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It’s Time for America to Get to Know John Kerry

Since arriving over the weekend in Boston to attend the Democratic National Convention, I am amazed at the tremendous buzz and excitement inside the Democratic Party. For the first time in decades, the party is unified and energized behind its nominees, Sens. John Kerry (Mass.) and John Edwards (N.C.). Democrats, hungry for a change in Washington, D.C., and in state houses, have embraced the central message of the Kerry-Edwards ticket, “stronger at home and respected in the world,” and they are ready to carry it back home to persuade undecided voters. [IMGCAP(1)]

Now that the party has a substantive message instead of the typical meaningless sound bite, the major challenge for the Kerry-Edwards campaign is to formally introduce the candidates to the American people. This is no easy task. Most Americans are distracted with their daily lives and the major television networks have chosen to reduce coverage. Still, for those voters who will tune in, dial up (blogging is in vogue) and read all about it, Kerry will have an opportunity to tell us who he is, where he comes from and what he believes. This is Kerry’s moment to show not only that he’s presidential, but that he also understands the need for every American to be safe, secure and prosperous.

Like most Americans, prior to this primary season I did not know much about Kerry beyond the usual inside-the-Beltway chatter. Although I heard his name tossed around for the vice presidential slot in 2000, I had my eyes on others who were competing in the same arena. Therefore, when the 2004 presidential season got under way, I made a decision to stay out of it rather than support any one candidate. However, my friends from the 2000 presidential season immediately jumped on board the Kerry express.

Minyon Moore, Weldon Latham, Jill Alper, Jim Jordan, Michael Whouley and Chuck Campion dialed up every Democratic activist to attend private dinners and sessions to introduce Kerry. I avoided them. My rationale was simple: Why bother getting to know Kerry or the others until the primary voters had a chance to make up their minds? When he surprisingly came back from near political death in Iowa, I decided it was finally time to get to know him. This was no easy task.

Team Kerry, initially open to outsiders, began to close ranks. The challenge was on to raise money in order to be more competitive against the Bush-Cheney team’s massive money machine. I have to give Kerry and his staff some credit: They soon learned they had to grow and expand. And they have.

Kerry has earned the support of Democratic activists who are eager for a change in Washington, D.C. As we are learning from friends who have known him for decades, Kerry is a natural leader and a great listener and he does not take no for an answer. In the words of Michael Whouley, someone I trust and admire, “Kerry is real.” Indeed, Kerry is authentic, loyal, caring, forgiving, comfortable and confident in articulating his values and vision for our nation.

When I last spoke to Kerry at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Convention in Las Vegas in May, he greeted me with one of those long hugs. He looked me in the eyes with a wide smile on his face and said to me, “I need your help.” Looking back, that was the moment I knew Kerry was an honest, decent and thoughtful person who can connect with ordinary people from all walks of life. Before we ended our embrace, I told him what my father, a Korean War veteran, once said to one of his Army buddies: “Senator, I have his back because I know you will always have my back.”

Jill Alper once told me that Kerry is a person you want in a foxhole — tough, courageous and dependable in time of crisis. Whouley went farther — he said Kerry knows what it’s like to be “down and come back fighting.” Moore, who coordinated with Latham, an early Kerry supporter back when the Senator was the perceived frontrunner, used one word to describe her encounters: gracious.

Campion, John Sasso and Jack Corrigan, my colleagues from the 1988 Dukakis campaign, have all known Kerry for decades. They respect his leadership and value his commitment to diversity. They know what he’s made of and what he deeply cares about. In fact, they light up when they speak about Kerry because their relationship with him is personal. Kerry looks out for his friends, and it shows. When I questioned the commitment of the Kerry campaign to diversity, they put me in touch with some of his old friends in Massachusetts and said, “Call them first.” I did.

What I found out is that Kerry had already called up Massachusetts state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson and others to ask for help and to urge them to make visible their strong support. You see, when confronted on diversity, Kerry did not shy away. He got it, and I was impressed.

Like many of us who were products of the civil rights struggle, Kerry has made diversity, at the convention and within the party, a cornerstone of his campaign.

Kerry is serious about leading and uniting our country and bridging all that divides Americans at this challenging moment when we should be one nation, one people. In getting to know Kerry, I have come to admire his instincts and abilities as a leader. After he completes his speech on Thursday to the country, I am sure voters will like Kerry even more and will have plenty to talk about back home.

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grassroots political consulting firm.