didn't rise to the level of the infighting Democrats are notorious for, she says. Martin is a state Democratic Committee member from Beaver County who has been asked by the national Dean campaign in Burlington, Vt., to help with local campaign efforts.
"The Allegheny County Meet Up groups, we're at a state where we have to have a structure," she said in an interview, "and when you start to have a structure you're gonna have a power struggle. I keep saying, 'Keep your eye on the ball.' It's OK to go down three different roads, as long as we communicate.
"I've never done a campaign like this. Even though they get angry, they still communicate with each other constantly. As a field person, this is fascinating. I've never seen it as impassioned as this."