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The Special-Interest Group Hug

Howard Dean Meets Democratic Caucuses

By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 12, 2005; Page C01

Incoming Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean spent yesterday in a series of meetings with valued Democratic constituencies at the Hilton Washington. He did the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus at 12:15 p.m., the Seniors Coordination Council at 12:45 p.m., the Women's Caucus at 3:40 p.m., the Native Americans at 4:35 p.m., the African Americans at 5 p.m., the Asian Pacific Islanders at 5:20 p.m. and the Hispanics at 5:40 p.m.

Cynics might call this regimen emblematic of the Democratic Party's over-attention to special-interest groups. Not so, says Laura Gross, spokeswoman for the former Vermont governor who is expected to be elected party chairman today at a DNC meeting. "Governor Dean is going to need everybody's help," Gross says, "and that's why he's talking to all these caucus groups."

Howard Dean, expected to become chairman of the DNC today, tells an African American caucus, "We're gonna need lots of help from y'all." (Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

Wherever he goes, Dean is trailed by a bulldozing throng of cameramen, some of whom have a knack for smashing bystanders in the head with their equipment. This can be somewhat disruptive, especially at the meetings Dean joins in progress, but Dean is always quick to get down to business.

"You are among the most persecuted people in the history of mankind," Dean tells his first audience, the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus. This leads off a rapid-fire series of applause lines from Dean, who during his presidential campaign once declared, "If Bill Clinton can be the first 'black president,' I can be our first 'gay president.' " He doesn't go this far yesterday, but assures everyone that when he's elected, "it will not be my chairmanship, it will be our chairmanship."

He darts out to a standing ovation and heads a few rooms over to address the National Seniors Coordinating Council. "Democrats have a lot of work to do among seniors," he tells them, adding that he himself is a proud member of AARP. He talks about Social Security, Medicare and prescription drugs, and takes a question from a woman who says she wears a Howard Dean shirt to bed every night, which makes him blush.

After a break, Dean walks in to a standing ovation from the Women's Caucus. Women are not an interest group, he says, "they are a majority." By the way, Dean says, Democrats need to start talking about Social Security not as a seniors issue but as a women's issue. On his way out, a woman puts a lei of pink flowers around his neck.

A few doors over, Dean stands before a meeting of Native Americans, some of whom say Democrats have neglected their community -- a recurring message among many of the constituencies Dean meets with.

"I'm sick of the DNC treating Indians like an ATM machine that has to be courted every couple of years," says Kaylin Free of Oklahoma. She is starting a group called "Indian's List," which will encourage Native Americans to run for office, and which Dean calls "a really great idea, really exciting."

A woman from Arizona complains that while the GOP hired staff from within the Native American community during the last election, the DNC "imported kids from Harvard and it didn't work." Yes, this has to stop, Dean agrees. Then he bolts next door to see the African American caucus.

"We're gonna need lots of help from y'all," Dean says by way of hello. He quotes from the Bible, affirms the party's commitment to equality and diversity, and rails against what he calls inadequate voting machines in minority communities.

"We Democrats don't pay enough attention to our core groups," Dean says, and half the room nods in agreement. He takes a comment from a woman who says blacks didn't receive enough resources from the DNC last year. "Show me the money," she tells Dean.

"I'm gonna show you the money," he assures her. "And I'm gonna show you the responsibility, too." Applause.

He surveys the crowd of 150 crammed into the room. "You think the RNC could get this many people of color into a single room?" he marvels. "Maybe if they got the hotel staff in there."

The Asian Pacific Islander American Caucus is more subdued and considerably smaller -- about 15 people. But that doesn't mean Dean is any less appreciative.

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