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Titanic Tuesday: campaigns sink or swim 

To state the doubly obvious: The national Republican Party is united around its 2004 presidential candidate, George W. Bush, who may be elected or re-elected, depending on how you look at it. And the national Democratic Party is divided nine ways as the primary season opens, with (in alphabetical order) Wesley Clark, Howard Dean, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich, Joe Lieberman, Carol Moseley Braun, and Al Sharpton seeking the nomination.

            The number of Democrats will drop after the January 19 Iowa caucuses and the January 27 New Hampshire primary, the first in the nation. (Under the radar, the chronically disenfranchised District of Columbia held a "non-binding" primary on January 13.) Eight states will hold primaries or caucuses on February 3; some other states will hold primaries or caucuses later that month.

            Finally on March 2 --- Super or Titanic Tuesday --- comes New York State's turn, along with California, Ohio, and other states. By that time, some of the nine Dem hopefuls will have been de-selected. Nothing is final, of course, till the national convention nails down the nominee months from now.

            The process may not be a model of "small d" democracy, but there's noticeable growth at the grassroots this year.

            You can see this happening in four local Democratic Party presidential campaigns, united in their zeal for removing the current occupant of the White House, but divergent on much else. (Monroe County Democratic Committee chair Molly Clifford confirms that only four of the nine contenders have local campaign organizations.)

One local committee is beating the bushes for Vermonter Howard Dean.

            Dr. Dean, whose eight-year tenure as Vermont governor made national news when he signed a measure creating civil unions for same-sex couples, is running as a liberal/centrist. He opposed the Iraq war (but does not favor a US pullout now), wants incremental reforms toward universal health coverage within the existing framework, supports organic agriculture and higher incomes for small farmers, believes the US should take a leading role against global warming, and wants to boost workers' right to unionize.

            Dean has jumped ahead of the pack around Rochester, as elsewhere. His bandwagon has picked up politicos like Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson, Brighton Supervisor Sandy Frankel, and SEIU 1199 Upstate leader Bruce Popper. But like its counterparts across the country, the local Howard Dean campaign organization is making news simply by how it operates --- gathering volunteers and donations through the internet, and connecting people face-to-face at "meetups" as well as more traditional events.

            Michelle Giannavola, the local Dean campaign coordinator, was in charge of a January 7 meetup at the Old Toad pub on Alexander Street. The meetup was one of several at Rochester-area locations that night, and among an estimated 7,000 scheduled simultaneously nationwide.

            Giannavola, having worked on an electoral campaign for Monroe County Legislator Stephanie Aldersley, is no neophyte. But she doesn't sound world-weary. "People have been energized by this," she says of the Dean effort. Many volunteers, she says, are re-engaging with politics after having "turned away in disgust and disappointment." Why choose Dean? Giannavola cites her own experience. "He really stood out to me as someone who was interested in change," she says. But she adds a caveat: "I never felt he was a peacenik, but someone who would have waited [before going to war]." Dean, she concludes, has "a more thoughtful approach" than does Bush.

            Chili resident Jason Shelly and Batavian Brigette Whitmore also were at the Old Toad on January 7. Both are recent grads in political science from the SUNY University at Albany. They both also belonged to a "Students for Dean" group there. "I got into Dean a little more than a year ago," says Shelly, who once interned with US Representative Barney Frank. Shelly says he was attracted by how Dean "talks about putting [the campaign] in the hands of the supporters."

            Whitmore, who interned with US Representative Carolyn Maloney, comes from a middle-class family hit hard by rising health costs. "I like Dean's universal health care thing," she says. She also was motivated by Dean's speech at a NARAL Pro-Choice America (formerly National Abortion Rights Action League) event.

            "Women's issues have really taken a back seat so far" in the race overall, says Whitmore.

Well-known local writer Miriam Grace Monfredo, whose specialties are mystery and historical novels, is another Rochesterian who's ventured into political action this year. She says she got involved in retired General Wesley Clark's campaign after a meetup at Jeremiah's Tavern on Monroe Avenue. Now she's the local Clark coordinator.

            "I have never worked on a campaign or donated to a campaign before," Monfredo says. But she's been voting right along, she says, recalling she pulled the lever for Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore. She says she voted for Ronald Reagan, too, as did Wesley Clark. "He's not a politician, which some of us very much like," Monfredo says of Clark. She adds that Clark's troops show the same kind of enthusiasm for their man that you see among Dean's following. Nationally-prominent Clark endorsers run from Mary Frances Berry, chair of the US Commission on Civil Rights, to entertainer Madonna.

            Clark, a one-time Republican who as late as last fall was a registered independent, is running on a liberal-centrist platform not much different from Dean's. Clark wants universal health care for all children and "access for all Americans," promises to restore progressivity to the income tax system and exempt many more low- and middle-income families, raise the minimum wage and empower union organizing, and revive multilateralism in US foreign policy.

            As a career soldier, Clark has strong views on things military; as the former top commander of NATO forces in the Kosovo war, he may bear ultimate responsibility for "collateral damage" in the bombings of Serbia. Now sometimes called an "anti-war warrior," he vows to redefine the US "mission" in Iraq and internationalize the reconstruction.

            Monfredo locates Clark within the tradition of US generals turned presidents, like Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower. These "are precisely the men who are last to resort to war," she says. And Clark, she says, has emphatically vowed he'd go to war "only, only, only, three only's, as a last resort." She likes Clark's position on gun control, too: leaving hunting weapons alone while getting tougher on other categories. (Clark's platform calls renewing the assault-weapons ban, enforcing existing gun laws, and "closing the gun show loophole" that allows sales without background checks.)

            The national campaign, says Monfredo, is planning to bring Clark to Rochester three or four times before primary day. There's now a "core group" of 50 to 60 local people taking part, she says. "It took slowly in Western New York," she says. "It was very grassroots to begin with."

Among the candidates with a local presence, the real dark horse is US Representative Dennis Kucinich.

            The Ohio Democrat has been in politics almost his entire adult life: He was elected mayor of Cleveland at age 31, stirred things up as a working-class-oriented populist (most notably in his refusal to sell Cleveland's municipally-owned electric utility), lost a bid for re-election, and years later staged a comeback and won a seat on Congress.

            Kucinich's platform is solidly social-democratic, and he's explicitly running as a peace candidate. He supports single-payer universal health insurance and opposes the privatization of Social Security; proposes a 15 percent cut in military spending and a withdrawal of US forces from Iraq (he voted against the Iraq war and the subsequent USA PATRIOT Act); promises to nix NAFTA and withdraw from the World Trade Organization; supports gay marriage, not just civil unions; supports raising the minimum wage to around $8.50 (the same level in real dollars as in 1968).

            Shortsville resident Brian Cummings is heading the regional campaign. Cummings essentially believes the truth will win out. "Of the people who've heard of Kucinich," he says, "nobody doesn't like him; they just raise the electability issue." He notes that musicians Willie Nelson and the Buffalo-based Ani DiFranco have endorsed Kucinich. (Said DiFranco recently: "He's not a self-aggrandizing strategist or corporate whore, he's the real thing.")

            Kucinich's foreign policy agenda "plays well" with voters, says Cummings. He points to something Kucinich already has done to help the Rochester-Finger Lakes area: that is, sponsoring the Veterans' Millennium Health Care Act, which helped keep institutions like the Canandaigua VA hospital open.

            The campaign has attracted a diverse group of volunteers. For example, Tayyab Siddiqui, a 30-year-old computer programmer originally from Pakistan, says his own "strong political views" drew him to Kucinich. "I have zero background" in politics, Siddiqui says.

            "The bad economy is having an effect on me, my not being able to find work," says Siddiqui, who came here to join family after working in Minnesota for two years. He puts much hope in Kucinich's plan for extending the New Deal with public works projects: rebuilding the nation's schools and infrastructure. The plan is designed to provide two million jobs.

            County Legislator Bill Benet is involved in the Kucinich campaign, as well. He sums up his feelings in an official endorsement: "I've been in politics 31 years, and I've liked some candidates enough to campaign for them. Paul Simon in 1992 comes to mind. But Dennis is the best progressive candidate in all the time I've been at this."

US Senator John Kerry has a local organization working on his New York primary run, too. The designated local spokesperson, State Assemblymember David Gantt, did not respond to calls for comment before press time. Local Kerry endorsers include Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, Rochester City Councilmember Wade Norwood, and County Legislator Mitch Rowe.

            Kerry's platform includes these planks: building a "broader coalition" for "winning the peace" in Iraq (he voted for the war resolution, however); "expanding health care coverage to 96 percent of Americans, including nearly all children"; a "Manhattan Project" to make the US independent of Middle East oil; promoting smart growth; rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy; and boosting employment through a new "manufacturing job credit."

            Carol Moseley Braun has been stumping nationally, but she did not file petitions in New York State and thus will not be on the March 2 primary ballot. According to the state Board of Elections, the "tentative" list of Dem candidates is comprised of the nine candidates named above, minus Moseley Braun, who didn't submit petitions. Political eccentric Lyndon LaRouche got on the ballot, as well.

            For detailed biographical and platform information, visit www.monroedemocrats.com; click on "Candidates." For election info, contact the Monroe County Board of Elections, 428-4550; also via www.monroecounty.gov.

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