For the last two weeks of winter break, I left my television and my warm bed and headed to New Hampshire. I worked 14-hour days without pay, stayed in a stranger’s home, and walked door to door in the cold. And I loved every minute of it.
On Dec. 26, I made the journey up to Salem, New Hampshire, a town right over the Massachusetts border, to intern for Howard Dean’s campaign. The New Hampshire presidential primary, the first in the nation, was only a month away. As Dean’s popularity in New Hampshire exploded, I could only begin to wonder how exciting it would be to work on the campaign.
When I first heard about the internship, the idea of spending my winter break away from family and friends, and of course the warm couch, seemed somewhat daunting. But the more I thought about it, I realized that the decision to trek up to New Hampshire was one of the easiest I could make. I had to go to New Hampshire. I had to go both for Howard Dean and for myself.
A tried and true Democrat, I had worked on other campaigns, and I still had a bitter taste in my mouth from the 2000 election that just wouldn’t go away. With the 2002 congressional elections, I watched the party I believed in wave the white flag as Republicans waltzed into Congress. So when the various presidential candidates started announcing that they were the best to beat Bush, I went in search of the one I believed in the most.
Almost from the beginning, I realized that Howard Dean was the candidate to support. I first became interested in his candidacy when he spoke up against the war in Iraq. He stood up to the current administration and did not worry about political consequences. He wanted to take our country’s flag back from the conservatives who waved it so voraciously after Sept. 11, and his passion made me believe he could do it.
His courage to speak the truth to power earned my respect and my vote. But from the moment he invoked the late Senator Paul Wellstone’s famous line, “I’m here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” I knew that giving him my own vote was not enough. I needed to act on my beliefs. During the last month, that meant that I needed to spend my winter break in New Hampshire.
So after a week of cramming friends into quick visits and catching up on sleep, I left my home in New York and set off for the Granite State with some other Yalies. After our first experience navigating in New Hampshire, which apparently has something against clear street signs, I arrived at the local Dean field office and geared up for two weeks of intense campaigning.
I will be the first to admit that I did not know exactly what I was getting myself into. On my first day, I left the office shortly after midnight, and soon realized that I would probably be getting just as much sleep as I did during that week of finals and papers I had just finished. Many of my days were filled with hours of phone calls and door knocking, data entry, and holding Dean signs in the freezing cold.
I have worked on other campaigns, and I already knew that campaigning is rarely glamorous work. But the Dean operation was run differently than any that I had been a part of before. The bottom-up, grassroots model it used gave the campaign a sense of purpose, possibly even its own sense of glamour, that was completely new to me.
After my first day, I already felt a sense of empowerment and validation. In my two weeks up there, I became part of a grassroots machine that works with volunteers and trains local activists to energize the local community, giving it both the power and the responsibility to achieve the campaign’s goals. But the campaign strategy is more long-term than any one election cycle. By training local volunteers, the campaign is rebuilding a sense of community that many American towns have lost and is leaving a network in the community that will be there for the next political candidate or the next time someone wants to build a new school or shut down a nuclear power plant.
Presidential elections can be the most exciting times for those who are interested in politics, and this particular race — with its high caliber, nine-person field — was something I could not pass up. There is a certain urgency among Democrats to do whatever they can to send Bush back to Texas. Over winter break, I began my work on that project. But even more important, I saw the mix of energy and strategy that the Democrats — any Democrat — will need to buy Bush that one-way ticket.