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Going Forward: An Open Letter to Howard Dean

Dear Governor:

I have known and admired you for more than 16 years. As you recall, we first met while working on the Dick Gephardt for President Committee back in 1987. Although Gephardt lost in the primary, your unwavering support of a little-known Congressman from the Midwest was crucial and helped validate his campaign proposals on health care.

[IMGCAP(1)]Since announcing your candidacy for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, you’ve been the talk of the town. Everywhere I go, people (not just Republicans, but even some prominent Democrats) are asking me how the Democratic Party could turn to Howard Dean after John Kerry’s defeat last year. My simple answer, as a neutral observer in the race for chairman, is “because we can reconstruct our party to stand for something again.” Now that you have secured the endorsement of the state party leaders, it’s time to heal old wounds.

The truth is, the race for party chairman should never have been about you. But unfortunately the defeated, the dejected and the delirious wings of the Democratic Party have made this, like the 2004 presidential primaries, an “anybody but Dean” race. For whatever reason, your candidacy left a mark and the wound continues to fester. In going forward, win or lose, take some time and care to make sure it heals.

After listening to the candidates for chairman and vice chairmen this past weekend in New York City, I truly believe you have the ability to become a great leader of our party and could shake things up enough to make sure Democrats lay a foundation for future elections. But the chance, like in 2004, may elude you because of what you stand for. As I write this column, some labor leaders are still debating the merits of your candidacy.

At a time when Democrats were demoralized after losing control of the Senate and for failing to win back Congressional and gubernatorial seats, your candidacy gave Democrats a much-needed jolt and got our hearts beating all over again. Your candidacy caught fire, a new generation of activists found a way to be players and used the Internet to create a buzz. And, man, did you make fundraising seem easy for a party dreading the impact of McCain-Feingold.

Suddenly, you were on the cover of major newspapers and magazines. Political pundits followed your every move as you electrified the masses yearning to have a voice at the table. Your name was on every tongue inside and outside the Beltway. This led some people to suggest that Karl Rove was salivating at the prospect of the party nominating an ultra-left, anti-war liberal to take on a wartime president.

But just as you appeared to be on the verge of catching fire in the Iowa caucuses, the winter turned harsh. People loved you in their hearts, but they became frightened of what it would mean for the Democratic Party to have you serve as our standard-bearer. Some of those same people are now involved in a last-ditch effort to stop your candidacy.

Your youthful, tech-savvy supporters were new to the game of hardball presidential politics. They were playing in a league where the rules change based on who’s in the game. Soon, some party insiders flush with cash went to work to cool your jets. You haven’t quite been the same since the moment they made and paid for a video comparing you to Osama bin Laden.

Perhaps this time you will make it to the top. But, as you have experienced, the climb up the ladder from ex-governor, ex-presidential candidate to chairman can be steep. The hurdles now, like the obstacles you confronted in the Democratic primaries, are mainly about ego. For all its talk about inclusiveness, the Democratic Party is extremely turf conscious. Thus, it’s incumbent on you to reach out and bring these people, the very ones who went to the mat to stop you, into the fold.

The bigger fish in the Democratic pond (the party is still swimming upstream) are truly bottom feeders eating away their young, casting aside callously their base and ignorant of the sharks circling our old coalitions. They have dismissed an entire generation of potential leaders when they held power by failing to lift up those who were coming behind. With you, some of the people who have been kept down found their voice. No matter what happens next week, keep fighting for them.

Following a bruising loss in 2004, I am truly ashamed of my party for making the most important decision facing it a contest based on who not to support rather than who can help us rebuild. But, luckily, the state chairmen have temporarily put an end to the “anybody but Dean” crusade.

No matter what happens to Dr. Howard Dean, M.D., I urge you to continue to heal the wounded. Stay positive and just try to remember why some of us are still loyal Democrats.

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

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