He served as governor of Vermont from 1991 to 2003. He ran for the Democratic nomination in 2004 and became infamous for the scream that ended his presidential hopes. He pushed a 50-state strategy as head of the DNC that helped Barack Obama win the presidency. And he morphed from traditional Democrat to full-fledged Progressive.
So it’s not surprising that Howard Dean, 63, is drawn to Ilya Sheyman, the 25-year-old community organizer running for Congress in a tough primary next Tuesday against more centrist businessman/management consultant Brad Schneider. (Businessman John Tree and attorney Vivek Bavda are also in the race, but polling far behind.)
Dean met Sheyman, a Soviet native who arrived in the U.S. at the age four and grew up in Buffalo Grove, while the youngster was working in Vermont as field director for Democracy for America, the lefty PAC founded by Dean. This week, the former gov, who endorsed Sheyman early, kept his promise to come here to raise money and enthusiasm for the candidate—on Sunday night at a private fundraiser and Monday night at a get-out-the-vote rally.
The winner takes on Republican rookie Bob Dold for the seat in the North Shore district represented for five terms by moderate Republican Mark Kirk, but since redrawn by Democrats to be more friendly to Democrats. So this primary is certainly a race worth winning.
On Monday afternoon, I talked by telephone to Howard Dean about the 10th District race—and also about subjects ranging from Afghanistan to Bill Daley. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:
CF: So why Ilya Sheyman? There must be many unknown candidates who would like your endorsement.
HD: He worked for Democracy for America, which my brother still runs. Then he worked as an organizer for True Majority, which is Ben Cohen’s group, the founder of Ben & Jerry’s. And then he came back to Chicago where he grew up and was an organizer here for a variety of causes. I was very attracted by the idea of a young guy going to Congress who’s really going to shake things up. I truly believe that the Democrats have to be Democrats and not Republican-lite. I think Ilya’s the only [Democratic] candidate who can win. Voters go for the real deal and not the copy.
CF: Do you think Sheyman, who was also mobilization director for MoveOn.org, is too left for the district, and that Bob Dold would have a better chance to beat him?
HD: I think the opposite. What you need in politics to win doesn’t so much matter where you are on the left/right spectrum. What matters is if the voters believe you’re going to stand up for what you believe in, or if they just think you’re interested in a seat in Congress, for whatever reason. And Ilya conveys the notion that he has a set of principles and he’s going to stick by them. That’s the gold standard. There are all kinds of people, both Republican and Democratic, that have won by standing up for what they believe in, because that’s such a rare commodity in politics. I think Ilya’s got that.
CF: What about his age? [Sheyman turns 26 on June 1; Schneider is 50.]
HD: I think it’s a huge plus. People know that he’s going to shake things up in Congress. I love this idea that `Oh, I’ve got more experience than Ilya does.’ That’s exactly what the problem is. We don’t want any more experienced politicians who want to go down there and sit on their butts for all those years. We want young people who invade the Congress and change it. I think [Sheyman’s] age is an enormous plus; in fact, it’s what got me interested in the first place. The younger generation has already elected a president in this country. The younger generation is in the process of taking over and I think that’s a good thing I don’t think we really need anymore congressmen who don’t know why they want to be there and just like to have a seat in Congress.
CF: Israel has always been an extremely important issue to 10th District voters; a strong stand on Israel is what got Mark Kirk elected to five terms. Will Ilya win those voters?
HD: Well, it’s hard to argue with a Russian Jewish immigrant on Israel.
CF: Speaking of Israel—and its battle with Iran—are you an advocate of the U.S. attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities or supporting Israel in doing so, or of waiting to see if sanctions on Iran will work?
HD: Absolutely, the latter. Those sanctions are the most successful sanctions that have been put on Iran in the last 30 years, and I think they are working now, which is why the Iranians keep talking about talking.
CF: On Afghanistan and what happened Sunday, should we pack up and get out?
HD: I’m unfortunately unaware of what happened [Sunday]. I’ve been on the road for five days and I haven’t even see a newspaper in three days.
CF: An American soldier at 3 a.m. left his base somewhere near Kandahar and murdered 16 Afghans, including women and children, as they slept.
HD: In general that’s a terrible, terrible thing. But I don’t think you can make policy based on terrible single situations like that. I am in favor of getting out of Afghanistan because I think [President Hamid] Karzai is totally unreliable. Karzai is interested in Karzai and not much else, but the terrible incident you describe would have no bearing on my views on policy.
CF: As you watch this Republican primary play out, does it bring back memories of your own primary experience? And who will win the nomination?
HD: I think Romney will eventually win, but I think he’ll be in such weakened condition that he can’t win the general election. I’ve never seen a less disciplined primary on the Republican side since 1964. There’s just war going on in the Republican Party right now. I think in the long run they probably will emerge stronger, but they won’t win this election.
CF: What distinguishes this year’s war in the Republican party from the ’08 war between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton?
HD: There were some hard-nosed exchanges, but we never got anywhere close to this mishegoss that is going on in the Republican primary. I’ve just never seen anything like that. I think the lengthy primary benefited Barack Obama last time. I think the lengthy Republican primary is benefiting Barack Obama this time. This is not civil debate. Not only are they not civil to each other, but they’re not civil to women or Hispanics. Obama is ahead by six to one among Hispanic voters. You cannot possibly win the general election as a Republican if you lose the Hispanic vote by 6 to 1, or even 2 to 1.
CF: There’s a Washington Post-ABC poll out that seems to bode ill for President Obama, and it has everything to do with the price of gasoline.
HD: No president has any control over gas prices, but all presidents get blamed for everything that happens on gas prices. Clearly this is going to be a tough issue for us.
CF: Your 50-state plan was criticized by many people (including our Mayor Rahm Emanuel when he was head of the DCCC), but it worked. Will it be tried again this time?
HD: Yes. I think this president believes he can win states that most people don’t believe he can win, and he did it last time so I think we’re gonna win Florida. I think we’ll win Ohio. He’s putting every effort he can into North Carolina. I think we have a shot in Arizona. He’s got an extraordinary campaign—the best campaign I think I’ve ever seen on the Democratic side.
CF: What do you think of the Occupy movement?
HD: I think they’ve been very effective. What they’ve done is change the entire dialogue in the country. Everyone understands now the notion of the one percent and the 99 percent, and they believe basically the Republicans are for the one percent, which is a pretty tough position for them to be in. I think the Occupy movement really changed the dialogue and made people think differently about the election. If Obama does win, as I think he will, I think the Occupy movement should get a lot of the credit. Not because they’re doing organizing work—because they’re not—but because of what they did, the conversation is different than it was six months ago.
CF: Obama has his press operation here. Did you stop by to say hello?
HD: No, flat out I haven’t had a moment to myself; I can’t even get my emails done.
CF: Will you be working for Obama’s reelection?
HD: Yeah, I’m going to help him raise some money.
CF: You were rumored by people who thought Obama too centrist to be considering challenging him from the left in the 2012 primary. True?
HD: No, all that does is help the Republicans win and I think the country needs Obama to be reelected.
CF: So what else have you done since you’ve been here?
HD: Bill Daley and I are good friends, and I did have a chance to stop and say hello to him.
CF: How’s Bill Daley doing?
HD: He’s doing great.
CF: I know he’s going to be involved in the Obama reelection campaign.
HD: Right. He’s trying to figure out what his role is going to be.
CF: Why did he leave the White House?
HD: I would never discuss my conversation with a reporter, but thank you for asking.
[I contacted aides of both Schneider and Dold. Schneider provided the following response: “The outrageous accusations and smears from my opponent and his out of state allies are not distracting the voters of the 10th District. We are confident the voters know my progressive values and experience, and will vote for the one Democratic candidate that can beat Bob Dold in November. My lifetime commitment to protecting a woman’s right to choose, preserving our natural resources, advocating for marriage equality, and providing opportunities for working families and small businesses to thrive has been resonating throughout the district. We are looking forward to the race ahead with Congressman Dold.” Dold’s communications director did not respond as of post time.]
Photograph: Chicago Tribune