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Iowa-Witness Account

Pounding the prairie with a Vermont Deaniac


Published January 28, 2004 at 8:07 p.m.

When I first heard Howard Dean give his now infamous "I have a scream" speech, I was driving down Mormon Trek Road in Iowa City, listening to the radio. I was in Iowa City as a "stormer," part of the Dean campaign's massive volunteer mobilization called "The Iowa Perfect Storm." I was exhausted from five days of campaigning. My lips were chapped, my feet hurt, my throat was sore, and I had just spent the past two hours babysitting for 15 kids while their parents caucused -- many of them, it turns out, for John friggin' Kerry. And when I heard Dean's phlegmy, painfully amplified voice, I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I thought he sounded awful.

So I was surprised when I got to the "victory party" at Buffalo Wild Wings and heard my fellow stormers praising the speech. Hearing it over the radio, I hadn't realized that Dean was shouting to be heard over the deafening roar of his stormer-centric audience -- his mike only picked up his voice, not theirs. The stormers I spoke with had seen the crowd on TV and were more forgiving than I was.

I've become more forgiving, too, after seeing a version of the speech shot from the crowd's perspective (check it out at http://www.idiom Watching the replay that night on TV, I saw Dean whip an orange stormer hat from his back pocket and toss it at the crowd. Then, I felt a resurgence of pride in what I'd been doing for the past few days.

When people ask me how it went in Iowa, I think they expect me to be sad and deflated, but despite my brief cringe in the car on caucus night, I had a great time. Dean may not have won over as many voters as Kerry or Edwards, but his campaign assembled the largest grassroots operation Iowa has ever seen -- three times the size of its nearest rival -- and in this age of political apathy, that's something to be proud of.

This army didn't just come to cheer Dean on; we spent several days making phone calls and knocking on doors, exactly the kind of grueling political work most Americans avoid. And though ultimately we had little effect on Iowa, Iowa affected us. Storming Iowa was like participating in a democracy-in-action boot camp; it was exhilarating, exhausting and unforgettable.

I signed up for the Perfect Storm last November. Going to Iowa was the hardest, hard-core Dean thing I could think of to do. The campaign leaders said they really needed our help. Plus, it seemed like the perfect way to meet some of the people all across the country who were fueling Dean's vibrant Internet campaign. I had been a regular reader of the Dean blog for months and was anxious to meet some of my fellow bloggers face to face at the Blogger Breakfast Saturday morning in Des Moines.

Through the blog, I had located Julie Ann Thayer, another Vermonter who was driving to Iowa. We formed a sappily named group, "Dean Sunrise," which Julie registered on the Perfect Storm website. We departed from her Williamstown home on Tuesday, Jan. 13, driving her 1995 Subaru wagon with studded tires. Julie slapped five Dean stickers on the car before we drove off into an afternoon snowstorm.

Julie is a true Deaniac. She has attended Meetups, canvassed in New Hampshire, thrown two house parties for the candidate, and written dozens of letters to undecided voters in Iowa. A 58-year-old, sixth-generation Vermonter, Julie wears her long, blondish-white hair loose and isn't afraid to get her hands dirty or speak her mind. She has been a schoolteacher and a horse farmer and is currently self-employed, selling sports bras and boxer shorts designed by her 78-year-old mother (also a Deaniac).

Julie had never been involved in politics before. When I talked to her on the phone before our trip, she sounded enthusiastic, to say the least. "At first, I didn't think he had a chance in China," she said. "But now… my God, we might actually change the world!"

Julie approached our trip with missionary zeal. Every stop we made, she handed someone a few Dean brochures. I waited for her to return to the car at one gas station, thinking she'd gone in to use the bathroom. When she returned, she opened the back-seat door instead of the front. "OK," she said, "I'm about to convert some Geppy people. They thought he'd be best. We'll fix that. Where are my bumper stickers?"

When we stopped Tuesday night at a Super8 Motel in Syracuse, I thought my work for the day was done and pulled out a book. Julie got out her stack of unfinished letters to undecided Iowans. She sat on the edge of her bed for two hours, penning double-sided, handwritten letters, urging voters to caucus for Dean. I felt so guilty sitting there reading that I wrote a letter myself. Into each envelope, Julie inserted a single-page "How to Caucus" primer, and on the other side of the sheet, she copied Bill Bradley's endorsement speech.

"Have you ever read this?" Julie asked the next day in the car. I said no, so she read me the speech, snuffling a bit towards the end. "I can never read this without tearing up," she said.


On our way to Iowa, we stopped in Wooster, Ohio, to pick up Sandy Cleary, a 52-year-old former Army medic who is currently unemployed. A shy, blond woman who worked on the Gore campaign in 2000, Sandy said she supports Dean because "he's against the war."

The three of us reached the Cedar Rapids Dean for America office on Thursday afternoon. Located on the third floor of a downtown building, the office's cheap card tables, fold-up chairs and disorganized piles of Dean lit reflected the staff's on-the-fly intensity.

The carpet had long ago been ripped up, and in its place threadbare rugs were duct-taped to the floor. Dean signs covered the walls, along with hand-lettered posters that read, "Restoring Rural America" and "Equal Rights for Gays and Lesbians."

The moment we arrived, an intern named Jeannie from Iowa's Cornell College -- her blond hair knotted into dreadlocks -- asked Julie, Sandy and me if we were ready to do some phone banking. My first instinct was to say no. I was hungry and tired. But the infectious urgency in campaign offices can overpower even the most basic human needs, and after a few seconds of indecision I agreed. "Sure," I said. "I'll make some phone calls."

Jeannie explained the task. To maximize their efforts, the campaigners labeled all voters on a six-point scale. "Ones" were definite supporters who would be caucusing for Dean, "twos" were leaning towards Dean, "threes" were caucusing but undecided, "fours" were leaning toward another candidate, "fives" were definitely caucusing for another candidate, and "sixes" weren't caucusing or wouldn't talk with us. The people on our lists had already been identified as "threes." Our job was to tell these Iowans our story and turn them out for Dean. "We're past all this wishy-washy stuff," said our trainer. "We can't have threes. It's either yes or no."

I didn't get many ones that night. This would have been depressing if other stormers hadn't begun to arrive while I made phone calls. When we had started calling, the office was nearly empty; by 6 it was so noisy I had to plug my ear that wasn't glued to a cell phone. By 6:30, they had run out of phones. I gave mine to a college professor from Ann Arbor, and took a break. I listened for a couple minutes to the cacophony of these enthusiastic, passionate people. "Bring your son," said a college kid from Georgia. "Bring everyone you know!"

There were 13 storm sites, and I spent time at two of them. I started in Cedar Rapids, and on Sunday moved to Iowa City, a half-hour away. On Friday, the campaign opened separate storm offices across the state to process volunteers. Both storm centers I saw -- one at Coe College, the other at a Motel 6 -- were stuffed to capacity.

In fact, I left Cedar Rapids because it got too crowded. Besides the carloads of volunteers that arrived all day Friday and Saturday, 127 people rolled in on two buses from Philadelphia early Saturday morning.

Most of us stationed in Cedar Rapids were staying in one long, narrow room in a campground cabin, sleeping on mattresses laid side by side on the tile floor. When I fell asleep around 1:30 a.m. on Saturday -- dead tired after canvassing in freezing rain -- there were 30 or so people asleep around me. When I woke up at a quarter to six, I was lying in a hive of more than 150 sleeping bodies.

I was supposed to have gone to the Blogger Breakfast that morning in Des Moines, two and a half hours away, but had overslept by an hour, and the roads were dangerously icy. Instead, I jumped into a 15-passenger van with 10 other stormers at 6:30 a.m. for a 90-minute drive to Davenport. The campaign needed us to retrieve 10 minivans for transporting the Philadelphia people during their stay.

On the ride out, I sat next to Janine Gottlieb, a 34-year-old woman from Philadelphia who heads the organizing committee for Dean. Janine works as a computer mapper by day. She spends the rest of her time volunteering on the campaign. "Dean's doing all the work of capturing people's imaginations," she told me. "All we need is the local structure."

Since the campaign doesn't have any paid staff in Philadelphia, Janine and her volunteers are the local structure. They field all the press inquiries -- they've generated at least a dozen stories this week -- send out an email newsletter to their 3000 members, and organize campaign events. They put together this trip by posting a notice on Get Local, one of the Dean site's online organizing tools.

Like 75 percent of her Philly gang, Janine is new to politics. "This is the opportunity of a lifetime," she told me. She was definitely making the most of it. She orchestrated three hours of programming for the bus ride to pump up her volunteers, and had gotten almost no sleep since leaving Philly on Friday. Still, Janine seemed totally wired and eager to talk politics rather than doze. "What would have happened in Florida in 2000 if people were plugged into a network like this?" she mused.


Maybe it was just the severe sleep deprivation, but I felt the same wild, optimistic buzz at moments throughout my time in Iowa. It had something to do with the sheer number of like-minded people surrounding us, and with the sight of the orange stormer hats, which to us represented a willingness to travel great distances and persevere despite rejection.

And, boy, did we face a lot of rejection. Like American soldiers descending on Iraq, we were surprised to find that the local populace did not welcome us with open arms. Whether it was because the other campaigns had poisoned them against us, or because our own statewide campaign had faltered, or because Iowans just didn't like people in orange hats trying to change their minds, they didn't respond to our grassroots invasion -- at least not the way we wanted them to.

Most people exhibited that famed Midwestern politeness. But not all. While doing some last-minute phone banking in Iowa City on primary day, I heard a guy from New Jersey hang up his phone and laugh. "Do you know what that guy just said? He said, ‘Why don't you give it up, you goofy bastards?'" There were six of us stormers in the room. We all laughed. We didn't feel like goofy bastards. We felt like committed, patriotic citizens, even if we were a little goofy.

For me and most people I spoke with, that feeling outlasted the results of the caucus. Patty Zubeck, a 46-year-old filmmaker from Washington, D.C., told me that, thanks to Iowa, she's in it for the long haul. "Whoever wins the nomination, I'm going to quit my job and join the march," she said. Michael Rodemer, a 50-year-old University of Michigan professor, told me he would keep working for Dean in Michigan, but that his Iowa experience made him feel "more cynical" about politics.

Jon Zemke, a 26-year-old freelance reporter, disagreed. "It actually made me more enthusiastic about politics and less cynical," he said. "I came to Iowa because I got an email from Joe Trippi saying he came to Iowa to campaign and it changed his life. And I can honestly say that it's changed my life."

Both Jon and Michael are now volunteering in Michigan.

My new Vermont friend Julie Thayer admitted her disappointment with the Iowa results, as did Sandy. Our drive back was much more subdued -- Julie didn't hand out a single flier. But she was still determined to work for Dean -- she told me she planned to take a day off when we got back, "and then it's on to New Hampshire," she said, a note of determination in her voice. I asked her what she would do if Dean didn't win the Democratic nomination. "Cry," she said. "And then I'd probably start working for somebody else."