By Jodie Briggs
Judy Hall spoke with the fervent tone of a church-goer. "I was looking for a candidate for two to three years. I needed to find someone that I truly believed in."
Hall not only found her candidate, she became active in her candidate's campaign. Although she had never been involved politically, Hall traveled to different states to campaign and chaired local events in his support. The only problem? He won't be on the Democratic ticket this fall.
Supporters of Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich, and the other former Democratic contenders face a big decision: Jump on a new bandwagon or retreat from presidential politics. For many, their newfound activism is too strong to shake, even if it means supporting John Kerry, whom they see as an imperfect candidate, but one still better than President Bush.
Hall, a local leader in the Dean for America movement, was disappointed but not deterred when Dean left the race. "When things changed (for Dean), there was a lot of emotion." She decided to stay with the Dean base while moving her support to Kerry. Like other Dean supporters, she remains involved with Democracy for America, the political action committee that spun off from Dean's campaign.
Democracy for America supports candidates in state and national campaigns who promote the same issues that Dean brought to the national dialogue. While its members continue to speak of Dean in hushed, worshipful voices, most are committed to electing Kerry. "It wasn't easy at first because we were so passionate," says Hall about making the switch, "but they all support Kerry."
During the primary, the differences between the two candidates appeared sharp and insurmountable. Dean launched his campaign and drew a significant portion of his supporters with an anti-war stance, while Kerry voted for the authorization of war and called for international cooperation. Domestically, the two sparred over health care plans and Bush's tax cuts.
But for former Dean supporters, those details may not matter as much now. Rene Gonzalez knew instantly that he would support Dean after seeing him on television. "When he said he was going to repeal the Bush tax cuts, that's when I said 'That's my guy.'" Although Kerry has said he will only repeal some of the cuts, leaving in place those that benefit the middle class, Gonzalez will support him. "At this point, what we need to do is get rid of Bush," Gonzalez insisted.
For those who have shifted their alliance, it seems that reconciliation of the differences comes in three forms: 1) Kerry has adopted Dean ideas. 2) Kerry believes in solid Democratic platforms. Or 3) Kerry is not Bush.
Hall takes the more optimistic Dean-inspired view. "The things that were important to Dean became important to the other candidates." She argues that whomever voters ended up anointing in the primaries would be responsible to the Dean movement. "The candidate would take forth those same messages and if they dropped the ball there would be a lot of people to respond to," she said.
Other Dean supporters contend that Kerry is a fine candidate, thank you very much. "If you look at Kerry's record, he votes for the things I care about," said Zada True-Courage. "I was not excited about John Kerry, but I don't see any reason why I shouldn't support him."
Still other former Dean proponents unquestionably support Kerry as the white knight to deliver them from another Bush presidency. "While there are many things I like about Kerry, frankly, I'd vote for Mickey Mouse if he were the Democratic candidate," explained Connie Marshall.
Dennis Kucinich devotees are confronting an even longer set of discrepancies with Kerry's platform. Kucinich maintained that he would not only remove troops from Iraq, but that he would create a Department of Peace to promote non-violence. Kucinich also vehemently criticized the Patriot Act and trade agreements like NAFTA, both of which he pledged to repeal.
Kucinich, who remained in the race long after Kerry had sewn up the nomination, continued to urge Kerry to take a more progressive stance. Although the Democratic platform is still far from Kucinich's, it now includes language that authorizes removing troops. Last week, Kucinich officially withdrew from the race, endorsed Kerry, and urged his supporters to do the same.
Heidi Allen, who was a Kucinich delegate at last month's state Democratic convention, agrees with Kucinich's decision. "I'm officially a Kerry supporter now," she said. Allen believes that criticism of Kerry's moderate stance is unfounded. "I believe Kerry's voting record a whole lot more that I believe the rhetoric that comes out of his campaign," she said. "Since the furthest back I was able to track his votes, he has fought for progressive values." Allen dismissed his more moderate votes on the war authorization and the Patriot Act as "lapses in judgment." Like former Dean supporters, Allen embraces Kerry as an alternative to Bush. "I fear for the future of our democracy should he be re-elected," she said.
With the most anti-Kerry wing of the party now supporting him, Democrats have positioned themselves as a party united against Bush. They are so strong, in fact, as to balk at the mere suggestion of Kerry criticism. When questioned by opponents about Kerry's alleged flip-flopping or pandering, they dismiss it with a list of grievances against Bush or arguments straight out of Kerry's stump speech.
Recent polling, meanwhile, suggests the unified Democrats have a major opening. In one poll, 55 percent of people disagreed with the statement "I believe our country is on the right track." Another poll showed Kerry pulling ahead in swing states. To the befuddlement of the party faithful, the race remains deadlocked. "I don't get it," said Gonzalez.
Ultimately, as Connie Marshall explained, the tight race inspires even those who may hold their nose in the voting booth. "The bottom line for me is that I'd vote for anybody to get Dubya out of office." •
By Jodie Briggs