Some Fret Over New DNC Head

Posted February 7, 2005 at 6:50pm

When former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean formally assumes the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee later this week, he will have to grapple with the fact that a handful of political consultants are already leery of his plans to reform the organization.

While a number of consultants contacted for this story professed no ill will toward Dean, they did acknowledge that some members of their profession have concerns about the incoming DNC chairman.

Dean ran his DNC campaign on the same reform-minded message that catapulted him from a little-known governor of a small state to frontrunner status in last year’s Democratic presidential primaries.

Illustrating Dean’s impending struggle is a decision by the DNC to use Ed Reilly, a pollster with the firm Westhill Partners, to handle a recent Social Security survey for the committee.

The choice of Westhill prompted grumbling among some consultants who immediately noted the firm’s connection to the incoming chairman, through its recent hiring of Jim Jordan, an adviser to Dean, several sources said.

“Ed Reilly is a fantastic guy, but the last campaign he did was [former Rep. Richard] Gephardt’s presidential campaign, and I am not sure what he has done before or since,” said one Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Erik Smith, a longtime aide to Gephardt (D-Mo.), also recently joined Westhill.

A Democratic consultant added that “a lot of people think that the people that jumped on the Dean bandwagon had larger contractual concerns going forward.”

Officials at both the DNC and the Dean campaign rejected the criticism, pointing out that Reilly’s hiring was done by the outgoing chairman, Terry McAuliffe, and was handled without Dean’s knowledge.

“Lest any anonymous grumblers get too carried away with their conspiracy theories, the facts are these: The DNC made the decision to commission this poll in November, long before a single candidate announced, and based that decision entirely on merit and projected cost,” said DNC spokesman Jano Cabrera.

Jordan was more succinct: “The whole episode is just so bizarre and sleazy,” he said of the complaints. “I assume it’s just the squeals of a couple of pigs worried about their longtime spots at the trough.”

The murmurs surrounding what seems to be a simple misunderstanding highlight the level of mistrust regarding Dean within the community of Democratic consultants.

During his run for the White House, he once described Members as “cockroaches” and promised that when he was elected, he would send them scurrying from the bright light of reform.

Dean has also expressed disdain for the Washington political culture that he alleged conducts polls to decide what to think.

While Dean has softened his rhetoric somewhat in the DNC race, some Democrats are waiting nervously to see whether his proposed reform includes a house-cleaning of consultants who have reaped the financial largess of a committee that raised and spent $400 million last cycle.

“There is some concern,” acknowledged a Democratic consultant who has worked with the DNC in the past. The consultant insisted, however, that the primary concerns about Dean are not about whether the money spigot will be turned off at the new DNC.

“We will still get business because the cream will always rise to the top,” said the consultant. “The bigger concern is what he is actually going to mean to the party’s brand.”

That sentiment was echoed by several other party consultants and strategists, none of whom would allow their name to be used for this story.

While Dean has spent considerable time as a DNC candidate emphasizing that he is not the ultra-liberal that some in Washington believe him to be, he remains a perplexing — and worry-inducing — figure for some in the party’s establishment.

Much of that concern is based on Dean’s implosion following his third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, a defeat punctuated by his now infamous scream at a post-caucus rally for his supporters.

Despite raising upwards of $50 million, Dean’s campaign staggered into New Hampshire and, after placing second there, largely disappeared — one of the most meteoric falls for a frontrunning presidential campaign in memory.

That collapse led to the departure of Joe Trippi, the Washington-based media consultant who had become a star in his own right thanks to his position as Dean’s campaign manager.

Trippi’s former firm — now known as McMahon, Squier & Associates — remains close to Dean. Those close to Dean expect Steve McMahon, a principal in the firm, to be a DNC mainstay during a Dean chairmanship.

One party strategist said the largest question surrounding Dean’s chairmanship is whether he treats his new post as if he has been elected president.

“If he looks at this job as an opportunity to promulgate his message and his persona to the country at large as to what the Democratic Party is about, that is problematic,” said the source. “If he uses his skill to work within the party he will wind up doing pretty well.”