John Taylor, a city hall central staffer at the time, spoke that night. He had previously worked for Dean in Vermont, and had signed on as the volunteer Washington State director of the Dean campaign. Taylor vividly recalls how overwhelming the experience was, as the audience pummeled him with questions, both broad and narrow--How are we going to get the country to wake up? Where do I get Dean yard signs?--for which he had no answers. "It was an amazing night," he remembers. "I'll never forget that."
Nor will I. I went to Piecora's that night on a whim. I had heard about these meetups, which seemed very newfangled then, very tech, very Seattle. I was curious about them, and about Dean, whom I had seen blasting the impending Iraq war on Meet the Press. Dean, with his flinty New England blue-blood mannerisms, and his sensibly rationalist critique of this specific invasion as a distraction from the real war on terror (as opposed to naive, hippie-dippy moralizing about the inherent evils of war) hadn't struck me as the skungy, dope-addled peacenik the national press seemed intent on making him out to be. I was interested in national politics, vaguely, the way I might be interested in a relatively close college basketball game between Wake Forest and North Carolina State, but I had not written much about the topic before. I had not voted seriously since 1984 (in 1988 I wrote in Nipsey Russell for president), and I did not intend to in 2004. I did not think there was any realistic chance that Bush could be beaten.
* * *
Had I not moved to Seattle from Cleveland in August 2002, it would have taken me far longer to understand the very real, if latent, potential that still existed in America to arrest the surging power of the far right--if I would have noticed it at all. In many ways, Seattle is a ridiculous place, but over the last 18 months this city has earned the right to pat itself on the back. It played a leading role in changing the course of a presidential election by putting backbone back into a dispirited Democratic Party all but reconciled to the country's purported hard right turn post-9/11. It did it by backing Dean, early and enthusiastically. As everyone from Bill Clinton to John Kerry has admitted, the party owes Dean a huge debt for his willingness in 2003 to blaze the trail for those who lacked the guts to challenge Bush's misguided ideas head-on. And Dean would not have had the success he did without Seattle. If John Kerry wins next week, he will owe this city his thanks because of, not in spite of, Seattle's long flirtation with Dean.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. A bit of context: At the time Seattle found Dean, in early 2003, conventional wisdom said the 2004 election was a done deal. President Bush was enormously popular, though his poll ratings had faded a bit from the stratospheric levels he had once enjoyed, numbers that had climbed more because of a reflexive banding together of the nation than anything he had actually done after the tragedy of September 11, 2001. As the leader of a country shocked into unity by the horrors of a gruesome attack, he had had an opportunity to transcend business as usual, to rise to the level of a statesman.
Instead, he proved himself too small a man to understand the call of greatness, and misused that popularity ruthlessly, for partisan political advantage. First for electoral success--on a floppy disk accidentally dropped in a Washington, D.C. park in June 2002, Karl Rove, the president's political guru, revealed his intention to use the aftermath of 9/11 to win the mid-term elections for the Republicans (which he did)--and then to herd a frightened nation into supporting a needless war against a third-rate tinhorn dictator, already hemmed in, who had become a long-standing obsession of a tiny cabal of neoconservative ideologues. This was considered good politics: a quick, painless, successful war against a toothlessly evil patsy, followed by a healthy dollop of "Mission Accomplished" pageantry that would remind voters of the president's decisiveness to take on mounting threats (however nonexistent) and would ensure four more years of conservative entrenchment.
Given the lap-dog nature of the establishment press, particularly in provincial outposts like Washington State, and the long-standing cravenness of the Democratic Party, particularly in Washington, D.C., this seemed like the correct analysis to me. But that night at Piecora's clued me in to the fact that there was a backlash brewing--against Bush hubris and Democratic hand-wringing--and that this election might turn out to be an interesting one after all.
* * *
Howard Dean came to Seattle on May 15, 2003, where he fired up a full house of 1,200 people at Town Hall. It was the largest audience he had drawn at that point, and the appearance caused ripples of attention in the national press. With his blunt and fiery denunciations of the Iraq war, and of the general right-wing zealotry of the Bush administration, he was, to put it mildly, well received here. David Postman, the Seattle Times' usually insightful chief political reporter, blew it big time (as the vice president might say), dismissing Dean as a marginal Ralph Nader clone, but two weeks later Matt Bai of the New York Times Magazine, arguably the country's best political reporter, ratified what Seattle already knew: Despite the press' decision to anoint John Kerry as the Democratic frontrunner, Dean was going to be a player in the primaries. Burlington, Vermont, was ground zero of the rapidly expanding Dean campaign, but Seattle quickly became Dean's left-coast citadel.
The Dean meetups quickly spread across the state; in Seattle, Dean signs started to replace the omnipresent No Iraq War signs as the bungled Bush invasion began to slowly spiral down to its current level of "catastrophic success." Only New York and Washington, D.C. boasted more meetup-registered Dean supporters than this city. By the end of June, when a huge, 10-day surge of Internet donations pushed Dean to the top of the fundraising pack, even the national press, once they recovered from their shock, knew that Dean was for real.
Though their were nine Democratic candidates nationally, as far as Washington State was concerned, Dean only had two rivals: Kerry, who had the backing of Old Seattle establishment liberals, and Dennis Kucinich, running as the progressive voice of an ardent but increasingly anachronistic Old Left. In Seattle, though, Dean remained dominant all through the rest of 2003. His blend of fiscal centrism, liberal social values, and calls for prudence and pragmatism on the international stage, wrapped in a thick cloak of unremitting attacks on the follies of the Bush administration--"radical right-wing wackos" is how he described the Bushies to the Washington Post--had Seattle (and, by late summer, much of the Democratic base in the rest of the country) swooning.
Dean was always an odd vehicle for liberal rage, given his centrist, law-and-order credentials as governor of Vermont. But he projected absolute certainty about his core convictions--"he's the ideological mirror image of George Bush," Taylor says--at a time when Democrats were in danger of despairing. And his rat-a-tat-tat machine gun blasts of anti-Bush verbiage came across as refreshing and authentic, though he was already showing a penchant for the sort of gaffes that would eventually contribute to his undoing.
Seattle's love affair with Dean culminated in Dean's August 24 Sleepless Summer Tour rally, held at Westlake Center plaza. The crowd was large; perhaps 10,000 people turned up, packing the plaza and clotting side streets in every direction. But what was really memorable about that night was the energy of the crowd, which roared its approval of Dean's message with a fervency that was unmatched on the other nine legs of the tour. The next day, on Dean's plane, Dean said to me, "Seeing all those people out there [in Seattle], the enormity of it all really struck me. For the first time I realized what it really means to be president of the United States--seeing all those people out there, counting on you." To this day--I interviewed Dean by phone a couple of weeks ago--he refers to that night as one of the biggest highlights of his campaign.
* * *
Meanwhile, John Kerry's campaign, built around his Vietnam-era Swift Boat heroism, seemed dead in the water. Polls showed him fading around the country; in one he was tied with Al Sharpton. His fundraising dried up. On Leno, just before his appearance on the show, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog mercilessly ripped him: "The poop I made in the dressing room has more heat than John Kerry." In December, he mortgaged his Beacon Hill townhouse to raise a few million dollars to keep his flagging presidential hopes alive. In Seattle, Kerry supporters were fading into the woodwork, or jumping onto the speeding Dean freight train.
Two exceptions stand out. First, and foremost, was Rep. Adam Smith, the chair of Kerry's state campaign, who worked tirelessly to promote Kerry's candidacy long after even he believed Kerry had little chance of winning. I remember talking with Smith in mid-December, the blackest depths of the dark days of the Kerry campaign, at a firehouse in Tukwila, where Smith spoke to a small group of firefighters about Kerry's plan to better equip first responders. The other was Jan Drago, city council president, who appeared at that event to endorse Kerry.
But Kerry was still polling relatively well in Iowa, and the Iowa caucuses were the ballgame. As Dean's Perfect Storm effort to bring 3,500 volunteers to Iowa--including several dozen Seattleites-- experienced a perfect storm of media hype, Kerry quietly concentrated his dwindling resources in the state, building a coolly professional get-out-the-vote operation crucial to success in caucus states. As the January 19 caucuses approached, Dean began to slip badly, as the media began to scrutinize--and criticize--everything coming out of his mouth. Dean deserves his share of the blame: His campaign was disorganized (and hemorrhaging money), and he lacked the message discipline required of a frontrunner.
Kerry won, handily. Dean finished a distant third, behind John Edwards. And then came the infamous scream, which ensured there would be no Dean comeback. Dean made what was essentially his last stand in Washington State at the caucuses on February 7. He won Seattle, but was trounced by Kerry in the rest of the state. Still, Washington State gave Dean more delegates to the national convention than any other state. Kucinich, who had lived in Washington for a time before resuscitating his political career in Ohio, also did well in Seattle, finishing third. "The people of Washington State are independent-minded," Kucinich told me in a recent interview when I asked him why he did so well here. "They're rugged individualists, but they also have a sense of beauty."
* * *
Though Seattle loved Dean, it hates Bush more. When Kerry won, the city embraced him. It took a little time, but Kerry's strong liberal credentials, his increasingly sharp criticism of Bush's Iraq fiasco, his strong, knowledgeable debate performances-- especially when contrasted with a confused and surly Bush--won over the city. He will never ignite passions the way Dean did, but his coolly rational approach to fixing the messes the Bush regime has created was deemed to be enough. And, of course, he's not George Bush. When Kerry and his wife visited in May, they raised a state record $2.2 million at a packed $1,000 a plate fundraiser at the Westin.
Many of Dean and Kucinich's most ardent supporters in Seattle are now working their tails off to elect Kerry, people like Greg Rodriguez, chair of the King County Dems, or Jess Beckett, a 19-year-old Kucinich delegate who now does progressive outreach for the Kerry campaign. With both Dean and Kucinich enthusiastically endorsing Kerry--and stumping for him here--the Nader threat thankfully appears to have faded in the Northwest.
If Seattle's experience of this campaign began with Dean, it's only appropriate to end with him. When I spoke to him by phone the other day, he had lost none of his fire. "Ralph Nader has disgraced himself," he said, pointing to the support the once-commendable consumer activist has received from right-wing Bush supporters like the anti-gay Oregon Family Council. A second Bush term would be "a disaster for the country," he added. "Washington is a very important state for John Kerry.... This is a battle for the future of the soul of our country. We've got to win this election."
I asked Dean if he thought his campaign had succeeded in changing the direction of the Democratic Party. His reply was typically impolitic. "The party hasn't changed direction enough," he shot back, pointing to the "ridiculous corporate giveaway" of bloated tax breaks that sailed through congress earlier this month. "We've obviously got a long way to go in the Democratic Party," Dean said. But Dean is being too modest. Dean did change the party; he made it possible for other Democratic leaders, Kerry included, to say what they actually believed: that blinkered right-wing ideologues in the Bush administration had misled the public into a needless war and had disastrously bungled the aftermath of that war. John Kerry could not attack the war now were it not for Howard Dean, which means he could not attack the war now were it not for Seattle, and the role this city played in sharpening the Democratic message. Win or lose next week, this is one little provincial town that will have nothing to regret.