At an endorsement ceremony for City Council candidate Josh Skaller in Park Slope this morning, former presidential front-runner Howard Dean admitted he got himself into a little bit of trouble in the Democratic primary in the 39th District.
After a rousing introduction and brief speeches by Dean and Skaller, the first question was, surprisingly, about Skaller’s opponent in the race, Brad Lander. It seemed that Dean had endorsed one too many candidates.
“Well, yes, thank you, get right to the point,” Dean said with an uncomfortable laugh.
Dean explained that he met Skaller at a fund-raiser a few months ago, and—given Skaller’s work on his campaign and his involvement with Democracy for New York, which was derived from Dean’s Democracy for America organization—he agreed to endorse Skaller.
Later, Dean ran into Lander at a party for Representative Jerry Nadler. Lander, like Skaller, had worked on and donated money to Dean’s presidential campaign. Dean duly promised to “stay out” of the 39th District race. He did not realize at the time that it was Skaller’s district.
After phone calls to both campaigns, Dean decided to let them both use his name. “I think that’s only the fair way to do it,” he told the 30 or so Skaller supporters packed into the small office of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats. “Had I been a little more research-oriented and done my homework a little better, we wouldn’t have gotten in this situation, but we did, and I think that’s the fairest way out of it.” (Dean made a point of adding that the endorsement from Democracy for America, which is now run by his brother, applied only to Skaller.)
Skaller, who is running as a reform candidate, called Dean “a perfect fit for us.” Asked about sharing the former Vermont governor with Lander, Skaller would say only, “We are really, really happy to have Governor Dean stand with us today and we’re really proud that he’s endorsing our campaign.”
The dual endorsement did little to dampen the enthusiasm. One local resident told the former physician that he had only taken down his “The Doctor Is In” sign—left over from Dean’s 2004 campaign—after Barack Obama’s election in November.
Asked about yesterday’s turnover of the New York State Senate, Dean got mythical. “Sometimes it’s like Sisyphus pushing the rock, it rolls back on you a little bit. But we’ll get it over the top. I understand one of them is under indictment and the other one is heading for it,” he said, to laughter from the crowd. He later said that both would have to answer to voters eventually.
He and Skaller made their way to the 9th Street subway stop, where a few passers-by recognized Dean, who said he was reminded of his first campaign, working for Ed Koch on his first mayoral run. Several people signed a petition to put Skaller on the ballot; others looked annoyed as they fought their way through the crowd of Skaller supporters and reporters.
At 10 a.m., Dean excused himself and descended alone, save for a lone reporter (me), into the station, looking more or less like any other morning commuter. Dean said he always takes the subways in New York City, and blamed the A train for making him late this morning, when he was coming from J.F.K.
Waiting for the F train to Manhattan, Dean talked about the 50-State Plan, which he undertook while chair of the D.N.C. The plan was controversial at the time—donors and party insiders hated it—but it turned out to be right.
“There were lots of people who didn’t agree with it, but that was the old guard. Washington is always the last place to change, and they always resist change, no matter who’s there because they always want to do things their way. The thing they don’t get is that 99.7 percent of the people in the country live outside Washington,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Dean praised the Obama campaign, which executed something like a 50-state plan of its own. “I was very admiring about what Obama did across the country, particularly in Florida, which is the most complicated state in the country to run in. I was just stunned how they won Florida. It was just all organizing, because the Democratic Party is not that strong there.”
It was “the most disciplined organization I’ve ever seen in a presidential race,” he said, adding that Obama picked up more states than Dean would have predicted. “My plan when I got to the D.N.C. was—as an insurance policy against losing Ohio and Florida—was to win in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona.” Dean said he wasn’t shocked that Obama won Virginia, but, “Florida was just a stunner.”
Dean said poor organizing was one of two fundamental problems that doomed his own presidential campaign. “The [other] was that I needed—not to change my message—but to change the delivery of my message. It’s great to be an insurgent, but when you get out front, you have to act presidential. I knew I should have done it. We had big debates, and a lot of people in the campaign were afraid that if I did, we would lose our core supporters and all that stuff. But it was one of the few times I let the staff influence my decision, and it was the wrong thing to do. But it was my fault, not theirs. I’m the one who ultimately had the say, and I just didn’t make the right call,” Dean said.
On the train, Dean reclined against the doorway with his bag and his umbrella, posing for pictures when a few well-wishers recognized him.
One was Rob Hatch-Miller, who established a Facebook group lobbying to get Dean appointed Secretary of Health and Human Services after Tom Daschle withdrew his name from consideration.
“That was quite well-known and it caused all kinds of trouble in Washington, which is good,” Dean said of the Facebook group.
“With almost no promotion, we had like 6,000 members,” Hatch-Miller said.
“You actually had 4,996,” Dean replied. “And the reason I know that is because you can’t cross the 5,000 mark. The site doesn’t take more than 5,000,” he said.
His precise knowledge of Facebook, however, does not mean Dean wants to run for elected office again. Probably. “You never say never in politics, but no, I don’t have any plans to,” he said.