Big Gay Activist Managing State for Howard Dean

Former Governor Howard Dean of Vermont is this year’s “movement” Democrat, the candidate whose uncompromising rhetoric has galvanized an army of grass-roots supporters, giving him an unexpectedly strong showing in the polls, an outsized share of media attentionandthe allure of afashionable campaign.

But with this earlysuccess comes a dilemma: How does he avoid becoming yet another well-meaning progressive who, after an outpouring of early support, withers down the stretch, when the novelty wears off and his lack of organization leaves him unable to compete with better-funded opponents?

In New York, the Dean campaign thinks it has found the person to solve that problem: Ethan Geto, a veteran operative and gay-rights activist.

Mr. Geto, once a fiery young reformer in the Bronx and now a 59-year-old professional lobbyist and political fixer, has signed on to be Mr. Dean’s New York campaign manager. Over the last three decades, Mr. Geto became one of the most powerful gay-rights advocates and left-leaning operatives im the country, and played a role in a string of doomed liberal Presidential candidates, including George McGovern’s and Walter Mondale’s, among others. But after managing Bob Abrams’ disastrous Senate campaign against Al D’Amato in 1992, he quit professional politics and focused on his lobbying work.

But now Mr. Geto is ready to make a comeback. It will be up to him to bolster the Dean effort in New York, a state which is a crucial source of ideas, campaign volunteers and, most critically, money.

In a hectic interview in his East 40th Street office, Mr. Geto-a bearish presence at just over six and a half feet tall-argued against the notion that Mr. Dean is tilting at windmills. “The reason I decided to sign up and invest a lot of blood, sweat and tears is because I think this guy can do it,” he said in a thick outer-borough accent. “I think the timing is right because of the way Bush has governed. And I see Dean as having a very strong cross-over appeal. He’s sort of been put in a box now as ‘the anti-war guy,’ but I’m optimistic about where he goes from here.”

But Mr. Geto, in taking on a major role in the Dean campaign, faces a unique set of challenges and tasks. He has been hired, in part, because he’s an experienced hand at political organizing, something the volunteer-heavy but cash-poor Dean campaign desperately needs. So it will be up to him to marshal the eager volunteers who have crowded into Mr. Dean’s New York appearances into the kind of grass-roots political force that swept insurgent liberals like Paul Wellstone and Russell Feingold into the U.S. Senate.

“The challenge for me is: What do you do with all these volunteers between now and the end of November [the likely start of the labor-intensive petitioning process]? How do you maintain their enthusiasm, and what is it you give them to do that’s not just make-work, but really advances Howard Dean’s candidacy?” said Mr. Geto.

“We’re developing a plan that utilizes all of the volunteers across the state in very focused mass activities that will be coordinated and structured, giving people very concrete and specific things to do,” he continued. Mr. Geto believes such a plan will increase his candidate’s visibility at little cost.

Mr. Geto also will be expected to use his extensive contacts in the gay community, among other generally progressive Democratic constituencies, to line up a core of political and financial support for the Dean candidacy. Even for Mr. Geto, who has sterling credentials within the gay-rights movement, this will be a stern challenge. As it has increased in both influence and confidence, New York’s gay community also has become more fractiousness than ever before, as evidenced by the competing endorsements of various gay advocacy groups for Bill Bradley and Al Gore in the most recent Democratic primary (or even of Comptroller Carl McCall and Governor George Pataki in the 2002 gubernatorial race).

But Mr. Geto says that Mr. Dean, who as governor of Vermont signed the groundbreaking law permitting same-sex civil unions, is clearly the preferred candidate among New York’s gay community. And he said that the campaign will begin rolling out endorsements from prominent gay officials in the next four weeks. “Dean is the candidate that the gay community has been most excited about, even at this early stage in the contest,” Mr. Geto said. “It’s because of the civil-unions issue. Not only did he stand up for it in the face of fierce opposition, but he did it in a way that the gay community was very pleased with.”

Similarly, Mr. Geto believes that Mr. Dean’s outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq has given him a clear advantage among anti-war liberals-unlike his opponents, most of whom serve in Congress and voted to authorize President Bush’s use of force.

Wherever his support comes from, Mr. Dean’s ability to mount a credible early effort here will be crucial for a number of reasons. New York is traditionally a great exporter of volunteers to states with early contests like New Hampshire, which has the nation’s first primary, and Iowa, where caucuses often decide who has momentum and who doesn’t. Although candidates spend relatively little time campaigning here because of the state’s relatively late primary date-it’s scheduled for March 2, six weeks after the Iowa caucuses-New York has also been a crucial proving ground for the ideas and strategies that have gone on to define national campaigns. And just as significantly, New York is important as a source of the donations vital to running a credible national campaign.

This goes some way in explaining why the Dean campaign has made what looks to be a fairly major commitment of resources to its burgeoning New York operation. It’s not yet clear how much the campaign will be paying for Mr. Geto’s services; Mr. Geto said that negotiations were ongoing. But the campaign is running its fund-raising operation from the offices of his firm, Geto and de Milly, and will take over much of the firm’s space for press and logistical operations over the next few weeks.

Great Expectations

It’s clear that Mr. Dean, who met with Mr. Geto in February to convince him to take the job, is expecting great things from him. “He’ll be terrific,” Mr. Dean told The Observer after the May 4 Democratic forum in South Carolina. “He’s very experienced. He knows how to get on the ballot; he knows how to do the things that you have to do to win in a primary. He’s won primaries before.”

Mr. Dean hired Mr. Geto on the strong advice of one of his chief advisers, David Bender, who is a Geto protégé. But the decision to hire Mr. Geto is not without risks. While he’s been involved in countless campaigns in the capacity of fund-raiser, supporter or adviser over the last decade, Mr. Geto has not run a campaign since the Abrams disaster in 1992, which ended Mr. Abrams’ political career. That might not matter if, as in 2000, the nomination is decided early, after the first couple of rounds of primaries. If, however, New York is in play in early March, Mr. Geto will suddenly be faced his toughest test in years-if not ever.

Rival campaigns, not surprisingly, feel that Mr. Geto is once again backing a horse that can’t win. “It’s an understatement to say that Geto’s history of support isn’t exactly a tale in pinpoint political prognostication,” said one adviser for Senator Joseph Lieberman.

“If Dean’s goal is to raise money or heighten his visibility in New York’s liberal circles, then Ethan is his guy,” added a Democratic operative not affiliated with a Presidential campaign. “But he hasn’t run a winning campaign in so many years; what does he know about running one now?”

Indeed, Mr. Geto’s heyday as a political operative was in the 1970′s, 80′s and early 90′s, when he rose from Bronx politics, and a stint as a legislative assistant on Capitol Hill, to work on the Presidential campaigns of Robert Kennedy, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. He also engineered Mr. Abrams’ rise from reform politics to the Bronx borough presidency to the State Attorney General’s office. Though his candidates had mixed success in general elections, Mr. Geto won seven of seven statewide primary campaigns that he managed.

Over the same period, Mr. Geto played a singularly important role in the gay-rights movement, becoming covertly involved in the early 1970′s-when he was married to his current business partner, Michele de Milly, but in the closet-and emerging several years later as one of the most influential and powerful gay activists in the country.

More recently, though, Mr. Geto has led a lower-key existence, making most of his money lobbying for and representing a broad array of clients: unions and landlords, Republicans and Democrats, the New York Botanical Garden and the state entity that works closely with the Indian Point nuclear-power plant. Although he continued to advise and support various political causes-he was a key advisor to Bill Bradley in 2000-most of his work has gone on quietly behind the scenes. He frequently works from home in the mornings, and has been able to spend his spring and summer weekends in Connecticut.

One question, given all this, is how Mr. Geto will function in the high-profile, pressure-packed environment of a Presidential campaign. Another, of course, is why he wants to do it in the first place.

“I’ve kept my hand in the political arena, giving advice to candidates and so on,” he said. “But this is the first time in a decade that I’ve been inspired to make a commitment like this. I think part of it is just my own frustration with the policies of the Bush administration.”

And the other part?

“I think Dean has the best chance of any Democrat to beat him.”