The early organizing efforts in New Jersey by the allies of presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders bring to mind somewhat the campaign for president by another Vermont Democrat over a decade ago.
There are, of course, significant differences, however, between Sanders 2016 and Governor Howard Dean 2004.
For one, Dennis Kucinich’s and Al Sharpton’s single payer healthcare presence in the Democratic Primary meant that Dean wasn’t the only guy trying hard to corral the progressive vote.
But significantly the absence from the contest of an overwhelming early favorite like Hillary Clinton gave maneuvering room to the contestants in that long pre-Iowa harvesting period for endorsements. To our knowledge, Sanders at this point does not have the support of a single elected official in New Jersey, which Clinton, by contrast, has locked down.
It’s interesting 12 years later to consider the fact that in the days and weeks after the first Dean volunteer meetings in March of 2003, the Vermont governor had the support of this eclectic group of electeds: Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-15), Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-22), Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19), and Assemblyman Pat Diegnan (D-18). Future Newark West Ward Councilman Ronald C. Rice was also an early and enthusiastic Dean backer. In May of 2003, shortly after the New Jersey Democratic Convention in Atlantic City where Dean was the featured speaker, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6) and Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-37) gave their endorsements to Dean.
By this time then, Dean already had at least six New Jersey elected officials in his corner. We’re not rendering judgment about whether that’s a good or bad thing, but it’s reflective of the changed dynamics from 2004 to 2016 that sufficient opportunity for political expression within the establishment of elected officialdom existed then as opposed to now. There are other factors, too.
Does anyone remember who supported eventual nominee U.S. Senator John Kerry in the early going of that contest?
The answer (and it’s a strange one): then-U.S. Senator Jon Corzine, U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, and state Senator Ronald L. Rice (D-28), like Kerry a Vietnam veteran. Corzine and Pascrell had been on different sides during Corzine’s senate primary against Jim Florio just three years prior, and stylistically the two men could not be more different. But together with Rice they composed the starting core of Kerry’s earliest establishment support for president among New Jersey politicians.
The strong core of Deaniacs consisting at its heart of grassroots supporters would contribute volunteer organizing muscle to general election legislative races that year. “What put us over the top with the establishment was we encouraged Dean supporters to volunteer on Assembly and Senate campaigns,” NJ Dean for America organizer Bertin Lefkovic told PolitickerNJ.”
That was the year the Democrats took both houses in Trenton, which they held ever since. Many Dean volunteers helped Democrat Ellen Karcher beat GOP incumbent John Bennett in a fiercely contested Monmouth County race for a senate seat that Karcher would lose four years later to Jennifer Beck. Shortly after the November elections of 2003 and with Dean harnessing anti-Iraq War sentiments nationally as Kerry struggled to explain his aye vote on the war resolution, the main frame of New Jersey Democratic Party elected power publicly went to the Dean camp at the Trenton Marriott.