When Howard Dean stood to deliver one of his typically fiery speeches last week at Renaissance Park, he offered a stinging interpretation of President Bush's immigration proposals.
"This is a president who says he's going to send 12 million hardworking people back where they came from. He can't find a six-foot-four Saudi terrorist! How's he going to find 12 million people ... ?" Dean asked the more than 450 people who came to see him speak. "All this business about sending everybody back -- I am tired of everybody being divided."
The Democratic National Committee chairman came to the $20-a-plate barbecue fund-raiser to galvanize local Democrats and to spend the following morning in the trenches, knocking on doors in mostly Democratic and independent neighborhoods. Prior to his April 28 visit, Dean spoke with Creative Loafing about immigration, Iraq and gas prices.
"The Republicans always scapegoat people. They scapegoated African Americans ... they scapegoated gays," Dean said by phone.
He also criticized the Bush-supported guest-worker proposal and legislation that critics say would wrongly require doctors, teachers and clergy members to report suspected illegal immigrants. "We don't think we should criminalize religious figures," Dean said. "The oath I took to become a doctor was not, 'I'll help everybody -- unless they're an illegal immigrant.'"
At Renaissance Park, in front of an audience satiated by barbecue, iced tea and $2 cans of cold beer, he maintained that tone, not mincing words as he accused Republicans of race-baiting and described Bush's guest-worker proposal as "indentured servitude."
Bush, he said, has used immigrants, gays and affirmative action (specifically the suit challenging the University of Michigan's use of it in law school admissions) to win votes. "In 2002, the president got on television and used the word 'quota' ... He did it for one reason: Because people know the word 'quota' is a race-coded word that's designed to single out folks so we can scare people about losing their jobs or losing their place at a university to somebody who's in a minority community," Dean said.
He then criticized Bush's opposition to gay marriage and the Republican-led drive in 2004 to add measures banning it in 13 states where it already was illegal. "He wanted to do one of two things: He either wanted to make it double, triple illegal or he wanted to single out a group of people so he could win election."
Dean was not the wimpy politician who parses his words as if he were a one-person poll tracker. But then, that's never been his style. But he also was not exactly the earlier Dean, the marginal grassroots politician who rose to prominence via the Web. Not the little guy who started MoveOn.org nor the Dean who dropped out of the 2004 presidential race after a much-ballyhooed speech lampooned as the "I Have a Scream" address. This Howard Dean is a legitimately powerful party insider whose tenure as DNC chairman has caused a ruckus even within his own party.
In Charlotte and among the Democratic Party faithful, Dean was greeted with adulation and fervor that at moments reached levels reserved for rock stars. Michael Evans, chairman of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party, had expected about 300 people but said 450 people were served dinners before the barbecue ran out. "Howard Dean is the biggest Democratic draw since Bill Clinton," Evans said after Dean left the mic.
Dressed in charcoal pants and a striped button-down shirt that didn't distinguish him much from the mostly white, middle-class audience, Dean joked about his past impassioned speeches and barbed criticism that sent nervous Democrats running into the stolid embrace of Sen. John Kerry. "It's always dangerous to put me in front of a standing mic. I might list the states in which we're going to win next time," Dean cracked as he began his speech, referring to the infamous scream he unleashed after a third-place finish in the 2004 Iowa caucuses.
His visit last week came one day before a labor union rally and two days before a nationwide pro-immigrant boycott and local pro-immigrant vigil. It came as the DNC planned for volunteers to knock on 1 million doors nationwide with pro-party literature. And it came just days before last Tuesday's primary, which proportionately few Mecklenburg County voters bothered to notice.
No longer a candidate, Dean's purpose at Renaissance Park was to energize the base. "He really can rally people," one woman commented to a man after the throng of people around the DNC chairman moved away from the microphone. "Just as long as (the Democrats) don't get stupid and run him again."
Dean had told the crowd the DNC's strategy of focusing on all states, even solidly Republican ones, was working -- pointing to wins in Alabama, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Utah. "If Democrats can win there, we can win in North Carolina," he said.
He said Democrats' method of lowering gas prices would start with reducing gas companies' tax cuts. "First of all, you can take back the $16 billion that Republicans gave Exxon and Shell and Chevron in the middle of the night and ... put it back in the pockets of the American taxpayers." (The Republican-led Congress is considering a wave of new taxes on oil companies, too.)
And as expected, Dean criticized Bush's handling of the war in Iraq: "The president said he's going to leave the mess in Iraq to the next president. The Democrats believe we ought to deal with that right now."
Dean's appearance before local Democrats also came as an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted April 21-24 found that 52 percent of Americans had a "somewhat" or "very negative" view of President Bush. A recent CNN poll found a 60-percent disapproval of the president's job performance.
Local Democrats were giddy. US Rep. Mel Watt urged the faithful to "continue to organize, make sure that our voters are registered to vote and engaged and understand how vital it is for them to be involved this year, and not just wait until they're in this get-rid-of-George-Bush mode. We're going to do that two years from now, but this year we've got to bring democracy back to America."
Harry Taylor, a liberal independent who made international headlines for publicly criticizing Bush during the president's recent speech at Central Piedmont Community College, marveled at the applause that even he received at the Dean function. "You know that one person can make a difference," Taylor said. "There is power in just one."
The Action Center for Justice, a local antiwar group, had urged people to come out to protest involvement in Iraq and possible action in Iran. But no visible protest emerged, save for one man who stood on the periphery hoisting an "Impeach Bush" sign.
After the speech, attendee Brian Staton cornered Dean as he emerged from a throng of picture-seeking well wishers and tried to duck into the clubhouse with the chairman. Staton, clad in an orange shirt to symbolize his support for removing Bush from office, asked Dean what he thought of impeachment.
"There's only one bad thing about that," Dean replied. "If we're successful, we get Dick Cheney."