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Power of political grassroots

03/05/04 12:00AM
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(Host) Commentator Garrett Graff has been collecting the stories of the activists who brought new meaning to the concept of "grassroots politics" in the Dean for America campaign.

(Graff) Much has been written over the past few weeks about the premature collapse of the Dean campaign. In the end, it took only six weeks for our campaign to go from being on top of the world - with more endorsements, more money, and more organization than any other campaign - to being out of the race after a losing streak that stretched to more than a dozen states.

The campaign obituaries have focused on infighting, control over the campaign checkbook and that wonderfully ambiguous phrase, "messaging problems." But those stories are missing one of the most fundamental aspects of the Dean story: the hope and political empowerment that he gave to so many previously tuned-out Americans.

It turns out, that much as Dr. Suess's Grinch discovered that he couldn't stop Christmas by taking away the presents and the trees, we've discovered that our campaign is continuing without the candidate. And thus the campaign's greatest lasting impact might just be the fresh faces that it brings to politics at a local level.

Perhaps the political future lies with new activists like Punx for Dean founder Kimmy Cash - a 28-year-old Californian who normally makes her living selling vintage merchandise on eBay - and who, with her boyfriend and two children in tow, traveled state-to-state recruiting over 13,000 volunteers nationwide from the punk rock community. She now plans to start a non-profit organization to keep them politically involved.

Or take Howard Vicini, who was disabled in a 1976 pipeline accident and spent the last ten years living, in his words, "without hope and without purpose" before he discovered Dean, and built the nationwide Seniors for Dean organization. As the campaign came to an end, Vicini changed the group to Seniors for America so that the group's work could continue. Vicini and Cash are far from alone in their efforts. Already, we've heard from over 100 people have been inspired by the campaign to run for office in their local communities. It turns out that taking your country back really does begin at home.

In my work on the campaign, and my travels and conversations with Dean supporters over the last nine months, I have always been struck by how personally affected they were by the campaign. Their belief in the power of participation has encouraged me to stay involved in politics past the end of this campaign as well.

Last Sunday, I met with John Sykes, one of the four original founders of the Dean online community, for lunch near his home in New Hampshire. We talked about the campaign, and he explained that despite his frustrations and disappointments, he was going to stay involved in politics and community service. As we stood up to go, he paused. He said, "You know, it may have just been a campaign slogan, but I always felt that I really did have the power."

All across the country, people are saying the same thing: Howard Dean was right: The power to change America really doesn't rest with him - it's been ours for the taking all along.

I'm Garrett Graff of Montpelier.

Garrett Graff served as Howard Dean's deputy press secretary.
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