The Democratic Party is in flux, perhaps more so locally than nationally -- and, say some active in the party, that's a good thing. While Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean speaks of his party sweeping in and fixing America and its tattered image abroad, local Dems have seen party upsets.
Dean, tieless in a blue button-down shirt and Patrick Dowd sticker, electrified a capacity crowd at Lawrenceville's Church Brew Works on a sweltering Aug. 8 evening. The former Vermont governor, who made a name for himself as an outsider energizing young voters through the Internet in a 2004 presidential bid, praised local Democrats' efforts like the 12,000 doors Dowd knocked on while campaigning.
Dowd was part of a wave of officials who bucked Pittsburgh's famously hidebound Democratic Party endorsement system in recent primaries: He unseated endorsed incumbent Len Bodack, getting the Democratic nomination for Pittsburgh City Council's District 7. "It's about having a primary election that's a true fight," Dowd said in his introduction of Dean. Also scoring nominations without the benefit of party endorsement were Heather Arnet, for school board, and Bruce Kraus, for city council's District 3.
"If I were a party hack, I'd probably be worried," says Jennifer England, of the League of Young Voters PAC. "But for just a regular citizen I think it's moving forward, it's the only way the party's going to survive."
England says that Dean's "circle the wagons" attitude about the party is apt "on a national level, yes -- it's time to get the Republicans out and take back our country. On a local level, we do have some things to work out. What we saw locally is an indication of what might help move the Democratic Party forward. You've got fresh voices -- young voters are more progressive."
"It shows that there's are a lot of new faces coming on board, that Democratic voters are ready to embrace new names and new faces," says Jim Burn, chair of the Democratic Committee of Allegheny County. "The results of the endorsement in the spring should show committee people what worked and what didn't. How do we retool it? It's a debate that will continue for a while, but it's definitely one that we have to have."
"I think that, locally, young voters are far less likely to be swayed by that party stamp of approval -- they vote more on issues and substance than on image and on party affiliation," says the League PAC's England. "In the past, people have generally voted for whoever the party approved -- it's a closed process, it puts the decision in the hands of a very few people."
"I think that [Dean's] message is very consistent with what we're seeing now in Western Pennsylvania," says Heather Arnet, a school board candidate who won without the endorsement. "We're starting to see more people outside of the party machine decide to get involved and run and some of them are becoming successful."
"Politics is changing dramatically -- the era of the one-way campaign is ending," Dean said. "The younger generation is expecting more. The younger generation is expecting to talk to us before we talk at them."