No single endorsement, save that of next July’s party convention, will decide the winner of what remains a remarkably unsettled race for the Democratic presidential nomination. But some endorsements carry more weight than others, which explains why all the major Democratic contenders made plays for the support of Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. It also explains why Jackson’s endorsement of Howard Dean, which the Illinois congressman expects to make official in early December in South Carolina, rivals Dean’s securing of the Service Employees International Union and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union endorsements as a campaign coup. Jackson gives Dean needed street cred not just among African-American voters but also among the broader pool of progressive voters who have come to respect the 38-year-old son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson as a principled and persistent champion of peace and economic and social justice in Congress, and a fierce battler against those who would pull the Democratic Party to the right.
While many progressives still have qualms about Dean, who governed Vermont as a centrist and who critics say has evolved leftward only as it has proven beneficial to his presidential ambitions, Jackson says long conversations and campaign trips with the governor convinced him that “Howard Dean has a genuine desire to reshape the Democratic Party. He’s been willing to take on the top-down Democratic Party leadership, to build a movement rather than just a campaign. It’s that movement that has scared the insiders. They’re fighting him right now, just like they’ve fought a lot of us who want to open the party up. I want to help him win that fight.”
The surface assumption is that the greatest assist Jackson can offer will be among African-American voters. Other candidates, particularly Dick Gephardt and John Edwards, have attracted African-American support in key states. But with his father sitting the nomination fight out–Jackson Senior echoes his son’s kind words for Dean but has not made primary endorsements since his own 1988 presidential run–the congressman could well be the best-known African-American advocate for any of the candidates. “It’s no secret that the governor comes from Vermont, one of the whitest states in the union. While his campaign has done some strong outreach to people of color, I think we’ll be able to do a lot more for him in urban areas and the South,” explains Jackson, who plans to campaign for Dean in his own state of Illinois, the delegate-rich industrial states of the Midwest and key Southern states like South Carolina. “But I also expect to be campaigning in white communities, especially in the South. Howard Dean believes, as I do, that it is possible to get African-Americans and working-class whites together around an economic-justice agenda so powerful that they look beyond the issues the Republicans have used to divide us. That’s something I’ve been talking about for years, and I think Howard Dean is the one candidate this year who gets it.” Dean has also been endorsed by Congressional Black Caucus vice chair Sheila Jackson Lee.
Jackson, who says he was drawn to Dean initially because of the candidate’s strong opposition to the Iraq war, began talking with Dean after his brother Jonathan, a Chicago businessman, endorsed Dean earlier this year. After Dean hired a well-regarded former National Rainbow Coalition aide, Andi Pringle, as a deputy campaign manager, Jackson quietly attended a speech Dean gave at Howard University in early October and then flew with him to South Carolina and watched him in action before three predominantly white audiences. “I wanted to see how he handled himself in front of different crowds,” says Jackson. “I was impressed. He struck the same themes, he was clearly intent on building a broad coalition, along the lines of the Rainbow. And he was willing to take risks to do that.”