‘Dean’s List’ Features Unusual Honor Roll

Posted May 14, 2004 at 6:37pm

In choosing a farm team of candidates inspired by his presidential bid, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean last week chose an eclectic mix of long shots, insurgents and acolytes as the first 12 candidates to receive financial and organizational backing from Dean’s organization, Democracy for America.

The one-time frontrunner for the Democratic nomination chose an inaugural “Dean’s Dozen,” of which nine are seeking state and local office. Only three — state Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, attorney Richard Morrison of Texas and college professor Jeff Smith of Missouri — are running for federal posts.

Dean’s first selections reveal that he still relishes the underdog, a role he played himself for much of the presidential race before rising to the top of the field and then self-destructing during resounding defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Far from a “who’s who” of targeted races, Dean’s list includes only one candidate —Obama — who is receiving significant attention and support from the national Democratic Party. Obama is running for the open seat of retiring Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) and is locked in a tight but winnable race against former investment banker Jack Ryan (R) in the general.

The other federal candidates are widely considered long shots. Morrison, a first-time candidate, is taking on House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) — a reviled figure for many Democrats, but one who represents a strongly Republican district in the Houston area.

Smith is viewed as an underdog in a 10-way Democratic primary to succeed Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) in a St. Louis-area seat.

“These will be tough races, and not all of the Dean Dozen may win,” the former governor acknowledged in an e-mail sent to the roughly 600,000 members of Democracy for America, the group he formed in the wake of his failed presidential bid. “However, they will all spread the message that to change America progressives must compete.”

Dean spokesman Jay Carson added that Dean remains motivated by the same energies that drove his presidential race.

“He ran a campaign that was fueled by the grass roots,” Carson said. “The grassroots gave his campaign a lot, and this is an attempt to give back by helping local candidates.”

The inclusion of Smith suggests just how unconventional Dean’s choices were.

Smith, a college professor at Washington University in St. Louis, met Dean at a conference during the summer of 2002.

Smith and Dean talked briefly afterwards, with Smith telling Dean that he had worked as deputy political director for New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley’s 2000 presidential effort.

Dean plugged Smith for the names of some Iowa activists and continued to tap into his Hawkeye State connections over several months.

“I learned a lot from the way he did that,” Smith recalled in an interview. “He gave me a template on how to do this.”

But in the primary to succeed Gephardt, state Rep. Russ Carnahan — the son of the late Gov. Mel Carnahan and former U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan — and state Sen. Steve Stoll are considered the contest’s frontrunners.

Smith, a political unknown before the race, said that the traffic to his Web site has increased tenfold since being named to the list and online contributions have “increased exponentially.”

Through March 31, Smith had raised $234,000 for the race and had $180,000 in the bank.

Morrison, who visited Washington two weeks ago to drum up excitement for the race, said that his campaign has experienced similar results, including a quadrupling in traffic to his Web site.

Aside from the financial impact, Smith said the Dean endorsement “opens up some doors from a national perspective” and “contributes to an already changing perception” about the race.

Smith said the possibility of a Dean visit to the district prior to the Aug. 3 primary has been discussed, but he offered no details.

Carson said it is “likely that there will be a visit” by Dean to each of the dozen candidates in the coming months.

Both Morrison and Smith acknowledged that bringing in the sometimes controversial former governor was not without risk — but they argued the benefits far outweighed any concerns.

“Richard is not ashamed to be seen with any national Democrat,” said Morrison spokesman Nathan Wilcox. “Richard and Dean disagree on some issues but agree on a whole lot more.”

Smith said that his campaign’s research showed that Dean remains a very popular figure in the strongly Democratic district.

“The people that it may potentially hurt me with were not going to support me in the first place,” he added.

While neither of the House races are likely to garner attention from national Republicans, GOP strategists say that Obama may now have to answer for some of Dean’s more controversial positions, including his support for a full rollback of the Bush tax cut.

“Getting help from a guy who squandered over $50 million to win Vermont is not going to get you over the finish line in a race for Senate in Illinois,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Communications Director Dan Allen.