Howard Dean, Take 2

“Twenty-eight people signed up,” said Michael Faulkner, host of the Democracy for America Meetup. It was the first since Howard Dean had re-christened his campaign operation as a permanent organization intended to become the basis for a long-term renaissance of grassroots political organizing. It was 7:30 p.m., starting time, and turnout was looking thin. “We’ll wait for stragglers.”

We were at Tangier in Los Feliz, the site of what had been a regular and vastly more populous Dean for America Meetup. Three months ago, during the most golden of Dean’s halcyon days, the group — a splinter descendant from an even larger group over at the Knitting Factory — had to meet in the restaurant’s capacious rear stage room. By last week, their combined remnants were content to assemble themselves in the more intimate setting of Tangier’s quaint side patio. The early birds ordered calamari and drinks, lounged around on the nice rattan benches, and watched a pleasant evening turn into night through camouflage netting studded with outdoor bulbs.

Despite the diminished size, the same enthusiasm and accessorizing as in earlier Meetups reigned. On the center coffee table, Faulkner’s Powerbook was playing loops of various motivational clips, including a Dean remix video that Faulkner had shot, scored and edited himself. He also screened a homemade John Kerry spot that had been posted to the Web. It was a pastiche of vintage footage — the Vietnam Kerry, the anti-Vietnam Kerry, the youthful early Senator Kerry — flowing briskly to the tune of “Carry On.”

“Crosby, Stills & Nash, right?” I asked.

“And Young!” enthused Kira Tirimacco who was sitting to my left, swaying a little in her seat along with the song. “That’s from the Déjà Vu album.”

When the room filled out a little more — most RSVPs eventually showed, along with some drop-ins — Faulkner called the meeting to order. “How many are here for their first Meetup?” Faulkner asked. Ten hands went up. “Wow. Well, that’s pretty good! If a third of the group is new, we’re doing something right.”

Dean’s defeat in the primaries immediately raised the question as to whether he would disappear once the campaign planes left Wisconsin, or try a turn as the Democrats’ Obi Wan, reappearing in the third act to offer spiritual guidance. Dean clearly wants to be the kindly apparition floating over the senator’s shoulder when the lucky torpedoes (hopefully) head down the Death Star’s mail chute next November, but he also wants to take the fight to the rest of the Empire. Because his new organization has the bigger — and more elusive — goal of capturing the spontaneity and historic fund-raising capacity of the Dean movement and making it lasting and portable to the rest of Democratic politics. DFA, as Faulkner explained to Tangier’s old hands and newcomers alike, was formed not only “to win back the White House but to support progressive candidates in local elections across the country in this season and beyond.”

That necessity of mobilization was the gist of the many announcements, starting with the promising results of a call Dean had made a few days before to help Vermont’s Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy fund a tough re-election fight. “Within two days,” Faulkner said, smiling wide, “a hundred thousand dollars had come in from Dean supporters directly to Leahy’s campaign.”

“Nice start,” Kira said underneath the applause. Then we heard about the litany of ways we could participate in the new New Politics, by sending money, volunteering or even running for office ourselves. Eric Garcetti needs hosts for house parties. Jim Brandt wants help in his run against Dana Rohrabacher. Mobilizing American Youth is looking for someone with legal nonprofit experience. We were invited to a demonstration against the war at the Federal Building, to Meetups of another group, called Democratic Unity, and to the official inauguration of the state chapter of Democracy for America on April 18.

Then an emissary from the Kerry campaign, whom everyone referrred to as “the Kerry guy,” spoke. He talked about his background as a progressive, voting for Nader in 2000, but deciding on Kerry in the fall after careful consideration. Having a visit from the liberal face of the Kerry campaign was important for this audience, because many Dean supporters, as the Kerry guy noted, don’t realize that Kerry has a more liberal record than Dean. The Kerry guy faced some continuing doubts from the true believers, but made a convincing presentation.

“I like him,” said Anne Smith, who was sitting to my right. “I think he was in Dead Poets Society.” She was right: The Kerry Guy was Nick Gilhool, an actor who played a character named Shroom in the movie. But then again, this being a Hollywood Meetup, there was no shortage of actors. Several of the women there, I discovered, were newcomers to the Meetup because they had recently moved here to pursue film careers. Faulkner too is in the business; he was able to produce his own Dean video at such high quality because he learned how to put together his own reel for auditions.

We returned to that video at the intermission, which was so late by this point that the Meetup was starting to lose political steam and turn social. People were ordering second rounds and more food, and mingling. I noticed Anne had a nice-looking glass of red wine, and when I asked what she was drinking, she offered me her glass.

“You want to try mine?” she asked.

“Why not?” I said, a little startled by the idea of taking this woman’s wine.

“It’s Syrah,” she said. “A nice varietal. You’ll like it.”

“Thanks,” I said, and before draining it, I remembered to add: “Here’s to Democracy for America.”