Lobbyists Boost Dean in D.C.
Despite regularly bashing his opponents in the Democratic presidential race as Washington insiders, frontrunning former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is relying on a group of seasoned lobbyists and other Washington political operatives to help guide his own inside-the-Beltway efforts.
The group, which meets every two to three weeks, was organized by former Clinton administration official Maria Echaveste and Nikki Heidepriem, a former staffer to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). It includes roughly 25 people who assemble in an informal gathering of Capitol Hill staffers, lobbyists, lawyers, and employees of nonprofit and advocacy organizations. Heidepriem would not provide a full list of attendees, citing confidentiality concerns.
“We try hard to let people know what is going on with the campaign and the candidate and that can have an effect,” said Heidepriem, who is now a partner in the public affairs shop Heidepriem & Mager. “We try to be messengers of why we can win.”
Among those who regularly attend the meetings are former Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.), now a lobbyist affiliated with the Livingston Group; former Democratic National Committee vice chairwoman Lynn Cutler of Holland & Knight; and Christine Varney, a Hogan & Hartsen attorney who served as the general counsel on the first Clinton presidential bid and as a Federal Trade Commissioner from 1995 to 1997.
Terry Lierman, a former Hill staffer, lobbyist and House candidate who now serves as Dean’s national finance co-chair, is also a regular participant.
Jay Carson, a spokesman for the Dean campaign, praised the efforts of the group.
“They were with Howard Dean in Washington before being with Howard Dean in Washington was cool,” said Carson. “They recognized that he has the vision that we need.”
Dean’s beachhead in the lobbying community led several of his opponents in the Democratic primary to question his credentials as an “outsider” candidate.
“Once again, Howard Dean’s message is, ‘Watch what I say, not what I do,’” said Steve Elmendorf, a senior adviser to Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.).
Heidepriem said the group was initially formed in February as a vehicle to help Dean court superdelegates to the Democratic convention — specifically House Members and Senators.
Drawing on her experience as the Congressional liaison for the 2000 presidential candidacy of former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), Heidepriem began to conduct informal meetings to update interested parties on the progress of the Dean campaign.
As Dean began to receive Congressional endorsements — Rep. Zoe Lofgren (Calif.) was the first House Member to get on board — the group quickly became an information clearinghouse for the Dean campaign.
Echaveste, who also serves a senior policy adviser for Dean’s campaign, noted that “running for president is unlike running for anything else because you have to develop policy and have something to say about a whole bunch of issues that you might never have had to address as governor of Vermont.”
“If there is a need for a particular policy expertise we try to be useful to [Dean] when we can,” Heidepriem added, who explained that Lofgren, along with Sens. Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), are now heading up efforts to recruit their colleagues.
Despite his status as the unquestioned frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, Dean still badly trails Gephardt in the chase for Congressional endorsements.
Gephardt, a former leader of his party in the House, now has 32 Member supporters. Dean’s 10 backers trail the totals of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (18), Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (13) and retired Gen. Wesley Clark (12). Clark’s Congressional supporters have claimed that he will end up with upwards of 50 Member endorsements.
The Dean group regularly meets with campaign manager Joe Trippi when he travels to the city and is in regular touch with the fundraising operation in hopes of helping to swell the governor’s coffers.
“There is a lot of income in this area,” said Lierman. “This is a place to cultivate financing for a campaign.”
Through June 30, Dean received more than $500,000 in contributions from the District, Virginia and Maryland. He brought in more than $25 million in the first nine months of the year, putting him far in front of his eight rivals for the nomination.
Varney, who heads up the Internet Practice Group at Hogan & Hartson, said she has held several fundraisers on behalf of Dean and has also set up some small-group meetings with “opinion leaders in the public affairs community.”
Varney added that she primarily advises Dean on economic issues with a New Democrat bent but would never categorize herself as a member of Dean’s “kitchen cabinet.”
Cutler, who twice ran unsuccessfully for Congress from Iowa in the early 1980s before moving on to work in the Clinton White House, said she told Dean in January that she was supporting him after seeing him speak to a conference of Democratic mayors.
Since then Cutler has made numerous calls to the Hawkeye State on Dean’s behalf even as the former governor has emerged as the co-frontrunner in the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus scheduled for Jan. 19, 2004.
Cutler has also used her experience working with local government during the Clinton administration to help organize mayors and other locally elected officials for Dean. “Truth be told, these are the folks who have the ground operation,” she said.
Cutler is also one of a handful of advisers to Dean on tribal issues.
Each of the members of the Dean group admits that he or she has run into some skepticism when it comes to pitching the former governor’s candidacy to colleagues.
“There’s a lot of chatterers,” said Cutler. “People are having trouble believing he can do it.”
But, they counter, most Washington-based strategists have seen Dean only in televised debates (“Not his best forum,” argued Cutler) and not out on the stump in early primary states.
“It is harder when you are inside the Beltway to connect with the passion Democrats feel,” said Varney. “There is a difference when you are coming from outside of Washington.”
Still, many Democrats — especially those who closely monitor House and Senate races — remain concerned that Dean at the top of the ticket could hurt them in the South and other key battlegrounds in 2004.
Many observers float the idea that given Dean’s momentum the race will come down to him and an “establishment” candidate who at this point appears to be Clark.
Cutler warns that an organized “stop Dean” movement among Democratic Party regulars could have long-term deleterious effects.
“If at the end of the day it doesn’t work out for the governor, if it is seen in any way, shape or form that he was forced out by the leadership of the party, [Dean’s backers] are gone,” she said. “They will not come back for someone else.”