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photos by Sally McCay






Primary Players
by Caleb Daniloff ’94

Former vermont governor Howard Dean left an indelible mark on this year’s presidential campaign. His record-breaking fundraising, innovative use of the Internet, grassroots organizing tools, and tone-setting rhetoric made impacts that promise to last long after “The Scream” fades.

Dean’s meteoric rise and spectacular fall surprised many. For his campaign staff, however, “the governor” was simply a man they believed in, and still do despite his withdrawal from the race in mid-February. Count among the faithful two UVM alumni, Sarah Buxton ’00 and Narric Rome ’94, who spent more than a year on the front lines.

I began meeting with the pair soon after Dean’s launch on Church Street on June 23rd, well before the national magazine covers. What followed was a roller coaster ride of a velocity no one could have anticipated. The pace at campaign headquarters was breakneck and grueling. Friendships, personal time, sleep, diets, exercise, even paychecks, were sacrificed. The pages that follow offer glimpses from life in pursuit of a presidential nomination.

An eye-watering November wind tears up College Street, quarrelling with tree branches and hairdos before spreading across Waterman Green, around satellite news trucks, and under the double doors at Billings Student Center. Inside Marsh Lounge, journalists mill about, joking and catching up with one another. Dignitaries and special guests sit in chairs normally warmed by student senators. Behind them, rows of television cameras train blank stares at an empty podium. American flags are draped on either side.

A few yards away, Sarah Buxton keeps watch, silver cell phone pressed to rosy cheek, eyes darting. She hasn’t slept much in the past two days. Less than eighteen hours earlier, she had only foggy notions about where to stage this event: Howard Dean’s most important presidential campaign speech to date. His opting out of the public financing system.

“We wanted to give this event a real feel of community, the sense that little places can do big things,” Buxton says, brushing a strand of red hair from her cheek.

But as Dean’s chief scheduler, Buxton is already coordinating his next event, and the one after that. Following the speech and a television interview, she will accompany the former Vermont governor to a Democratic fundraiser in Barre and then fly with him to Maine for a political event, capped off by a “meet-and-greet” with Maine supporters. She’ll be back in Burlington before midnight, and at campaign headquarters the next morning by eight, where she plots Dean’s every move, deciding who sees him and who doesn’t. She is 25 years old.

“Because I’ve always been his scheduler, I know how things run with him, and what tires him out,” says Buxton, who scheduled Dean during his last term as governor. “But the dynamic of this campaign is changing very rapidly, and I was starting to lose perspective. I felt I really needed to see it — the way he moves with people around him, the way the press reacts to what he’s saying on the stump, and what it’s actually like for him walking through an airport, or getting on and off a plane with a reporter right next to him.”

After Dean’s speech, campaign staffer Narric Rome leans against a trophy display case. He has sneaked away from the policy and research desk at Dean headquarters in South Burlington to hear his boss speak. Rome is the campaign’s go-to-guy on Dean’s political record in Vermont, from state legislator to governor. The New York City native spends his days steeped in press clips from Dean’s 20-year tenure in Montpelier, interviewing former gubernatorial staff, and responding to press inaccuracies and candidate attacks.

Deputy campaign manager Robert Rogan says Rome knows Dean’s record better than Dean does. “Narric has become an invaluable resource in trying to explain to the world what Howard Dean is about,” Rogan says.

For Rome, the morning at Billings serves as a homecoming of sorts. “I spent a lot of hours in that room working on student government issues as a student senator,” he says, adjusting the brim of his baseball cap. “I would never have envisioned this.”

A few weeks later, Rome is leaning over a container of rice and chicken, one eye on his computer screen. He forks in another mouthful. Above his head, a bank of TVs play network and cable newscasts, TiVos recording them all. In the walkways between cubicle dividers, jackets, scarves, and hats hang on overloaded coat racks, others piled on top of filing cabinets.

Like many cubicles at headquarters, the atmosphere at Rome’s is definitely dormitory: an American flag, a box of Rice Krispies, loose CDs, a tacked-up copy of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, a placemat from Henry’s Diner altered to include Dean among U.S. presidents from Vermont, and a red-and-white Santa hat. Missing only are St. Pauli Girl posters.

“Debates are our Superbowls, World Series, and Grand Slams all rolled together,” Rome says.

Tonight’s debate is being held in Durham, N.H., a state where Dean has climbed comfortably into the driver’s seat. His front-runner status was further boosted this morning by a surprise endorsement from Al Gore. Rome isn’t sure what to expect from the other candidates.

The Policy and Research Department comprises a dozen staffers, most of whom specialize in certain areas — homeland security, education, gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender outreach, healthcare, and the opposition candidates. Communicating through Instant Messenger chatrooms, the team acts as a rapid response unit to attacks on Dean, sometimes drafting press releases, other times sending relevant information to site staff at the debate, those closest to the press corps.

“The trick is to get into the first write-through of the story,” Rome says. “AP writers, or any journalists, are writing through their first version within the first half hour. We want to have a response or comment in that first write-through, so hopefully it will stay throughout the rest of the story.”

A newlywed in his early 30s, Rome is somewhat at odds with the swarm of peripatetic 20-somethings who stalk and buzz the warren of cubicles at headquarters. After spending most of his post-graduate years in Washington, D.C. as a political operative, Rome has moved back to Burlington for good.

Like most of the staff, he regularly puts in 14-to-16-hour days. “It’s a hell of a commitment to be here,” he says, “but how often can you help elect the next president?”

The debate begins and all eyes turn to the TVs. Rome pulls on a yellow ballcap and takes a swig of Gatorade. The chiming of Instant Messenger begins to ring back and forth. Over the next 90 minutes, various staffers stop by the cubicle to watch, but soon find the forum slow and subdued, and leave.

Despite moderator Ted Koppel’s best efforts to pit the candidates against each other, Rome’s department generates not a single press release that night. It usually averages four, and once sent out eight.

“They were all trying to goad him into what happened in the second debate, when he had that angry face on,” Rome says. “But we’re not taking the bait. That’s the big myth about Governor Dean’s temperament, that he can’t take criticism. But he’s been in debates before, and it’s not like he’s never been accused of anything before.”

As the screen pans to the candidates shaking hands and patting each other on the back, Rome signs off AOL. The department won’t even hold a post-debate wrap-up.

“I was definitely on edge, wondering if we were going to get really hit,” he says. “But that didn’t happen. So, we live to fight another day.”

Sarah Buxton comes down the hallway wearing jeans and a white Dean T-shirt over a dark, long-sleeved shirt, running shoes on her feet. Her hair is pulled back in a loose ponytail. One of Dean’s “original seven,” she smiles and puts out her hand. The campaign has agreed to let me sit in on one of her scheduling sessions.

On the wall at her desk hangs a Superman calendar and map of Iowa. On top of her national scheduling duties, Buxton is focused intensely on the Hawkeye State, working directly with the Iowa field office scheduler. The critical caucuses are five weeks away.

These days, Buxton rarely gets home before midnight, and reads for a while to unwind — the day’s press clips, she admits. Christmas has barely registered.

“A lot of people will be getting Dean For America bumper stickers,” she chuckles.

Buxton plucks off her glasses and wipes the bridge of her nose. As a lead member of the scheduling department, Buxton is both near- and far-sighted. At any given moment, she knows precisely where Dean is, what part of a speech he might be giving, his fatigue level, his spirits, even his state of hunger. Buxton is often the first stop for other staffers seeking Dean’s ear, his mood ring of sorts.

“If he’s really tired, it may not be the best time to have a big serious conversation with him,” she says.

The former poly sci major considers every possible detail of the day: from talking points and podium insignias to the cost of fish for a fish fry and the needs of the traveling press corps. If certain subjects might come up, like Israel, for example, with which Dean has struggled, Buxton factors that into the equation, too.

Buxton strives to build consensus, she says, but has mastered the art of saying no, especially to the powerful.

“Sarah is often in the position of being the mediator between all these different parts of the campaign, who desperately want the governor to do something in their area,” Rogan says. “She’s a masterful juggler in the three–ring circus that this campaign is.”

This is not the first time Buxton has been at Dean’s side at the crossroads of history. Four years ago, when the former governor signed, behind closed doors, the groundbreaking civil unions legislation granting homosexuals the same rights as married couples, Buxton, then a junior administrative staff member, was standing at the table. Not even the legislators who crafted the law, nor the press, had been invited.
Buxton and Dean first came together through a UVM internship, something she didn’t envision her first two years on campus. As a Vermont Scholar, Buxton had planned on pursuing medicine, but didn’t cotton to the required chemistry courses.

“Then I took a class with Frank Bryan and he totally blew me away,” Buxton recalls. “He was such a dynamic speaker and he knew so much about Vermont. And I loved that because I’ve been part of Town Meeting since I was six years old.”

Buxton hails from a large clan in Orwell, Vermont, not too many of them latte-drinking, Volvo-driving liberals. Some of her relatives, she says, still have “Take Back Vermont” signs in their garages. A slogan, ironically, that Dean molded into one of his campaign mantras.

“We’re ready,” Buxton says. She scoops up her cell phone and we head to the conference room.

Dean’s schedule for the next three days will unfold mostly in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The campaign wants to build on momentum from the Gore endorsement. A handful of operatives from the field office have dialed into the conference call.

The following evening, Dean is scheduled to speak at a fundraising concert at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium. Musicians David Crosby and Bonnie Raitt will perform beforehand. On more than one occasion, Dean has strummed a guitar on the campaign trail. California is pressing for Dean to jam with the talent. Bill Clinton playing saxophone is fresh in many political memories.

“I still think this is probably going to be a no,” Buxton says, leaning over the table speaker. “Do they know what they would play? Or is this something you would need from us ahead of time?”

Buxton later confides that Dean loves Crosby’s music, but didn’t want to lock him into anything in front of 3,000 people.

“Every time the governor goes to a big event and there’s any sort of talent, the organizers always ask, ‘Will the governor play harmonica? Will the governor play guitar?’ I always say the answer is no, and then I talk to Kate (O’Connor, senior advisor) and the governor about his comfort level.”

As Buxton listens to the “asks,” or requests, she pens notes in the margins of her print-out. On paper, Dean is YOU. “YOU arrive and mingle with VIPs,” “YOU work long ropeline out,” and “YOU make brief thank-you remarks.” Every minute of Dean’s day, except seemingly for when to turn over while sleeping, is accounted for.

One California staffer asks whether an internet CEO could travel with Dean from the Masonic Auditorium to a hotel dinner.

“The answer’s no right now,” Buxton says, “That’s the only time he’s going to have to phone home to Paul and Judy.”

Buxton is swift and fearless, defending her schedule from party chairmen with lengthy Power Point presentations as well as the field operatives now pushing for Dean to spend time with potential donors at a political luncheon the following day.

“I just feel so strongly that he is going to walk out of there at 1:30, and be able to go get a drink of water or eat something,” Buxton says. “He hasn’t even eaten at this point.”

“Well, it is lunch,” says a female voice.

“I know, but he doesn’t eat before he speaks,” Buxton responds.

Silence on the other end.

Buxton then moves onto the next two hours: phone calls, prep time for a speech on the economy, a meeting with local Latino elected officials. The day’s end falls together. 4:30, Dean sits down with Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner for an interview. 5:30, he departs for a fundraiser at the home of Freddy DeMann, former manager for Madonna and Michael Jackson. 6:45, Dean leaves for a fundraising concert hosted by Rob Reiner at The House of Blues. The Bangles and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy will perform.

No one raises the guitar issue.

On Feb. 18, broke and winless in seventeen contests, Howard Dean ends his bid for the White House.
I meet Buxton and Rome for lunch at Ri Ra’s on Church Street the following week. Going-away parties now fill their datebooks. But neither is glum.

“We had a very strong effect,” Rome says. “Obviously, winning was preferred, but the journey was only second to winning. It was worth it, no matter what happened.”

Rome has already packed up most of his things at headquarters. His days of campaigning are likely over, and he plans on casting his line for a public policy job.

“Something that doesn’t have an election date at the end of it,” he laughs.

Buxton continues to schedule Dean as he shuts down the campaign and figures out a reincarnation. She’s also helping out-of-work campaigners find jobs.

“It’s truly a family,” Buxton says.

The pair bristles at criticism that the campaign blew $40 million in Iowa and New Hampshire. As the presumed frontrunner, they say, it had made complete sense.

“There’s no doubt about it, win Iowa and you get the bump for New Hampshire. Win New Hampshire, and you’re set,” Buxton said. “The fact of the matter is our strategy worked. It just didn’t work for us.”

The media, too, is a subject of disillusionment. A veteran campaigner, even Rome describes the coverage as “alarming.”

“The Gore endorsement was a clear call to the other candidates and certainly the media organizations that this is the front runner and if he’s not going to be the front runner, you’ve got to tear him down.”

The notorious “scream” speech was played some 700 times in the eight days between the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, Buxton notes.

“The closest the media could get to him being an angry man was overplaying a scream that was a scream of excitement at a rah-rah rally,” Buxton says. “He is not an angry man. He’s not harsh. He doesn’t have this crisp side to him that’s being kept secret from the American people. It’s a myth.”

Nonetheless, the sprit of the campaign lives on, the pair say, noting Dean rhetoric in the mouths of other candidates — the Iraq war, healthcare, fiscal responsibility, equal rights.

“That’s what we keep telling our supporters,” Buxton says. “Don’t feel like we’ve failed in any way because we asked for change in America, and we were able to create that opportunity by making the discussion what we wanted it be.”

While some of her colleagues are shopping book proposals, Buxton wants to spread her political wings, and perhaps return to Dean’s side. For now though, goodbyes and thank-yous fill the agenda.

“It’s a lot like the end of college, but on a much more mature level,” she says. “We shared this amazing