Pied Piper of the Pissed Off

Howard Dean (shown with Sheila Jackson Lee) heats up the partisan Houston crowd.
Troy Fields

The crowd at Miller Outdoor Theatre could best be described, to use the language of rally speaker and self-proclaimed "Dean Ranger" Torrey Offley, as "pissed off."

Pissed off about the war in Iraq and its bloody, expensive aftermath; still pissed off about the outcome of that 2000 presidential election decided by those GOP Supremes; and extremely pissed off about the sorry social services and environmental track record of the George W. Bush presidency.

The motley coalition of college kids, labor activists, gays, attorneys and other denizens of the Democratic deep filled the theater and several candidate fund-raisers last week. They had come to let their leading party presidential therapist voice their anger and become its receptacle, along with their energy and cash donations.

Doctor Howard Dean didn't disappoint. Unlike the storm that swept through town the previous day, the 55-year-old former Vermont governor and family practice physician didn't blow down any trees or tear off roofs in the Hermann Park-area neighborhoods. But his stem-winding Huey Long-style rant to the faithful offered compelling evidence that he and his movement could produce a national political tornado before the primary season is over.

Dean arrived riding a wave of his own making. His endorsement by two of the nation's top labor unions the previous week guaranteed him millions of new supporters and a campaign war chest to outmuscle his rivals'. On a personal level, Dean had just reached closure in the 29-year-old disappearance of his brother, whose remains were unearthed in a bomb crater in Laos.

After Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee introduced and endorsed him, Dean wasted no time playing the Enron card.

"Kenny Boy Lay," exclaimed Dean, invoking the Bush nickname for the former corporate chairman. "The president says he doesn't know him anymore, but he sure did know him when he was giving him all those tax breaks. He sure did know him when Kenny Lay was writing all those checks so that he could become president and governor. We're going to change this country so that doesn't happen anymore."

Standing off to the side, Lee's rapt facial expression didn't change. Dean was obviously unaware that Kenny Boy was also one of the congresswoman's key backers and wrote checks to fuel her upstart challenge against District 18 predecessor Craig Washington in 1994. Turns out Sheila and "Shrub" have something in common: They both have conveniently dropped their past associations with Lay down the memory hole.

With that, Dean began firing off the lines that would leave the audience emotionally exercised and exorcised at the end of his session.

"We are here today for all those who believe that when our government serves only the big corporations, it betrays everything our country represents.

"I am tired of being divided by gender when the president of the United States thinks he knows better than a woman what kind of reproductive health care she ought to have.

"What we're going to do is give the 50 percent of Americans who've given up on voting because they can't tell the difference between Democrats and Republicans anymore a reason to vote again. And when we get those people to the polls, we're going to have more votes than George W. Bush, and this time the president who has the most votes is going to the White House."

Dean had gotten in hot water earlier in the campaign with his stereotyped appeals to lower-income whites in the South. "I still want to be the candidate for guys with the Confederate flags in their pickup trucks," he told the Des Moines Register. He eventually apologized for the remark.

In Houston, Dean still toyed with the incendiary formula, shouting at one point, "The South shall rise again," the hoary old slogan for Dixiecrats and states' rights advocates.

"Texans who've voted Republican for 30 years, tell me what you have to show for it," asked the candidate. "We've got to stop voting on the grounds of God and gays and school prayer, and start voting about health care and education."

Dean cast himself in the role of outsider rather than professional politician. "The truth is, the power to change this country is in your hands, not mine." He exited the stage after leading the crowd in chanting, "You have the power."

His appearance was Houston's first major public rally by a Democratic contender, and he clearly has the biggest organization on the ground in the state by a wide margin. But Houston Democrats also have shown substantial support for retired general Wesley Clark, Senators John Kerry, John Edwards and Joe Lieberman, as well as Congressman Dick Gephardt in the early stages of the contest.

Some locals are plunking down contributions for the leading contenders like bets on a Las Vegas gaming board. Personality is a plus and everybody loves a good speech, but the main object is to pick a winner who can beat Bush. So far, the players aren't quite sure where to place their next stack of chips.

"My sense is Dean is going to have some new-blood support around town, people who ordinarily don't play, because he's getting the national attention and because he's the outsider," says consultant Dan McClung of Campaign Strategies. Although Dean's rhetoric is fiery, McClung doesn't see him as a candidate exclusively of the left.

"If you listen to his lines," says the consultant, "all he's saying is he's against Bush. That's where he's picking up strength, because Bush is probably the most despised president by the left of any in history." Gephardt's local stronghold, on the other hand, is with traditional Democratic leaders.

Sue Schechter, the former Harris County Democratic Party chair, is supporting Clark's late-starting campaign, but she's also attending and promoting events for Dean.

"Honestly, I think that everybody is just looking for a winner," says Schechter. "I think everybody's playing multiple choices here."

She buys into the argument that Dean could be a reincarnation of former presidential candidate George McGovern, who ran from the left on an anti-war platform in 1972 and was demolished by Richard Nixon.

"That's why I'm with Clark," Schechter says. "He's got the leadership the country needs right now based on his military background, and he's a really smart guy."

Her husband is the nephew of Metro board chair and former ambassador Arthur Schechter, who is providing office space for Senator John Kerry's campaign organizers. But he's also contributed to the Dean and Gephardt campaigns. Dale Napier, a Dean organizer in Houston, says the senior Schechter told him that after the rail referendum passed, "getting rid of George Bush" would be his "full-time job." Schechter himself declined to comment on the presidential race, citing his nonpartisan role as Metro chair.

Former Enron executive Sherron Watkins became a national heroine for her efforts to sound the alarm inside Enron before it collapsed under the weight of crooked financing schemes. Dean's fulmination against corporate greed doesn't impress her, because she believes the same corporate scandals would have occurred if a Democrat had been in the White House.

Watkins voted for Bush in 2000 but now opposes his decision to invade Iraq and alienate overseas allies. She heard Clark speak at a seminar this summer and later contributed $2,000 to his campaign.

"I think he's a very moderate Democrat, and people like my husband, who's never voted for a Democrat in his life, will vote for Clark," says Watkins. "He doesn't want to support Bush anymore, but he probably won't vote for Dean."

Attorney David Berg has forked over $2,000 to Gephardt's campaign, but he figures he'll lay some cash on Dean's number as well.

"We're not excited about any of the candidates as yet," says Berg, who met Dean at a Warwick Hotel fund-raiser last week. He rejects the idea that Dean is a fringe candidate.

"The man is a budget balancer, a Clintonian in his economic policies, and that message is being eclipsed by his anti-war message." Berg says Dean differs from McGovern in that "he is tough as nails."

Like some other Democrats, Berg sees the race being defined not by the individual Democratic candidates but by the failures of the opposition.

" 'Anybody but Bush' is our view…nobody can convince me he's a bad human being, and nobody could convince me with evidence to the ceiling that he's a good president. He's the worst president in my lifetime."

Thanks to the congressional redistricting battle that will delay the state primary, Texans may find themselves on the sidelines if the Democratic presidential nomination is wrapped up on Super Tuesday, March 2 -- a week before the Texas election. If that scenario pans out, there's only one way in the coming months that Houstonians can help determine the nominee: by voting with their pocketbooks.

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