Establishment Democrats are none too happy with Howard Dean these days. He’s deviated from the script on a number of occasions, which has resulted in lashings from John Edwards as well as Joe Biden among others. But the larger story isn’t Dean’s verbal punishment; it’s the fact that the DNC’s top three fundraisers have left the committee for what many insiders see as a result of their differences in fundraising strategies.
Washington Democrats are linking the resignations to Dean’s fundraising style. Like his presidential campaign, Dean is focusing much of his energy on the Internet. He still believes that the grassroots can reenergize the party. Of course it is still not clear as to what Dean would do different regarding domestic or foreign policy, yet he still argues that Democrats have to look outside the Beltway for direction. Look for this attitude to change soon.
In the process of raising money, Dean has paid scant attention to the big Democratic donors. New York finance director Bridget Siegel resigned from her post last week while Lori Kreloff, finance director for the state of California, exited the DNC late last month.
The largest blow to Dean’s DNC came when the director of grassroots fundraising, Nancy Eiring, resigned, citing strategic differences with Dean aides, reported ABC News. Dean has indeed done a fine job of corralling his progressive activists who latched on early to his presidential campaign. But critics of Dean’s short tenure at the DNC note that he has yet to adequately reach out to the Democrat’s corporate block.
According to The Hill, Democratic fundraisers admit that there is “growing concern over what they call Dean’s lack of attention to major donors and that donors are much less likely to give money if they don’t have sufficient opportunity to meet with the party’s leadership.”
Dean’s affinity for the Party grassroots is really only a recent development, for Dean has hobnobbed with big business throughout his political career. An example: As Howard Dean planned his race for the White House; he must have thumbed through George W. Bush’s campaign playbook. Within the first four months of Dean’s announcement of his bid for the White House, he had amassed over $110,000 in donations from people with ties to the Fund for a Healthy America, a Vermont utility group. No, it’s not Enron, but it’s still dirty money, if only because of the conflict of interest.
On February 27, 2002, David Gram of the Associated Press reported: “One donor who gave Dean’s PAC the maximum amount allowed — $5,000 … is Robert Young … a top official at two utility companies that have had a lot of important business before state government during Dean’s nearly 11 years in office. Young is chief executive at Central Vermont Public Service Corp. and chairman of Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corp.”
Although Dean’s campaign spokesperson Kate O’Conner said it would be absurd for anybody to think donations to the Dean campaign bought access, Dean seemed to believe otherwise. “People who think they’re going to buy a contract … are mistaken,” he stated in 1996 during the campaign reform bill debates. “But they do get access — there’s no question about that … They get me to return their phone calls.”
Dean’s distinction allowed him to maintain a veneer of integrity: he claimed he was not for sale. But if such calls buy access, they buy the ability to help define the framework within which decisions are made, a framework that operates in the interests of industry, if not the outright interests of the individual firm from which the contribution comes.
And indeed they did. As Gram wrote, during Dean’s transition into the governor’s mansion, he called on utility executives to help with the change of office. It’s no coincidence that those executives’ businesses benefited greatly. Notes Gram:
*After years of pushing for the companies to absorb the excess costs of their expensive contract with Hydro-Quebec, Dean’s Department of Public Service agreed to let ratepayers be billed for more than 90 percent of what those excess costs are expected to be in the coming years. The extra costs will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
*The department also agreed to allow the utilities to sell Vermont Yankee to a Pennsylvania company for a price that was expected to be $23.8 million by the time the deal closed. Shortly before the Public Service Board was to make a final decision on that sale, another company stepped in and offered more than seven times as much. That sale to Entergy Nuclear Corp. is currently before the board
*After it became clear in the late 1990s that selling Vermont Yankee was a top goal of the utilities, the administration failed to heed warnings for more than two years that the money the nuclear plant was paying for emergency planning was much less than was needed. An administration official said there was concern about interfering with the sale.
So, Dean’s administration in Vermont went along with the sale despite the burden placed on taxpayers. Dean also allowed Vermont Yankee to be sold to an out of state corporation, even though it was not likely to benefit Vermont residents, only the executives of the corporation that got Dean to return their phone calls. Yes, those are the qualifications of a DNC chairman.
When it comes to the matter of contributors, James Dumont, a lawyer for the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, seems to have hit the nail on the head, contending: “They (Dean Administration) didn’t bite the hand that fed them.”
So in the coming months look for Dean to reach out to the party’s corporate wing. He’s done it many times before and he can do it again. The Washington Democrats think he’s done a fine job of corralling the grassroots; now its time to get big business back on board. Howard Dean won’t let them down.
JOSHUA FRANK is the author of the forthcoming book, Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, to be published by Common Courage Press. You can pre-order a copy at discounted rate at www.BrickBurner.org. Josh can be reached at: Joshua@BrickBurner.org.