What's the former Republican mayor of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, doing in the treasurer's seat at the Democratic National Committee?
"I don't mean to sound saccharin," says Evan Dobelle, "but Jimmy Carter was the first politician I knew who I could envision being at the signing of the Declaration of Independence."
That kind of political awe led Dobelle to switch parties two years ago and even surmounted grumblings from Massachusetts pols such as Tip O'Neill who were startled when President Carter picked Dobelle as his chief of protocol last year. At the White House Dobelle helped oversee the dismantling of some of the trappings of power: Richard Nixon's trumpeters were eliminated, for example, and visiting dignitaries began receiving photos of their visit instead of expensive gifts from the First Family.
Dobelle and his wife, Kit (they're both 33 though he notes slyly that his wife is really six months older), apparently did such a good job that last month Carter asked Kit to replace her husband. And he sent Mr. Dobelle to keep the purse of the debt-plagued Democratic National Committee.
"It's a difficult thing to comprehend that we don't have a computerized list of donors, but we don't," admits Dobelle, who says being the majority party in Congress and controlling the White House doesn't mean the Democratic party is loaded. In fact, in the recent past the Democratic National Committee had to borrow money simply to meet the weekly payroll. And Dobelle has six staffers while his predecessor at one point had 21.
The DNC is still trying to pay off $1.7 million owed for costs related to the Humphrey and Kennedy campaigns of 1968 and the 1972 convention. Leaving aside those airline and other bills from the past, it costs $200,000 a week "just to open the doors here," says Dobelle, who reminds a guest that "we hadn't had the White House for eight years."
Dobelle is completing his doctorate in the education field, he is not a lawyer or banker, but he says he doesn't "really think the American people have enough deference for mayors." As a Republican in Pittsfield, he oversaw a $43 million budget and says he helped earn a town near bankruptcy a respectable "double-A" bond rating. His immediate plan: to computerize lists of past Democratic donors and inaugurate an aggressive direct mail campaign. He wants to continue having the president, vice president and senior White House staffers at fund-raising dinners as part of a "methodical, systematic, administrative approach to raising money."
How will he pitch the party?
"I guess the easiest way is to ask, 'What's your alternative?'" says Dobelle. That, of course, is the comparatively rich Republican party. Dobelle very politely suggests the opposition is concerned with "those who have it and wish to keep it," while the Democratic party wants "to help more people have."
Dobelle talks a bit wistfully of "being on the line" everyday as a mayor as compared to working in the "never-never land of Washington." But elected office can always come later, for as he notes, "I'll be 39 when the President's second term is completed."