DNC Chief Dean to Step Down

Howard Dean took over the DNC after a failed '04 presidential bid.
Howard Dean took over the DNC after a failed '04 presidential bid. (Brendan Smialowski - Getty Images)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Former Vermont governor Howard Dean will not seek a second term as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a committee spokeswoman said yesterday, clearing the way for a loyalist of President-elect Barack Obama to be named to the soon-to-be-vacant post.

"Governor Dean has been honored to serve as chairman of the Democratic Party for the past four years and is very proud of the work our party has done and that, in Barack Obama, we have a leader who is committed to reaching out to people in all 50 states. Governor Dean looks forward to the next challenge -- whatever that may be -- when his tenure ends in January," said DNC communications director Karen Finney.

After a failed presidential bid in 2004, Dean took over the DNC with the controversial mission of building credible political operations in all 50 states. Grass-roots -- and net-roots -- activists, who propelled Dean's presidential bid and helped get him elected party chairman, embraced the strategy. But the party's Washington political establishment bristled at using resources in deeply Republican states such as Mississippi and Idaho, insisting the money was better spent in places where Democrats were more likely to win.

In time, Dean won over many skeptics, including former president Bill Clinton, in part because of a series of special House election wins in conservative strongholds such as northern Mississippi and Baton Rouge. A DNC memo released after last week's presidential election, in which Obama won in some states where Democrats had not won in decades, detailed Dean's accomplishments and noted that "when Obama became the nominee there were 183 people on the ground who have been there, been trained, and were working for the nominee" as a result of the 50-state strategy.

"Because of Governor Dean's efforts, our party is stronger today than it was four years ago," said Stephanie Cutter, a spokeswoman for the Obama transition team. "He recognized the importance of reaching out to people in all 50 states, empowering people at the grass-roots level and rebuilding the infrastructure of the party."

Said consultant Donna Brazile: "Dean became chairman at a time the party was divided and incredibly demoralized after a stinging defeat in 2004. Not only did [he] have to work to convince party leaders that his 50-state strategy was the best method to achieve victory in 2006, he planted seeds of hope in laying the foundation for the party's reemergence as a national party in 2008."

Dean's name has come up as a possible choice to lead the Department of Health and Human Services in Obama's administration.

The next chairman of the DNC will be chosen at the group's winter meeting early next year by the more than 400 committee members. Possible replacements for Dean include Brazile, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and DNC Secretary Alice Germond. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill and Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine -- both close Obama allies -- are also considered possibilities, but sources close to each said they are not likely to be interested in the job.

Those familiar with the DNC's operations said the committee may also consider a structural reorganization along the lines of how it operated during the presidential campaign, in which Dean served as the general chairman and Obama field director Paul Tewes handled day-to-day management.

Despite the party's recent successes, many Democratic leaders remained critical of Dean for what they said was a lack of attention to key issues, such as fundraising.

The DNC consistently struggled to keep up with its Republican counterpart even as the Democratic House and Senate committees built huge financial leads over the GOP in advance of the 2008 election. As of Oct. 15, the Republican National Committee had raised nearly $337 million in the 2008 election while the DNC had raised just over $206 million.

Others questioned what they described as Dean's on-again, off-again involvement in the 2008 presidential primary process, which was marked by an extended public fight over the nominating calendar.

"He did not position the DNC in a way in which it probably could have been most effective during the primaries," said one Democratic strategist familiar with the inner workings of the committee. "He took a much more passive role and it hurt them in terms of the presidential primary process."

At times, disagreements over Dean's stewardship of the DNC became public. Reports following one particularly contentious meeting between Dean and newly installed White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel in the spring of 2006 -- when Emanuel was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- described the Illinois congressman as spewing invective as he stomped out of the gathering.

Terence R. McAuliffe, who preceded Dean as chairman, praised the former Vermont governor's performance. "He handled it great," McAuliffe said. "He has done everything expected of the DNC chair. These are tough jobs."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company