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Democrats seek recovery with new chairman

Still woozy from their defeat in November, Democrats are looking for a new party chairman to help lift them off the mat. Howard Dean seems to be the front-runner as the 447 members of the Democratic National Committee prepare to vote on Feb. 12.
Donnie Fowler, 37, is a top contender to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee.Eric Risberg / AP file
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Still woozy from their defeat in November, Democrats are looking for a new party chairman to help lift them off the mat.

Former Vermont governor and onetime presidential hopeful Howard Dean seems to be the front-runner as the 447 members of the Democratic National Committee prepare to vote Feb. 12.

On Monday Dean gained the backing of the state Democratic chairmen’s association, with grass-roots organizer Donnie Fowler getting the second-highest number of votes from the state party officials.

Apart from Fowler and Dean, the others vying for the Democratic chairman’s job are former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer, New Democrat Network chieftain Simon Rosenberg, ex-Mayor Wellington Webb of Denver, former Texas Rep. Martin Frost and former Ohio chairman David Leland.

But one Democratic strategist said with Monday's announcement by the state chairmen it now appears to be a two-man race between Dean and Fowler. The contest could well be settled Tuesday when labor union leaders announce their choice.

The new DNC chairman will play a decisive role in guiding the party's comeback. Democratic leaders are still coming to grips with John Kerry’s loss, what he ought to have done differently, and what face the party should now present to voters.

Kerry ‘scared to talk’?
“John Kerry, on two of the issues that everyone talks about — gay marriage and abortion — essentially didn’t talk about what his positions were,” Rosenberg told a Democratic group, the Women’s Leadership Forum, on Friday.

If Kerry or any Democratic candidate allows the Republicans to define his views, “then you should expect to lose the election,” he said. “On gay marriage, any of you who went door to door know that every voter in American thought we were for gay marriage, but we weren’t.”

Why the apparent misunderstanding? “Because Kerry was scared to talk about this issue in a way that communicated why we were where we were,” Rosenberg said.

Some DNC members favor Dean because they see him as a fighter who won’t be “scared,” who won’t retreat from the party’s commitment to gay rights, legal abortion and opposition to the Iraq war.

“People vote for a politician with conviction; they don’t vote for a politician who is just trying to get elected,” Dean declared to the WLF Friday.

As the DNC members from the northeastern states met in New York City over the weekend, one Dean supporter, Massachusetts chairman Philip Johnston, told reporters, “It makes no sense to jettison our values just because we lost the last election.”

The Democrats’ dissonance with many voters on abortion and gay rights in November’s election was a semantic problem, a matter of needing to find a better way to phrase things, Dean told the WLF.

“We’re not the party of being pro-abortion, nobody’s pro-abortion,” Dean said. “What we are is the party that believes that women ought to be able to make up their own minds about what kind of health care they have. We’re not the party of gay marriage; we are the party that believes that every single American ought to be treated fairly and ought to have the same rights under the law as every other American.”

The lesson, Dean said: “We have to change the way we say things.”

‘We should not change’
But he cautioned, “We cannot run away from who we are, and we should not change, because if we do, we’re never going to win another election.”

Some Democrats worry that Dean’s pro-gay-rights, anti-Iraq-war views would make him a magnet for Republican attacks. Another source of doubt: Dean is seeking a managerial job at the DNC, but how good was his record of managing his own presidential bid?

True, he did skillfully tap rank-and-file Democrats’ anger over the Iraq war to raise far more money than his rivals: an awe-inspiring $40 million in campaign funds in 2003. But, having built what seemed an impregnable lead in the fall of 2003, Dean piloted his machine into the ground in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

He also has a record of hinting to Democrats that “if I don’t win, I might take my marbles and go home.” Right before New Year’s Day 2004, he told reporters in Iowa, “If I don't win the nomination, where do you think those million and a half people, half a million on the Internet, where do you think they're going to go? They're certainly not going to vote for a conventional Washington politician."

Fowler offers himself as the pragmatic alternative to the conservative Roemer and to those who, “if they’re not left, like Gov. Dean, their movement wants to pull the party to the left.”

Fowler assails consultants
“I was grass roots before grass roots was cool,” Fowler told when asked how he differed from his rivals. “Right now the Democratic National Committee needs to turn its attention to building up state parties and embracing the grass roots rather than letting the Democratic Party be run by an aristocracy of consultants in Washington.”

Apart from his organizing expertise, Fowler would bring two assets to the DNC job: his Southern roots (South Carolina-raised, but a California resident, Fowler speaks with a Dixie drawl) and his relative youth. He is 37, nearly 20 years younger than Dean.

In their joint appearances Friday and Saturday before the WLF and the DNC Northeastern caucus, the contenders often uttered the same self-evident generalizations about the party’s malaise.

“We’re giving up on the South and the Rocky Mountain West,” declared Fowler. “It’s time for the Democratic Party to engage everywhere in every state.”

Roemer stuck out from the pack: The former Indiana congressman has a record of roll call votes that break with Democratic orthodoxy on abortion.

“We need to make some changes in this Democratic Party,” Roemer warned the WLF. He noted that exit polls indicated that Catholic voters went from favoring President Clinton by 16 percentage points in 1996 to backing Bush by five percentage points last year.

Roemer at odds on abortion
Acknowledging that the abortion-rights majority in his party is determined to scuttle his bid, Roemer sounded a fatalistic note: “I don’t know if I can win this race or not; I’ve run into some headwinds on one issue, this choice issue. I don’t know if I’ll be given a fair chance to win or not.”

Democratic strategist Kate Michelman, the president emerita of NARAL/Pro-Choice America, said she had briefly considered running for the DNC job herself, partly due to her worry that if she didn’t run, Roemer’s unorthodox abortion views might prevail.

When this reporter prefaced a question to Michelman by saying, “If Roemer were to win —” Michelman cut him off, saying, “Oh, Roemer’s not going to win. There is no way that the Democratic Party can have a chair whose record and views are antithetical to the core value of the party’s support for women’s fundamental rights. It’s just not possible.”

Michelman has not yet announced her support of any of the contenders but says all except Roemer are acceptable to her on abortion and other women's rights issues.