History has already recorded Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign as the first to harness the power of the Internet. But there may be a second, overlooked Dean legacy brewing. Generation Dean, the youth and student division of the campaign, was founded by two Washington, DC-area students and peaked at 23,479 members with 1,133 chapters nationwide, more than twice the number of College Democrats groups. Moreover, an unprecedented quarter of Dean’s 300,000 individual donors were under 30.
The Generation Dean blog–a central mechanism used by the campaign to coordinate with its youth supporters–is no longer active, but Dean for America remains in touch with its members through its 640,000-strong e-mail list, and many young people are expected to join the campaign’s new organization, details of which will be announced March 18. “There are people that are chomping at the bit,” says Ari Mittleman, who with fellow DC college student Michael Whitney put up the original Students for Dean website. He himself has “an informal offer” to move to Burlington, Vermont, after graduation and work on the campaign’s new incarnation.
Many former “Deanie Babies” will no doubt drift off to find new interests. But conversations with two dozen of Dean’s student organizers from all over the country–at the campus, state and national level–suggest that for the most part they are unbowed by their hero’s crushing defeat and ready to stay involved in politics. They’re already developing plans to use the grassroots organizing skills and personal networks they developed over the past year to help elect Democrats locally, unseat Bush and advance a progressive youth agenda.
Twenty-five-year-old Eddie Ableser may be the first child of Generation Dean to run for office. A community activist and student leader who will get his master’s in counseling from Arizona State University in May, Ableser announced his candidacy in September for Arizona’s House of Representatives from District 17. Ableser was an active member of ASU’s GenDean chapter, which he says inspired him to run. He is drawing on the group for his organization–students with practice in canvassing, phone banking and running house parties. “Basically the same stuff we did for Dean, we’re doing for Eddie,” says his 19-year-old press aide, ASU sophomore Corinne Widmer.
Tony Cani, a 25-year-old senior at Arizona State, was the founder of ASU’s GenDean group and rose to become part of the national team. Known among GenDeaners as a crack organizer, he has lost no time marshaling support for Ableser and other candidates. “We have about forty members on campus,” he says. “It’s a cohesive group, locally based, locally focused. I think maybe a couple hundred people out of a thousand members statewide will remain active, and there are people who have been lurking on the website, reading the e-mails, who I think are ready to do more. We want to create a youth-vote organization, like Rock the Vote, but partisan–and not just registering people to vote but educating voters. Registering someone to vote is like giving them the keys to the car. You still have to tell them where the car is parked and when it’s going to be around.”
Matt Glazer, a 22-year-old political science major at Trinity University in San Antonio, who was the GenDean coordinator for Texas, is on a similar mission in the Lone Star State. “I’m already shifting to campaigns for county chair and state rep,” he says, mentioning John Courage, Ken Mireles and a handful of other candidates for Texas’s recent elections, for which he busily turned out volunteers. “I’m drawing on the network I have created–Generation Dean city coordinators in Houston, San Antonio, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Lubbock. We are independent of the state party organization. I’m going to do whatever it takes to get Democrats elected here.”
Generation Dean ran almost as a campaign within the campaign with a great deal of autonomy. While the blog and mass e-mails were important, the focus nationwide was on face-to-face organizing, supporter identification and increasing voter turnout. “The campaign gave GenDean full authority over all its actions, independent from supervision,” says Michael Whitney, who founded Generation Dean with Ryan Beam at Ohio University and Yoni Cohen at Washington University in St. Louis, and became the national communications director of the group.
Now a sophomore at American University studying communication, Whitney took that trust to heart. He is working to turn the energy and the contacts he’s built into a national “AARP for young people,” a broad membership organization advocating for young adults on bread-and-butter issues that affect them. “Issues like globalization are the hot spots for the activist crowd, but what really reaches students after graduation is the 10 percent unemployment rate for 18-30-year-olds. We need to make sure that people under 25 have health insurance,” says the slightly breathless 19-year-old. “The goal is to get candidates to recognize youth issues and hold George Bush accountable for the young Americans killed in Iraq, for cutting $300 million from student aid and for kicking 85,000 students off of federal aid.”
Bradford Stephens, a 20-year-old community college student in Jacksonville, Florida, also found his organizing legs working for Dean. A chemical engineering major, Stephens ran the 500-member JaxForDean community group from July 2003 through February, managing the website, attending the state party convention and bringing Dean to his city in early November. Now his plan is to “take back the Democratic Party” in his state by getting progressive blocs to join Florida’s local Democratic Executive Committees and providing grassroots resources to local candidates. Stephens said that like himself, the people he’s worked with are “all new to politics…they were disillusioned with politicians who would promise everything and then never deliver. Dean was an honest voice.”
No matter how many of these visions come to fruition, the spirit of energized Democratic Party activism is indisputably in the air. It remains to be seen, however, whether John Kerry will be able to harness the enthusiasm of young people. His website currently lists just 222 campus Students for Kerry chapters, and they have no independent website or blog.
On the other hand, students like Nick Benson of Ohio State University’s Students for Dean are not waiting for an engraved invitation. “I plan on devoting my summer to working for whomever the Democratic Party nominates as its candidate for President,” Benson says. “Even though Howard Dean was not nominated, I know that this campaign has changed America and the way our political process operates. What is important is that we accept the results of this primary and work hard to support our party and to defeat George W. Bush. Our candidate may not become President, but if those of us who supported him stay engaged in the political process we can continue to transform the Democratic Party for years to come.”