Hot Air

Howard Dean, John Hamilton & Baron Hill Day

Wednesday, Earth Day, 2015. A glorious day. Brilliant sunshine. High cottony, Georgia O’Keeffe clouds. Blustery. An early spring nip in the air.

Speaking of bluster, the lawn outside Monroe County Courthouse is filled with politicians. Here, too, are their supporters, a reporter here and there, a television camera, some curious onlookers, perhaps a hundred, a hundred-twenty-five people all told. The event? Democratic Party big shot Howard Dean has come to town to stump for mayoral candidate John Hamilton.

This Hamilton camp, it appears, is dead set on winning the May Democratic primary — which in Bloomington is the coronation. As I walk up the concrete steps, past the cannon and the statue of the Civil War soldier, I think of Hamilton’s rival for the Dem nod, Darryl Neher.

What are his thoughts when a party pol of national repute comes to town to endorse the opposition? Does he feel discouraged? Does he whisper to his wife how unfair life is at pillow talk time? Or does he pretend none of it means anything?

Oh, it means something. Loads of local big names here: former Congressdude Baron Hill, former mayor Tomi Allison and her husband, County Commissioner Julie Thomas, head of Democracy for Monroe County Rob Deppert, firefighters union local chief Bob Loviscek, former Ivy Tech-Bloomington chancellor and former deputy mayor John Whikehart. And, of course, former acting White House Counsel Dawn Johnsen and her special man, John Hamilton.

Lots of formers here, all muscling up to flog for a wannabe. With big guns like this, Hamilton looks serious about taking this thing. Early voting has begun; election day is in a mere 13 days.

Johnsen takes the podium first. “It’s a little personal,” she says, “but John and I started dating 25 years ago.” She recounts how she and he met in Washington at some political get-together or another. Hamilton, apparently, was very interested — in the get-together, maybe, but definitely in her. He got her phone number. One day not long after, he left a message on her answering machine (such things existed at the time). Johnsen says she listened to it again and again, committing it to memory.

“I don’t know what the future holds for this Indiana boy and a New York girl but I’d sure like to find out,” she says he said.

An aw moment. And why not? The pear and redbud blossoms are out. It’s April. Doesn’t hurt a bit to dream about love. And to dream about winning an election.

Johnsen introduces Tomi Allison, a three-time mayoral winner herself. Lots of folks around town are engaging in conversations about politics these days, she says. She’s right; this is the first contested mayoral election in 12 years. A good horserace always gets people talking. Allison, though, wants more.

“I don’t think conversations are enough,” she says. “John has done things.” This gets a good cheer from the crowd. Before she wraps up, she issues a warning: “Don’t be fooled by pixie dust!” The crowd is delighted.

Pixie dust? Hmm. A cryptic reference to Darryl Neher’s relatively recent party switch?

Johnsen intro’s firefighters union guy Loviscek. A big, burly man with a mustache, natch, Loviscek talks like the union guys of old at political rallies. Hamilton’s his guy, he says, because he’s been there, done that, serving as a department head under the last Democratic Indiana governor, Frank O’Bannon. “He made tough choices to make state government better for Indiana,” Loviscek says.

Hamilton sits between his bride and Howard Dean, looking proud as a high school valedictorian.

Next up, Rob Deppert. His org. is the local branch of Dean’s national Democracy for America outfit. “We’ve got to get big money out of government,” Deppert says. He refers to the local branch’s deliberations on whom to endorse in the mayoral primary. When it came time for DMC to vote, there wasn’t much doubt where its backing would go. “To tell the truth,” Deppert says, “it wasn’t that close.”

And now it’s time for the star of the show. Well, one of the stars. Deppert welcomes Howard Dean to the podium. Dean is wearing a black, pin-striped suit, with a tan V-necked sweater underneath, and a red tie. His hair blows around in the stiff breeze. He squints against the bright sun. Dean, a family practice doctor, got involved in politics back in 1980. He opposed a condominium project on Lake Champlain, near where he lived. Instead, he suggested a picturesque bike trail be built on the site. (It must have been a hell of a big condo development.) When the condo plan was nixed, Dean found himself a political following.

Dean volunteered for the Jimmy Carter reelection campaign and a couple of years later won election to the Vermont House. Four years after that, he ran in and won the Lieutenant Governor’s race. Meanwhile, he was able to continue working as a doctor. In the summer of 1991, Vermont’s governor dropped dead of a heart attack and Dean had to give up his practice to run the state.

Dean gained national attention when he called for same-sex civil unions in the state in 2000. The decision made him a darling of progressives and liberal Dems around the country but also led to the loss of Democratic control of the statehouse.

Nevertheless, Dean ran for president against 11 other Dems during the 2004 primaries. His campaign balloon burst when he…, aw, I’m not even going to mention it. Nor will I link to it. Dean wasn’t about to win the Dem nomination but his downfall was over the silliest thing imaginable.

Dean went on to become chair of the Democratic National Committee where, hewing to his “50-state strategy” the party gained control of the US Senate and the House. In 2008, using Dean’s template, Barack Obama gained the White House. Dean now runs Democracy for America.

Snagging Dean’s endorsement is so far the biggest coup of the Hamilton campaign.

Dean, squinting out at the chilly crowd, makes the requisite joke about the weather and then launches into his spiel. Dean’s nothing if not direct. “You have the power!” he barks, pointing out at the crowd.

“This country is going to be changed by what’s going on in Bloomington,” he says.

He speaks in clipped sentences:

“We aren’t Mike Pence.”

“Mayors make a difference.”

“I would like someone from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party to be the mayor of Bloomington, Indiana.” At this, the crowd laughs and cheers. Yeah, the Hamilton camp is going to continue hammering Neher on his party switch.

Dean refers to Gov. Mike Pence’s “RFRA fiasco.” Pence, Dean posits, allowed the bill to go through the statehouse because he was pressured by the anti-gay, religious-fundamentalistsff   in the Republican Party.

“The Republicans,” Dean says, “are afraid of the extremists in the own party!”

Cheers. Dean waits. Then: “Do not be afraid…. Elect a guy who is not afraid!”

With that Hamilton bounds up to the podium and Dean holds up the candidate’s arm like a boxing champ.

Hamilton, in sports jacket and no tie, runs his hand through his wind-blown hair ala Bobby Kennedy.”I am proud to have the support of organized labor,” he says, gesturing toward the firefighters union guy.

He, too, speaks in short, sharp sentences: “We don’t leave people behind,” he says. But he’s also a talker: Making mention of his “lifelong” progressive bona fides, he tells the crowd that progressives are just waiting to come out of their cocoons all over America. “We have brothers and sisters in cities all across the county,” he says. “Some of them don’t even know they’re progressives yet!” The crowd roars; they love this stuff. Hell, it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement. Maybe there are indeed tens of millions of progressives around this holy land just waiting for someone to carry the banner for them.

And maybe not. That’s why there are horseraces and elections.

Hamilton closes with the usual call for volunteers and help (read: money.) He implores people to vote. In fact, Hamilton points out, the whole lot of the people on stage will walk over to the early voting center on Sixth Street to vote. And for those who can’t make the hike, there’s a van waiting to transport people to the polling place.

In practical terms, that might be the second-most important thing I’ve learned here today. Hamilton seems to know how to get voters, physically, to the polls.

So, the formal stage of the love-fest breaks up. The pols fall into a hugging, hand-shaking, back-slapping orgy. My own back is pounded more times than I can remember as I snake my way through the pols and their supporters.

One guy I know stops me. “Do you think Baron Hill is going to run for governor?” I shrug. We’re swept in different directions by the crowd. A few moments later, the guy and I are face to face again. “I just asked Baron Hill if he’ll run against Mike Pence,” he says, excitedly. “He said, ‘I think I might’!”

Well, I’ll have to see about this myself. I make a beeline for Hill. I wait patiently as supporter after supporter pumps his hand. Finally, he turns to me. I introduce myself. “Are you going to run for governor,” I ask.

Hill doesn’t miss a beat. “I’ll tell you,” he says, “I’ve never been more on the fence in my life. A lot of people have been asking me to run for governor. A lot of people have been asking me to run for senator. Well, I’m gonna do something. I’ve got the urge.”

“So,” I press, “you’re definitely going to run either for governor or senator — is that what you’re saying?”

“Yes.”

Now we know. Sorta.

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