A Talk with DNC Head Howard Dean

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Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean has been busy doing what he proved in the last presidential race he does best: grass-roots organizing. But Republicans have attempted to chip away at one of the Democratic Party's most loyal voting blocs, African Americans. Dean discusses what Democrats are doing to stay relevant to their African-American base.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Vice President Dick Cheney is blasting former Vermont Governor Howard Dean for his controversial comments about Republicans who Dean said never made an honest living in their lives. Cheney told the FOX News Channel he thinks, quote, "Howard Dean is over the top," and that he believes that Dean has probably helped Republicans more than Democrats. Dean has been busy trying to energize the party's base and raise money in hopes of winning back the White House in '08. But first, he must get Democrats to believe in the party again and stop the apathy that has gripped many voters, especially black Democrats who have felt disenfranchised.

Dr. HOWARD DEAN (Chairman, Democratic National Committee): I think that's a chronic problem, and the one thing--you know, I may be controversial, but I--my allegiance is to people outside the Beltway. We can't win elections unless we talk about what we can fix in American society, how to move America forward. We have to have a sense of optimism and vision. And that's what Americans have always thrived on. That's why we're a great country. And we--I want to be a great country again.

GORDON: You mentioned the word `controversial.' Some have suggested that you, for a politician--particularly in the seat you sit in now--can be and are being too frank. Is that a problem?

Dr. DEAN: I don't think there's any such thing as being too frank in politics. If you see what's going on in Washington today. The majority leader of the House has been reprimanded three times by the Ethics Committee. He's on his way to his fourth reprimand. The administration has concealed reports that show that adding mercury to the air is going to poison our kids and our pregnant wives. The administration is lying to Congress about how much programs cost, like the drug programs. We got to have some honesty back in government, and we need a little frankness in this place. And there are people who are frank on both sides of the aisle, and I think those are the folks that we really need to lead the country.

GORDON: Yet you have made many on your side of the aisle a little nervous with this frankness, if we're going to stay with that word. Are you disappointed in that?

Dr. DEAN: No. I think it is true that it's not in anybody's best interest to have me be the center of attention, and that's why the Republicans are fanning this so much. The Republicans would much rather make this about the chairman of the Democratic Party instead of Social Security and jobs and a strong defense. We have a Republican administration who has sent 138,000 troops to Iraq and ignored two much more powerful enemies, Iran and North Korea. These people are out of touch with what we need for a strong defense. We have an administration that's trying to cut benefits for middle class and working Americans, while they owe $106 billion in tax cuts for their campaign contributors.

GORDON: Yet, you talk about Republicans fanning the flames and keeping this in the news and the headlines, if you will. Let me give you a quote that you've been dealing with quite a bit over the course of the last week or so, and that is that you made the suggestion that the Republican Party was pretty much a white and Christian party. People like Barack Obama, the senator from Illinois, have suggested that that is a case of using religion to divide, and he felt that you needed to back off of that statement a bit.

Dr. DEAN: You know, I think that part of that is that there's an enormous amount of distortion about that statement. I don't back off that statement for a minute because it happens to be true. I don't think there's anything the matter with white Christians--at least I hope there isn't, because I am one. I'm simply pointing out that the Republican Party is making a big deal about diversity when, if fact, they don't have any.

John Danforth, former United States senator--Republican senator, George Bush's representative of the United Nations--criticized his party for being a tool of the conservative religious right, and saying that the Republican Party isn't what it used to be. I think that's right. I don't think there's anything controversial about that. And when it's people like Senator Obama refer to that, what they're referring to is quotes that the news media truncates and says, `Well, Governor Dean said this, insulting the Christians.' Well, I never said any such thing, insulting Christians. And I think what folks in Washington have to learn is never respond to a press quote that you haven't seen yourself or without talking to the person first because often what the press tells you I said is a great deal different than what I actually said.

GORDON: When you talk about diversity, the Democratic Party can show certainly, disproportionately, a large amount of African-Americans in that party. Yet there are many African-Americans elected, and just your everyday, average voter, who will suggest that there is no power given to the black muscle.

Dr. DEAN: Well, first of all, I don't think that is true. I do think that the Democratic Party has historically--recently taken African-American voters for granted, and I don't think that many Democratic officials understand the changes that are going on in the black community. There's a whole new generation of black voters who are appreciative of what we did in civil rights, but they're too young to remember that. They didn't go through that. And what they want to know is the same as every other voter wants to know: How are you going to make it easier for me to run a business? What are you going to do to help me with my kids getting through college? These are things that every American wants to know. And I think we haven't moved fast enough to understand the evolution of the political dialogue in the black community. So I do think that's a concern.

I think the claims of the Republicans about the fact that African-Americans don't have muscle and that they're going to be a party that's going to be open to them--that is absolutely nonsense. How can you appeal to the African-American community if you're cutting the African-American community's health insurance, if you're cutting their Social Security? They're cutting their benefits. We have people in Congress, 41 members of the Black Caucus, every single one is a Democrat. The path to political power and the path to power in general in this country for black Americans is through the Democratic Party. And this is not just about black Americans. The same is true about Hispanic-Americans. The future for Hispanic-Americans is in the Democratic Party--Antonio Villaraigosa, the new mayor of the second-largest city in America.

The truth is that while we're not perfect and we know that we have to reach out now and not wait until four weeks before the next election--and that's just exactly what we're going to do--that we have historically represented the best interests of the African-American community. And today we're going to learn how to do that even better.

GORDON: Yet, Governor, many African-Americans, that I speak with--whether it be on the streets as I travel, and a barbershop, what have you--they don't seem to have the same connection with this party that they did in times past. And I'll be frank with you. Off the record, there are some of those people in the Congressional Black Caucus who have said to me--again, off the record--that the Democratic Party is looking to them to add anything other than that black face.

Dr. DEAN: Well, that's totally untrue. If you just look at the Democratic National Committee, what we've done here, we've totally flattened the administrative structure. I have seven or eight people reporting to me of every color, creed, so forth and so on. And in fact, there are a significant number of African-Americans who now have management positions and are in the room when the decisions are made. That's the first time we've had that in the DNC other than when Ron Brown was chairman. The people who make the decisions of the Democratic National Committee are the most diverse group of people you've ever seen. And my philosophy on affirmative action is, it's a nice program, but if you really want to affirmative action, you put people in positions of power when they--so they can hire people. That's how you get diversity.

GORDON: What about the thought of, going back to what we initially talked about, too much rhetoric coming out of Washington, that voters hear about we want to raise the moral fiber of the country; we want to cut taxes, we want schools perfect. We know this, but people aren't necessarily seeing the rubber meet the road. What can you do to make sure that the words meet the meaning?

Dr. DEAN: I think we ought to talk about moral values, too. Somebody came up to me the other day, a member of the African-American community, and said to me, `You know, Governor, what are we going to do? My pastor is now saying that maybe we should be voting Republican.' I disagree with that, and I said, `Well, here's what you should do. Go see your pastor and say, "Look, let's look at moral values."' The Democrats think it's a moral value to make sure that everybody has health insurance. The Democrats think it's a moral value never to let a child go to bed hungry at night. The Democrats think it's a moral value that you do not exclude people from voting by making them wait for eight hours to cast their ballot. That's what we believe are moral values.

I think, for the African-American community and for the community in general in America, that moral values are more than a woman's right to make up her own mind about her health care or civil rights for gay Americans. I think there are other moral values, and we're going to agree, I think, in most Americans, especially in the black community, are going to agree with the Democrats on the majority of our moral values, and we want to make sure that people understand what we're going to do.

Now when we get back in power, if we don't deliver on health care and if we don't deliver on better public education and jobs, then we ought not to be in power.

GORDON: You seem fairly confident that Dems will get back in power, and we all understand, those of us who've watched Washington--And I lived there for almost a decade--you understand that everything goes in cycles. But there are those watchers, those pundits who suggest that the Dems, perhaps more than any other time in recent memory, just don't have a game plan. They are too fractured.

Dr. DEAN: I think that has been true, but I think it's going to be less true I mean, by the time we face the '06 elections, we are going to have a national message again for the first time in a long time. We're going to be in all 50 states. By the end of this month, I will have been in 32 out of the 50 states. The majority of the states I will have been in, I believe, are so-called red states or Republican states. There are states that we can win back that voted for George Bush, states where Democrats have done well: Kansas, with a Democratic governor, Virginia with a Democratic governor, Louisiana, with a Democratic governor. We're investing money in Mississippi. I think it's outrageous for our party to write off the South, which is about 38 percent of the black voters in America. We're not going to do that anymore. We had five wins this past elections. They just had their municipal elections down there; five new Democratic mayors in different cities, and that's because of African-American voters. And if we're going to be serious about the African-American community, we're going to be serious about the South.

GORDON: Governor, let me ask you this before we let you go: In the position that you're in now, there were many people who had questioned whether you were the right man for it, based on the fact that the thing that led you to be the front-runner to a great degree during the Democratic primary is that you aren't afraid to speak your mind. There are those now who are whispering with the idea that you are the money man now for the party to a great degree--who are whispering that that frankness will start to close those coffers. Do you have any concern that you'll have to pull back?

Dr. DEAN: Not based on our results. We have outraised every off-year DNC. Terry McAuliffe has left us a great base, and we've nearly doubled our fund-raising compared to 2003. We've raised a half a million dollars in the last two weeks because usually when the press and the Republicans attack me, the base gets incredibly energized. And speaking specifically of the African-American community, for the first time we're going to have a very concentrated approach in the African-American community to raise money. I think, frankly, it's insulting to the African-American community to go along with the stereotype: Oh, well you can't raise money there. We can raise a lot of money, and there are strong African-American business leaders that want to help us do that. We're going to be incredibly active in the African-American community, re-energizing this party.

I had an enormous amount of African-American support when I ran for president, more endorsements in the Congressional Black Caucus than any other candidate. I think frankness is sometimes a problem, because it focuses attention on me when I want to focus it on our issues, but it's also a good thing, because people know that I'll stand up for what I think is right. That means I'll stand up for them when they're in trouble.

GORDON: Well, Governor, we've been trying to get you on for quite some time now. We appreciate your time, and if you are earnest about making sure that you talk to African-Americans, we hope we'll be able to have you on this program to a great degree in the coming months.

Dr. DEAN: You most certainly will, and I thank you very much.

GORDON: Coming up, the pope takes the call for abstinence into the AIDS-torn regions of Africa. That's one of the topics of our roundtable, up next.

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