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'Meet-ups' mobilize Democrats

Local Howard Dean supporters unite over an Internet-inspired grassroots effort to promote his presidential candidacy.

JENNIFER LIBERTO
Published December 21, 2003

SPRING HILL - They ranged from retirees and veterans to teachers and business owners. Most had never before gathered to talk politics.

But newcomers knew they were in the right place when they pulled into the St. Sebastiaan Belgian Microbrewery parking lot on a crisp December evening and saw a sea of blue stickers touting Howard Dean for president.

Between 30 and 50 Dean supporters have begun gathering in Spring Hill for "meet-ups" to share thoughts on the Democratic presidential candidate's platform and work toward spreading Dean's name.

In less than two months, the group has managed to organize quickly, form committees and plan fundraisers. This in a county where Democrats have gained a reputation for division and bitter discord.

Dean, a doctor and former Vermont governor, has drawn national attention for his quirky campaign style, which has taken advantage of the Internet in creating a network of grassroots support. The meet-up phenomenon stems from a for-profit Web site (www.meetup.com) that connects like-minded people in a particular area.

There are about a dozen "Dean in 2004" meet-up groups in the Tampa Bay area that gather on the first Wednesday of the month. The Spring Hill meet-up is among the more recent, having had its first meeting in November. Citrus County has a Dean meet-up in Inverness; Pasco County has none at this point.

No other Democratic presidential candidates have had meet-ups on the North Suncoast yet. But Web postings suggest that Wesley Clark and John Kerry supporters may soon follow the lead of the Dean backers.

The man who organized the Spring Hill meet-up, Rick Henry, is somewhat an exemplar of the centrist type that Dean is attracting in Hernando County. Several people at the meet-up described themselves as former Republicans or conservative Democrats who did not agree with Dean's entire platform.

"I don't agree with everything, but I feel very comfortable with Dean, and I began to realize what an effective campaign he's putting together," said Bob Morse of Spring Hill.

Henry moved to Florida as a Republican in the Air Force. He campaigned for Bob Dole during the 1996 presidential election. Henry, 37, switched to the Democratic Party a few years ago, embracing its more liberal stance on social issues. However, had Sen. John McCain won the Republican nomination in 2000, Henry said, he might have voted Republican.

After attending a few Dean meetings in Tampa, Henry decided to start a meet-up closer to his home in Seven Hills, where he moved two years ago.

"I just feel Dean is more passionate than any of those other guys," said Henry, who led Hernando's first meet-up on Nov. 5.

That sentiment was echoed by many participants, who reiterated that Dean was the most exciting Democratic candidate.

"I think he'd do more to reinvigorate the party than anyone," high school teacher Susan Spero said. During socializing, conversations centered on issues such as national security, health care, Social Security and education - with a bit of Bush-bashing sprinkled about.

"The average American is afraid to speak his mind," said Charles Wingrove, a former Alaska state legislator who passed around a recent copy of the Nation, a magazine known for its feisty investigative work and liberal commentary. "They're afraid of being called unpatriotic."

At a more informal potluck gathering last week, Dean supporters remained enthusiastic about their candidate, even though he had taken a political beating after Saddam Hussein was captured. Dean has made waves for his criticism of President Bush over the war in Iraq.

"I think Dean handled it very well; he acknowledged (the capture) as a good thing," said Wayne Lee of Spring Hill. "But we were hoodwinked into the war."

Several members of the Hernando County Democratic Executive Committee who attended the December Dean meet-up said they were surprised by the number of new faces at the gathering.

"There were people I had not seen before who were very enthusiastic about Dean but who hadn't participated in (Democratic) activities," said Steve Zeledon, who used to be a DEC officer but has recently thrust his energy into the Donkey Express, a new Democratic group.

In fact, Zeledon said his purpose for attending the Dean meeting was to solicit membership for the Donkey Express, which started a few months ago. Zeledon has yet to commit to any single Democratic presidential candidate.

Political activist Joe Lemieux also attended the December meet-up, speaking loudly and often. He said he supports Dean, but also used the opportunity to campaign for his own candidacy for the County Commission - at least until Gil Williams, another DEC member, interrupted Lemieux to steer conversation back to electing Dean.

Garrison Urette, a statewide organizer for Dean, said what has happened in Hernando County is not uncommon. The Dean meet-ups are so popular that local groups and Democratic candidates have used them to spread their own messages.

And Dean is a strong supporter of some candidates at the local level, Urette said.

"Part of the Dean philosophy is to support Democratic values and ideas," he said, "and to basically share those and unite the party."

- Jennifer Liberto can be reached at 352 848-1434 or liberto@sptimes.com

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