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FEATURE Dean is Dead. Long Live the Dean! Memo to Texas Democrats: What can you learn from the Deaniacs? BY RACHEL PROCTOR MAY ril he first Wednesday in March, a group of Howard Dean’s Austin supporters did what they’d been doing the first Wednesday of every month for more than a year. They crowded into a back room at Scholtz’s Beer Garten, a longtime political hangout near the state Capitol. Since Dean had ended his campaign three weeks earlier, the mood was bittersweet. The campaign was giving away its inventory of videos and selling its T-shirts at cost. Nevertheless, Dean for Texas coordinator Glen Maxey was declaring victory, not defeat. “People talked a lot in the Dean campaign about taking back the party,” said the former state representative. “Well, in Texas, we didn’t need to take it back. There was no one to take it from. What we need to do is rebuild it, because we are it.” He pointed to hundreds of new precinct chairs and at least 10 new county chairs that were filled by people from the Dean for Texas ranks, and he urged the attendees to go to their precinct caucuses so that Dean voices would be heard at the state convention. He promised to hand out “I took it back” buttons to the delegates. A culture of participation based on a lot of small efforts rather than a few big checks seemed like a return to what democracy was “supposed to be:’ Moreover, it saved money. Maxey believes that the techniques and people Howard Dean drew into Democratic Party politics in Texas are the key to making Texas a two-party state. He is not alone. All over Texas, grassroots activists say they’re ready to bring ideas from the into their own counties and precincts. They express sentiments similar to those of Larry Horton of New Braunfels. On the day that Dean dropped out of the presidential campaign, Horton wrote an upbeat message on the Dean for America blog, or web log: I am running unopposed for Democratic County Chair, Comal County Texas. If not for Gov. Dean I would be sitting here complaining about Bush and doing nothing about it. Thanks Gov. and we will take back our country and our party! As Maxey recalls, it was the June 2003 rally in Austin that made him realize that the Dean campaign had the potential to change the way politics was done in this state. At the time, he had a list of 400 local Dean sympathizers in his database. A hundred of them offered to help organize the event. More than 3,000 people showed up the day of the rally. “Seeing that excitement made me think, I’ve got to latch onto this and rebuild the Democratic Party from the ground up,” he says. At the peak of the campaign, Maxey’s database included 35,000 people who had signed up on the Dean for Texas website. He had 2,000 ready to organize their precincts, while several hundred went to Iowa on two separate campaign trips. Austinite Susan Morris, who has worked on Democratic campaigns for years, says that most of the Dean people she met were new to party politics. “I was used to walking into events for Ron Kirk or Tony Sanchez and knowing everyone in the room,” she explains. “I went to [a Dean event in Austin] and was like, who are these people? There were some Sanchez and Kirk types there, but they were just hanging around the perimeter, going ‘How did they get 400 people to come to a political meeting?'” “They” didn’t. People came to a political meeting in part because Dean pushed the right emotional buttons. His visceral, unscripted speeches just plain felt different. People came out because it was fun to be involved with a campaign that felt unstoppable. But they also showed up because the campaign’s online experiments in bringing people together worked. The snazziest of these techniques was the campaign blog. All day, every day, the DFA blog delivered enthusiastic campaign news and ecstatically reminded bloggers how special, appreciated, and powerful they were. Anyone was free to respond to these official messages, and people responded by the hundreds. Bloggers debated campaign strategy and voted on possible campaign commercials. They posted links to press coverage of the campaign and offered their own analysis. They announced when they had contributed money \(all told, Dean the blogs allowed them to feel as if they were part of a vibrant community that included not only their fellow bloggers, but also campaign staff and the candidate himself. 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3/26/04