2003 Oct 22
by Katy Butler
Liberals in Marin are torn between pragmatic Dean or idealistic Kucinich.
IT WAS AN UNLIKELY meeting between the American industrial heartland and coastal California. On a sunny Saturday morning in September, Congressman and presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich—repeatedly elected by conservative, working class Reagan Democrats from his home base of Cleveland, Ohio—stood in front of a microphone at the Fort Mason conference center while Bay Area feminists, writers and environmentalists enjoyed a vegan brunch of tofu scramble drenched in shiitake mushroom gravy.
At one table, Mill Valley authors Jean Shinoda Bolen (Goddesses in Everywoman and Crones Don’t Whine) and Shakai Gawain (Creative Visualization) chatted with New Age thinker Marianne Williamson and Matthew Fox, the Oakland theologian. Outside the windows stood the Golden Gate Bridge, while closer by, the white masts of sailboats bobbed against blue water.
Kucinich, a slightly built man who looked like a leprechaun in a good suit, went over the highlights of his far-ranging presidential platform: national, Canadian style healthcare; cuts in Pentagon spending; full Social Security benefits at 65 and free college education; a Department of Peace; immediate withdrawal from Iran and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); and federal recognition of gay marriage. Then he took questions from the floor about what he called “spiritual politics”.
“I can understand how some candidates go out on the campaign trail angry,” he said, apparently referring to Howard Dean—who, like Kucinich, opposed the Iraq invasion long before Congressman Dick Gephardt stood on the Rose Garden watching President Bush sign the congressional resolution authorizing it. “But I’ve seen political movements fueled by anger and they can’t sustain themselves. I don’t think anger has transformative power. It doesn’t get to here,” he said, and touched his heart.
There was a moment of quiet. The message resonated with supporters at the brunch—as it does throughout much of Marin County. Here, Kucinich and Dean are the only presidential candidates so far to attract solid cores of active volunteers. Cars on 101 flash by sporting Dean and Kucinich bumper stickers. When anti-Bush authors like Molly Ivins or Paul Krugman read at Book Passage, volunteers from each campaign stand in the parking lot and hand out competing leaflets.
About 65 local Kucinich volunteers—some never before involved in electoral politics—meet regularly at the statewide headquarters in Corte Madera to support the gentle, politically radical vegan who chairs the House Progressive Caucus. At the same time, at least 150 locals are working out of living rooms and kitchens in San Rafael, San Anselmo and Mill Valley for Dean—the beefy, more politically moderate brawler who, while governor of Vermont, signed a bill legitimating long-term gay partnerships and extended healthcare to virtually all the state’s children.
“Many people tell me they are torn between the two,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-6th District) who endorsed Kucinich in May. “Dennis has huge popularity in the county. And I like Dean, and so does my district”.
The competition between the two men—emblematic of an enduring split between pragmatism and idealism in liberal America—runs through Marin politics and friendships and even my own home. It raises questions about why people vote at all: is it to express themselves authentically? To influence events? Or to handicap the odds and back a winning horse?
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TO WOOSLEY, WHAT matters is moving the Democratic party leftward. “We should vote for Kucinich, someone I thought could beat Bush, Dean is head and shoulders above the rest— he has the best ability to speak in the sound bites used in the modern media.”
A similar division rusn right through my house: I am an active Dean contributor and volunteer, and in September, I nailed a blue cardboard Dean sign to our garage door. My partner Brian—who voted for Nader in 2000 along with 6.7 percent of Marin’s voters — has posted a Kucinich sign next to mine on the garage door.
“I love Denis’s values,” Brian told me. “Community, caring, looking out for the other guy. He’s aware that the gap between rich and poor is way too big and that special interests are dominating. He’s articulated cutting the bloated military—industrial complex— we don’t need this when 46 million people are living in poverty and 26 million children have no health insurance in the richest country in the world”.
I nodded. Then I thought back to a raucous $100-per-person fund-raiser I’d attended with 1,000 other Dean supporters in early September at the home of Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren in San Jose. Silicon Valley techies and local politicians filled the lawn, most wearing suits or crisp khakis and shirts appropriate for Casual Friday.
Stumping in white shirtsleeves, Dean roared into a microphone from a terraced balcony, talking about healthcare and renewable energy and a favorite social program that dramatically lowered child abuse rates in Vermont. Then he hammered on his favorite subject: George W. Bush. “There are more al Qaeda in Iraq now shooting at Americans and bombing Iraqis than there were before we started out, Mr. President!” he bellowed. “How do you explain that!” He looked as if he were about to pop the collar-buttons off his shirt. He reminded me of a short, well-muscled kid who isn’t afraid to get in the face of the class bully. He raised between $150,000 and $200,000 that day, at least 10 times what Fort Mason netted Kucinich. This, I thought, is what it takes to win.
Brian nodded. Then he said, “But I love Kucinich”.
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THE DIVERGENT PROGRESS of the two candidates—one now considered among the frontrunners, the other still fighting to break out—illuminates divergent political strategies by men who both had the guts to oppose the war when it was supposedly political suicide. Both started nowhere in the national polls. Before last spring, Kucinich was known only to a handful of Marinites who had been recipients of his emailed peaceable “prayer for America” a few months after 9/11. Dean was known only to those who had received a national fund-raising letter signed by Independent Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords.
Then last March, a week before U.S. troops landed in Iraq, both men appeared at the statewide Democratic party convention in Sacramento. Senator John Edwards was booed for his support of the Iraq war. Kucinich sang snippets from “The Star Spangled Banner” and presented his vision. And then there was Dean.
As Congresswoman Lofgren remembers it, Dean came at the end of a long series of very boring speeches. He wasn’t using the teleprompter, and he had no written speech. “What I want to know”, Dean began, “is what in the world so many Democrats are doing voting for the president’s unilateral invasion of Iraq?” and went on from there.
“I was there in 1968 when Bobby Kennedy announced, and this was the best political speech of my lifetime”, said Lofgren, who endorsed Dean the next day. “I twas a vision of what we can do better and how we’re capable of doing better. Delegates were crying. I found my 17-year-old son in the crowd and he’s a great kid but not a political activist, and he was coked up. Outside the hall, there were tables of campaign literature and people stripped Dean’s table bare”.
Lynn Bornstein and Mayme Hubert of Marin’s Democratic Central Committee (DCC-M) came back fromt eh convention determined to start a grass-roots Dean group. “Kucinich gave a good speech but I didn’t think he had the right bearing”, said Hubert, of of eight DCC-M members now supporting Dean. “Sure, Dean is not as liberal. But this election is not about that. This election is about beating Bush”.
Bob Wrubel, a retired Nature Company executive on the DCC-M, however, chose Kucinich. “Mayme and Lynn came back wowed by Dean, but I listened and there was something I didn’t care for”, he said. “This fellow is fairly conservative on most positions except the war. For me it’s more important to be against the system that produced the war. Dennis sees that sort of thing and wants to take it on”. (As of mid-October, in an indication of how fluid the field remains, Wrubel has turned his support to General Wesley Clark.)
Early in May, a few days after President Bush landed on an aircraft carrier in a borrowed flight suit and declared “major combat operations” over, Kucinich filled the 2,000-seat Marin Civic Center Auditorium with people willing to pay $20 each to hear him. Local philanthropist and spiritual leader Gina Thompson held a breakfast for him, attended by actor Peter Coyote, writer Jean Shinoda Bolen, Ram Dass and Spirit Rock Buddhist teachers Jack Kornfield and Sylvia Bornstein, who endorsed him.
At about the same time, Hubert and Bornstein used an Internet site called Meetup.com to organize a Dean “meet up” – a web-catalyzed face-to-face meeting of the like-minded strangers—outside Borders Bookstore. About 50 people showed up, starting a local movement that by October had expanded to include 400 people on an email list. Also in May, Dean drew 300 to a rally at the Larkspur ferry terminal and raised $86,000 at a fundraiser in Mill Valley.
The same month, Kucinich hired Dotty LeMieux (a Marin attorney who calls herself a progressive, environmentalist “Green Dog Democrat”) as his statewide coordinator. He spoke at a packed Berkeley church, barnstormed the country and opened offices in 27 states.
Kucinich articulated an uncompromising progressive message. Dean told his followers they had the power “to take this party back and this country back”. Over the summer, Dean’s campaign took off, thanks in part to a sophisticated national Web site that generated the formation of thousands of grass-roots groups across the country.
In mid-October, his campaign announced it had raised $14.8 million in the prior three months, more than any other Democratic candidate in history—including Clinton when he was a sitting president. More significantly, the money had come from 223,000 people—most of them small donors, and half contributing via the Internet. (The average donation was $73).
Kucinich, on the other hand, had not yet broken out of the bottom tier of candidates in the polls and had raised only $$3.6 million—not enough to compete in what cynics call “the money primary” – the gauge many mainstream news editors and journalists use to determine which candidates are “viable” enough to cover.
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OUTSIDE MARIN COUNTY, the differences between the two men look miniscule. Both have skeletons in their political closets: before last February, when he became pro-choice, Kucinich voted repeatedly against abortion rights. Dean supports the death penalty in some instances, and relieved a high approval rating as governor from the National Rifle Association.
Dean wants to roll back all the Bush tax cuts and balance the budget, while Kucinich concentrates on rolling back tax cuts for the rich and supports legalizing medical marijuana. “When all the facts come out and people are paying attention”, says Kucinich’s California coordinator LeMieux, “it’ll become very obvious that Kucinich is much more progressive than Dean”.
This doesn’t cut much ice with Congresswoman Lofgren. “I like Dennis”, she said. “People have a right to think Dennis is closer to their viewpoint, but he’s not going to win”, she says. “That’s just the fact”.
The differences between the two politicians arise in part form the landscapes that produced them. Dean, 54, grew beyond a patrician Manhattan upbringing to become a doctor and part time politician living in a middle class split level in Vermont. His ancestors were Sag Harbor, Long Island whaling captains, watch case manufacturers, sugar brokers and wealthy stockbrokers. Kucinich, 56, on the other hand, is one of seven children of a Cleveland, Ohio Teamsters Union truck driver. He lived in 21 different places with his family, including two cars, before leaving home at 17.
In 1969, while Dean was drifting though Yale (where he asked for African American roommates), Kucinich, at 23, was elected to the Cleveland City Council. In those days, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was just about o be torn apart by the Vietnam war, but Kucinich’s childhood friends could still count on good lifetime jobs in local steel mills and machine shops. By 1977, when Kucinich became mayor of a declining Cleveland, the deindustrialization of the nation’s “rust belt’ was under way and manufacturers were moving jobs to Korea, Brazil and Mexico in search of cheap nonunion labor.
“I always ran community-based campaigns, based on peoples’ concerns at the neighborhood level”, Kucinich told me. “So my political instincts arise from neighborhoods of primarily poor people, and people who are working class”. As mayor, he refused to sell off the city’s municipal power plant even though local banks then plunged Cleveland into economic default.
“I did it because I understood that what people pay for the utility bill mattered”, Kucinich told me in a phone call in early October. “I remember my parents counting the pennies to pay that bill. I carry that experience in my heart and that connects me with a lot of people”.
He was voted out of office and spent the next 15 years “scrambling” outside politics. Then in 1994, the Cleveland Plain Dealer quoted public officials conceding he’d been right about the power plant and had saved consumers millions. A utility building was named after him, and he was elected to the state senate and then the U.S. House of Representatives.
Dean’s pragmatism, on the other hand, was forged in Vermont, where he became a state senator and then lieutenant governor in the 1980’s. He became governor in 1991 when Richard Snelling, his Republican predecessor, died in office of a heart attack. Dean soon found himself juggling Vermont’s diverse constituencies: descendants of traditionally Democratic ethnic mill workers in Burlington; independent, Republican dairy farmers and hunters; and former hippies– prototypical Nader and Kucinich voters who had fled from big cities to start organic yogurt companies, potteries and businesses like Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
Dean threaded his way through hodgepodge as a political hybrid, supporting health programs, environmental conservation and abortion rights—and gun owner rights, the death penalty and a balanced budget. When he took office in 1991, Reagan was president and Vermont was in a recession. His Republican predecessor had raised taxes. Dean cut spending, reduced welfare benefits, paid down the stat’s deficit and created a “rainy day fund” against future downturns.
For the next 12 years, Dean battled with progressives from his own party. “he made us very disciplined about spending, even if we didn’t really like it”, former state Senate Majority Leader Dick McCormack told the Washington Post in August. “I was a liberal Democrat and I fought him a lot, but he made the Democrats very hard to beat”. (Dean left the state3 in good financial shape: Vermont now has $10.4 million surplus).
Perhaps Dean’s defining political moment came early on, after the failure of his three-year effort to pass a universal single-payer healthcare plan (a Canadian style plan like the one Kucinich now backs). Attacked by insurance company lobbyists, the plan collapsed in 1994 legislative session, and Dean became a fanatic devotee of the successful baby steps rather than the noble, failing leap.
Over the next decade, he gradually expanded existing Vermont health programs until they covered practically every child in the state and many of the working poor. A state prescription drug benefit now covers everyone with an income up to 400 percent of the poverty level and 91 percent of residents have health insurance. Vermont was recently named “healthiest state in the nation “ for the third consecutive year.
When I asked Dean at a press conference in San Francisco in September why he was such a pragmatist, he remembered Vermont. “ I was a governor for 12 years, and I desperately want to get things done”, he said.
“Purists think we should have a single-payer health system. Maybe we should but we can’t get it passed. Here’s what happens when you try to totally refor the healthcare system. The Democrats fight with each other about how to do it. The special interests and the Republicans come in and kill the bill, and the losers are the 41 million people with no health insurance and the people who can hardly afford what they’re buying.
“I’m very pragmatic”, he continued. “I want a healthcare system that will cover everybody. After we get everybody in the system , we can have a big fight about how to change the system. But let’s not set 41 million people loose without health insurance for another 10 years”.
That logic doesn’t move Rene Rushin, the Northern California coordinator for Kucinich volunteers. Dean, she says, burrowing an image from Al Sharpton, is “a Republican in a donkey suit”. Like Kucinich himself, she can’t understand people who agree with Kucinich’s platform for wholesale reform but work for Dean. As Kucinich put it to me the day of the Fort Mason brunch, “I would be electable, if everyone who wanted to vote for me just did”.
Kim Potochnik, the Dean volunteer, thinks that reasoning sells him short. “I’m not giving up on my ideas”, he said. “I hope some day to see a nation with very strict gun laws. But in the meantime, how do I find common ground with the Montana hunter who I agree with on a lot of other issues? He’s struggling with healthcare, he’s struggling with a job. Should I not talk to him?”
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IT IS EARLY yet in the political season. Almost half the nation’s voters still can’t name a single Democratic presidential candidate. A fluid situation became even more fluid when General Wesley Clark entered the race in mid-September and dislodged Dean from front-runner status. Many voters watch and wait. Yet Dean and Kucinich have already altered the landscape. It’s no longer political suicide to criticize the president. And no Democratic presidential l candidate is still running as “Bush Lite”.
Last month, I asked Dean what he’d say to somebody who wanted to vote for Kucinich for the purity of his progressive positions. “Some people vote for just that reason and they should vote for Dennis”, he said. “I also think we will be able to take back a lot of the third party voters if I’m the nominee, because people desperately understand that there’s an enormous difference between George Bush and the Democrats and the country’s suffering terribly because of it.
The differences between the two don’t concern actor Peter Coyote, a Green party member who actively backs both men. “Kucinich is probably more progressive on a spectrum of issues, which is why I’m supporting him”, says Coyote. “But my suspicion is that the might be a little strange and far-out for America. This is not a left-wing country. Dean is a straight shooter and a very practical Yankee. He has run a state and balanced the budget. He’s getting tarred and feathered for not being a liberal but he’s never presented himself as a liberal.
“One of them is going to lose and, and closer to the election, one should defer to the other. Maybe Dean is not left enough. But do you want to cast symbolic voters for a guy you agree with every step of the way that is not going to win? That will not help anything except make you feel pure”.
©2003 Katy Butler. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.