Searching for the Democrats: New Faces of 2004

By BOB BURNETT Special to the Planet
Friday July 30, 2004

This is the second of three articles questioning whether the 2004 Democratic Party stands as a real alternative to the Bush regime. In the first column I looked at the current party platform—its words; here I examine the party as it is revealed in its voice—the new Democratic faces of 2004. 

In addition to the presidency, voters will determine 34 Senate seats in November; in 25 races incumbents are running for reelection, typically as heavy favorites. Kentucky GOP Senator Jim Bunning leads opponent Dan Mongiardo, but the Democrat is showing unexpected strength, because he conveys a sincere, homegrown populism. Mongiardo, the son of Italian immigrants, was born in a rural Appalachian community. The first member of his family to graduate from college, he decided to become a physician after his grandfather and brother died because of inadequate healthcare. After completing his medical residency, Dan Mongiardo returned to his home region, determined to provide quality health care to Appalachia. After 10 years in practice, he entered state politics in order to better address the health care crisis in eastern Kentucky. Now he is making the provision of quality health care for all Americans the central issue of his senatorial campaign. 

Two years ago, Jennifer Granholm confounded experts and became the first female governor of Michigan. Tuesday afternoon, she confounded the experts again when she triumphed as the last speaker at the Emily’s List gathering (Emily’s List is the premier PAC that encourages pro-choice, Democratic women to run for elective office). Gov. Granholm seemed an unlikely choice to follow a powerhouse foursome of Ellen Malcolm, the founder of Emily’s List, Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the House Democrats, Barbara Mikulski, the leader of the Senate Democratic women’s caucus, and Ann Richards, former governor of Texas and notorious political wit. Indeed, each of the speakers seemed to gain energy from her predecessor, so by the time Ann Richards left the stage to tumultuous applause, many in the audience wondered how Jennifer Granholm could possibly live up to her billing. These doubts were quickly dispelled as she delivered a simple but compelling message: If women are to take their own power, they must begin by honoring the brave women who have gone before them forcing open the doors of equal opportunity. Gov. Granholm mesmerized the audience with her personal story, praising her mentor, the late Michigan activist Millie Jeffrey. 

Also on Tuesday, Illinois senatorial candidate Barak Obama electrified two very tough audiences. First, he appeared at a breakfast gathering of Democratic senatorial candidates, and then in the evening he gave the keynote address to the convention. During the breakfast gathering there was constant background chatter for every speaker, until Obama took the stage and then a hush fell over the crowd. He has the ability to command attention, to speak to a large audience intimately, to express complex political ideas in everyday language, and to emphasize our commonality rather than our separateness. In short, he is the most charismatic speaker the Democrats have fielded since Bill Clinton. After Obama’s stellar performance, the buzz among the political cognoscenti was that he may be the only Democrat who is capable of upstaging Clinton. 

These were some of the brightest, new Democratic faces of 2004: a populist physician from rural Kentucky, a spunky female governor from Michigan, and an amazing multi-racial Senatorial candidate from Illinois. When I look at them, I get a sense of the party perhaps fulfilling the dual promise of populism and pluralism that it has flirted with for so long. In the past the Democrats would say the right words, deliver powerful slogans, but when one studied their actions over time, it became apparent that nothing had really changed; the Democratic Party that appeared to champion diversity, actually continued to nominate privileged white men. Now this appears to be shifting. While John Kerry is another privileged white man, this is not true of John Edwards. And when we look behind these candidates, we find compelling new leaders such as Jennifer Granholm and Barak Obama.  

Perhaps it is idealistic to think that the Democrats have finally turned the corner and become the party of all the people, but here at the 2004 convention it does seem inevitable that before long Democrats will nominate their first female presidential candidate. And that not long after that we will see a serious presidential bid by Barak Obama, or some other Democrat with a multi-racial background. 

Underneath all this lies the reality that the 2004 Democrats are reasserting their populism. The speeches of Dan Mongiardo, Jennifer Granholm, and Barak Obama, and many more famous speakers, emphasized that the Democratic Party must take back the country, must stand for equality and opportunity. Barak Obama eloquently summarized this, reminding us all that what ultimately distinguishes Democrats from Republicans is the core belief that “we are all connected…I am my brother’s keeper.”