Interview with Tavis Smiley

November 13, 2003


Joining me now to talk more about campaign finance reform is Governor Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, the Democratic front-runner now in the race for president and who yesterday received two key endorsements, from the AFL-CIO's two largest unions. As I mentioned earlier, it was a decision by Governor Dean to forego government matching funds during this primary season that has ignited a firestorm of protest from fellow Democratic candidates, as well as concern from campaign reform advocates. Governor Dean, welcome back to the program, sir.

Dr. HOWARD DEAN (Democratic Presidential Candidate): Tavis, thanks for having me on.

SMILEY: Governor, you've decided to reject taxpayer money. Fellow Democrats say that's because you want to avoid the spending limits that go with it. What do you think will be the impact of your decision on campaign finance, other than this ruckus that you've created in the Democratic primaries?

Dr. DEAN: Well, I think what's going to happen is this is going to allow us to beat George Bush. George Bush is getting 2,000-dollar checks from the wealthiest corporate magnates in America, including many of the people who he's giving contracts to to do business in Iraq. His motto seems to be, 'If you're rich, you deserve it, and if you're poor, you deserve it,' and I don't think that's the way this country ought to be run. What we're doing is reaching out to two million Americans to give us a hundred dollars apiece. That will allow us to compete with the president, and we won't be bound by the caps that you get when you take federal financing. It was a hard decision because we're giving up over $18 million in federal financing. But in the end, if you take that money, you can't spend anything more after March. And the president will just have us on the ropes from March to August.

SMILEY: Let me move, if I can, from your campaign to the broader issue of campaign finance reform. There are a lot of folk in this country, I suspect, who believe that the reform in the phrase 'campaign finance reform' is more talk than action. I guess the question is what do you think needs to happen in this country beyond your campaign to make campaign finance reform something that really is tangible and concrete?

Dr. DEAN: What we need to do is actually, frankly, to have campaigns run the way ours is. We outraised every other Democrat in the race by about three times in the last quarter, but we had 200,000 people giving us $77 apiece on average. That's the way to raise money. The way to raise money is to make sure that ordinary people can affect their government, and what I'd like to see in campaign financing, frankly, is small donations, public financing and spending limits. And if you did that, you'd have a system that works for everybody.

SMILEY: The financier George Soros has pledge millions of dollars, as you well know, during this election cycle to defeat President Bush. I wonder two things. One, have you spoken with Mr. Soros, and two, are you counting on any of his money?

Dr. DEAN: Well, no, he can only give us $2,000, which he's already done, and I approve of those spending limits. What the president has done is he's got these people called bundlers. They get wealthy corporate titans who insist that people who work for them give $2,000 to the president and they put all the checks together and then send them in. He calls them pioneers and rangers, the people who raise 200,000, a hundred thousand dollars apiece. I don't think that's the best way to raise money. I think the best way to raise money is the way we're doing it, in checks of a hundred dollars apiece, because you get ordinary Americans, give them a chance to participate in their government, and they will.

SMILEY: I asked this the other day, Governor, of the guy that does our technology updates on this program, a guy named Omar Wasow-I asked Omar Wasow how he thought your campaign's success on the Internet with fund raising was going to change the way that money is raised politically for years to come. Have you had a chance to really stop and think what you've done here to really revolutionize how money is raised, over the Net at least?

Dr. DEAN: You know, Tavis, it's interesting. We've done actually more than that. We have revolutionized how money is raised over the Internet. But the thing we've done by using the Internet, it becomes a two-day campaign. Instead of just us putting on 30-second television ads and saying, 'Here, here's what we believe. We hope you'll vote for us,' they get on the Web and they let us know what they think. There's these things called Weblogs or so-called blogs, and we hire people to read them, and we listen and watch what people write. We pay attention to it, and we sometimes alter our strategy in some of the things we do in the campaign by listening to all the people that are supporting us.

We've got half a million people online. That's the way to beat George Bush. We're not going to beat George Bush by continuing to try to be like him in the Democratic Party. The way to beat George Bush and change the country is to stand up for what you believe. There are a lot of good ideas that we have: health insurance for all Americans. That was put on the platform in 1948 by Harry Truman. There's no reason we should be ashamed of that. Go out and sell it to the American people. That's what we ought to be doing.

SMILEY: Yesterday was a great day for you. You picked up two big endorsements yesterday, the two biggest unions in the AFL-CIO, AFSCME and SEIU. One, what do you make of those endorsements and, two, are you inspecting an infusion of cash from organized labor now?

Dr. DEAN: We won't get an infusion of cash, but they'll do their best to get their members on the ground and vote for us in key states. And here's what's so important to me about this support. These are the two most diverse unions in America, and our campaign's been great at mobilizing middle-class people, most of them are white. These unions are mostly people of color, and they have a strong reach into blue-collar working people all over the country. Now we have an automatic network that we couldn't possibly have built. It would have taken us too long to build it. It took us nine months to build the network we've got. And so it's a great marriage between us and AFSCME/SEIU and the painters who can mobilize people that we haven't been able to mobilize yet, and that's what we're going to need to beat George Bush, is a big coalition, a big house, a big tent for all the Democrats of every kind, and I think that's what this endorsement's really meant to us.

SMILEY: You got the endorsement from Jesse Jackson Jr. and other black elected leaders. How are you feeling about that?

Dr. DEAN: That's very good and we're working very, very hard on that one. African-Americans have been the core constituency group for the Democratic Party for a long time, and I've felt like in the last couple of election cycles, we've run away from our core base, and that's a mistake. We ought to start with our core base, which is women and African-Americans, Latinos and labor, instead of hoping they'll come to the table later on when we really need their votes; get them to believe in being Democrats again, not just, 'Oh, well, you know, I suppose I'll vote for them.' Give them some enthusiasm. That's how we're going to beat George Bush.

SMILEY: You've already apologized for it, but in retrospect, that Confederate flag comment was a mistake, wasn't it?

Dr. DEAN: Well, you know, I shouldn't have used the symbol of the Confederate flag, but the message is the same. We need to talk about race in an open way in this country, and we'd better have that dialogue. The other thing is I think it is the right thing to reach out to Southern whites because we're not going to win in the South until we do, and the Southern whites are the most underrepresented people in America in some ways because they vote for these right-wing congressmen, and then they have their kids with no health insurance and their school system's turned upside down and cut the way they have been in South Carolina by the Republicans down there. We need to build that economic coalition that Franklin Roosevelt had with African-Americans and whites in the South to vote their economic interests, because when black people, when brown people, when white people vote together in this country, that's when we make social progress.

SMILEY: Howard Dean is the former governor of Vermont and a candidate for president on the Democratic ticket. Governor, as always, nice to talk to you.

Dr. DEAN: Thanks, Tavis. I enjoyed it. We'll see you soon.

SMILEY: Just ahead, we'll talk with author and pastor Heidi Neumark about her new book, “Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey In the South Bronx.”

It's 19 minutes past the hour.

Copyright 2003 National Public Radio ®. All rights reserved.

--- End ---



Back to Dean Speeches

Or else I'm just a Luddite