Nearly 15 years ago, Bill Burton was driving Dick Gephardt around Iowa in an electric blue Saturn Vue named “Sue” with David Plouffe and John Lapp along for the ride.
The Missouri congressman’s 2004 presidential hopes eventually ended with a fourth-place finish in the state’s Democratic caucuses, but Gephardt’s Iowa campaign team would go on to boost Democrats at the state and federal level, and even elect a president four years later.
Team Gephardt is a good example of the powerful bonds forged on those long drives and long days of organizing, and their loss offers lessons for the latest crowd of contenders.
“The ones street-fighting in the gutter are punished, while the political bystanders benefit,” said Lapp, Gephardt’s Iowa state director, about the dynamic that ultimately hurt his candidate and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and benefited Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards in the crowded race. “This is a cautionary tale for the giant Democratic field today, that we learned the hard way: Stay classy, 2020 Democrats.”
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Hindsight is 20/04
“We had a good strategy for a traditional caucus and a great team, we just found ourselves on the losing end of a revolutionized caucus process,” said northwest regional field director Emily Parcell about Dean’s online youth movement. Parcell was political director for Obama’s successful effort in Iowa in 2008, when Plouffe was the campaign manager.
“We hit our internal goals for recruited supporters on caucus night and got completely swamped out because our goals were all predicated on a projected turnout of 90,000 and it ended up closer to 125,000,” added Parcell, who is now a direct mail consultant with Wildfire Contact and a senior adviser for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.
“We should have tried to get people on the record with endorsements,” remembered Cerro Gordo County organizer Jessica Post, who is now the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee’s executive director. “So many people we thought were with us watched John Edwards and switched.”
“I wouldn’t have leaned on lists of activists from 1988,” said northeast regional field director Andy LaVigne, referring to Gephardt’s previous run for president when he won Iowa. “It turns out that was a long time ago, even in 2003-4.”
LaVigne, currently the political director at the International Association of Fire Fighters, and Post first met knocking on doors for Gephardt in Iowa, and the two are now married.
“We were good at focusing on fundamentals, delivering a message, and ID-ing voters, but we needed to expand and update our approach to the environment we were in,” said southeast regional field director Preston Elliott, who was subsequently Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee deputy executive director and campaign manager for Montana Sen. Jon Tester.
“As much as the Iowa Caucus is most of all about retail … you can’t bypass the showy, star-studded events,” said Lapp, who was executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006 when Democrats reclaimed the House majority. “Iowa caucusgoers want to be with someone they like, but also someone who has momentum. There is an element of star power and show that you have to take seriously.”
Life on the trail
While helping to elect a president is serious business, there’s room for fun, whether it’s air hockey at Family Fun Center, bowling at Val Lanes, listening to Wilson Phillips during call time, or drinks at Wellman’s.
“John and Travis did a great job of making the Iowa crew feel like a family,” according to Johnson County organizer Lucinda Guinn (who went on to be political director at EMILY’s List) about Lapp and Iowa field director Travis Lowe.
Lapp put together two CD mixes titled, “What will you do when Gephardtmania runs wild over you?” They were designed to keep the team energized on the long drives across the Hawkeye State while embracing the fact that they weren’t working for the most charismatic candidate in the race.
Songs included “Hip to Be Square” by Huey Lewis and the News and an original remix by a local amateur DJ of the congressman’s “Milk Truck Driver” stump speech.
But one night on a drive to a debate, Gephardt got inspired by Eminem’s 8 Mile anthem “Lose Yourself” while listening to a mix CD and jokingly suggested writing different words and phrases on his hands.
“I said, ‘Yeah, don’t that,’” recalled Lapp, whose son, Truman, was born in Des Moines in September 2003 during the campaign.
One late night after a debate, Burton, the Iowa communications director, was driving, and Lapp fell asleep. Burton knew he was allergic to apples but decided to eat one to stay awake. The plan backfired, and Burton started to drive himself to the hospital as his breathing deteriorated. But by the time Lapp woke up, “the Great Apple Scare of 2004” was over, and Burton could breathe again.
A couple of years later, Lapp hired Burton to be the DCCC’s communications director. Burton later worked on the Obama campaign, in the Obama White House, and for Priorities USA.
In a sign of the times, some of the campaign’s most memorable moments involved internet access.
“We ran the Davenport office on my organizer’s ex-boyfriend’s AOL account until he changed the password. It was like three months before he figured out what was happening,” said Eastern Iowa field director Rebecca Pearcey, who was later the DLCC’s independent expenditure director and is now a senior advisor for Warren’s campaign.
“The Gephardt campaign may be the reason AOL stopped giving out free 7-day trials on CD — we scooped them all up and ran our offices on them for most of the summer,” she said.
Northeast Iowa organizer Abby Curran Horrell found an alternative.
“I remember walking into the Dubuque public library to do data entry one morning, and seeing the organizer for every other major presidential [campaign] doing the same thing,” said Horrell, who was subsequently a chief of staff on the Hill and is the new executive director of House Majority PAC.
Scott County field organizer Charlie Kelly skipped the post-call-time logjam for the one computer at headquarters with internet access by going to a fraternity house across the street from the Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport.
“They weren’t using the computer much,” said Kelly, HMP’s outgoing executive director.
Early in the race, when the candidates had smaller staffs centered in Des Moines, Wellman’s Pub on Ingersoll was neutral ground. The Kerry, Dean, Edwards and Gephardt groups all had regular corners, and would buy each other drinks.
“We sent beer [to the Edwards team], they sent us tequila, we responded with boilermakers,” LaVigne remembered. “We also on at least one occasion sent a round of Zima to the Kerry people — not sure if they were in on the joke though.”
“They were so fancy to us,” Pearcey added. “To this day, when there are a group of Gephardt people and we see a Kerry person, we send over a white wine spritzer, and we laugh and laugh and laugh.”
“We had a lot of friends on the other campaigns, and while folks were fighting for the win, we knew we were back on the same team in the general,” Elliott said.
But how did this team of future veterans of the DCCC, DSCC, DLCC, the Obama campaign, and the organized labor and environmental movement come together?
“There were a lot of people running for president and not enough bodies to hire,” recalled Lowe, who went on to run the DCCC’s independent expenditure arm and is now a consultant with Three Point Media. “I can only imagine what 2020 organizing directors are going through.”
“We looked for hard workers with a good sense of humor, not easily rattled, willing to stick things out through thick and thin. People who weren’t show horses or glam-hounds,” Lapp said. “We interviewed people who said they had watched the entire ‘West Wing’ TV series, could quote every line, and wanted to be the next Sam Seaborn. Those are the people we didn’t want.”
Ultimately, however, having a young and talented crew wasn’t enough.
“You can have a good team and a good game plan, but if you don’t have a winning message, it’s tough to overcome,” Lowe said.
But there are very few regrets from Gephardt’s team because of the shared mission and fond memories.
“That phone script will be in my head forever,” said Polk County organizer Leslie Martes, who is now state electoral campaign director for the League of Conservation Voters.
The night before Thanksgiving 2003, a bunch of the regional field directors went to the Perkins restaurant on Fleur Drive in Des Moines after an entire afternoon at a bar and proceeded to unscrew the light bulb from over the table.
The manager who told them to put it back cited “Perkins Policy” as his reason, according to Parcell.
“We still text about ‘Perkins Policy’ to this day,” she said.
Kelly called the campaigns organization and structure “extraordinary.”
“Nothing about it is easy, but it’s totally worth it,” Kelly said about working in Iowa.
“You learn so much on every campaign,” Burton said. “But mostly I would have eaten less apples.”