Thursday, August 30, 2007

Driving While Latino: The Case of the Disappearing Bald Spot

Recently in North Carolina, a case involving a traffic stop was heard that provided as riveting a courtroom mystery as anything dreamed up on CSI or Law & Order. The players offered a glimpse into relations between the Latino community and law enforcement officials in Chatham County, which has seen one of the nation's fastest Hispanic growth rates, a 1396% increase from 1990 to 2006. Jury members spent three days listening to the evidence, and in the end, reached a verdict that holds out a little hope. Maybe, when it comes to equal justice under the law for all citizens, white or brown, in a part of the South long represented in Congress by a thinly veiled racist like Jesse Helms, the times they are a-changing.

"This case is about a bald spot," said the assistant public defender who was assigned to the case in her closing argument. "You can call it a shaved spot, a scar, a spot on the head where no hair grows, whatever you want. But bottom line, it's a bald spot." When it came time for the prosecutor to respond, his frustration was evident as he snapped right back. "The defense says this case is about a bald spot. Well, it's not."

The defendant was a 26-year old roofer named Cesar Garcia*. His attorney memorably told the jury in her opening statement that he was "born in a mud hut in Honduras." As his defense unfolded, a portrait emerged of his life in the United States and the events surrounding his arrest in this case. Cesar came to North Carolina to find work, fell in love with and married his wife Amy, a local woman, and they now have three kids together. When Cesar needs employees to help him with big roofing jobs, he posts help wanted notices in a local laundromat. That's how he met Hector Diaz in late September of 2006.

Hector Diaz was from Costa Rica. He responded to a notice Cesar placed seeking help roofing a big barn. He worked hard for one day, then came back for a second. It was a Friday, and after work, Cesar and Hector bought some beer and went to a friend's house to unwind. Along with two other friends, they spent the evening hanging out, talking about how kids in this country have opportunities none of them could have imagined while growing up in Central America. Cesar drank five or six beers, and around one am, realized he was too drunk to drive. Hector Diaz volunteered to drive him home in Cesar's car, and that's when things got sticky.

As Hector and Cesar approached Cesar's apartment complex, Hector was going a little too fast. He nearly missed the apartments until Cesar warned him to make a hard right turn into the entrance. It was at this moment that a marked patrol car heading in the opposite direction on the highway spun around, turned on its blue lights, and followed them into the apartment complex. The officer later testified that he clocked the car going 67 miles an hour in a 45 MPH zone.

Instead of stopping, Hector sped up. He led the patrol car on a short chase, circling twice around the complex's parking lot. Cesar, at this point afraid they were going to crash, undid his seatbelt and crouched down in the passenger seat. "I thought the car was going to flip over," he said from the witness stand through an interpreter. Hector drove the car to the parking lot's far edge, the officer in hot pursuit. Before they had even come to a stop, Hector jumped out, and ran off into the woods.

The officer ran right after Hector, past the passenger side of Cesar's car, without realizing there was anyone else inside, and followed Hector into the woods. After the officer had passed, Cesar waited a few moments, then slipped out of the door and started running himself, crossing in front of his car, heading towards his own apartment. "I was afraid," he explained, when asked why he ran. "Everyone here's afraid of the police."

Cesar's wife Amy let him in and he went into a back bedroom to sleep. Within ten or fifteen minutes, the police were at his door. Unable to find Hector Diaz in the woods, the officer had returned to his patrol car, where backup units were on the scene. They found Cesar's registration in his car's glovebox, the car properly registered to him at his current apartment. Assuming he was the driver and sole occupant, they went looking for him.

According to Cesar and Amy, the officers went into the back bedroom where Cesar was in bed. With the lights off, but their flashlights shining, they handcuffed and dragged him out of the apartment, escorting him to the back of a patrol car. Although he maintained his innocence from the start, telling the police repeatedly that he was not the car's driver, no one believed him. Cesar was charged with four misdemeanors, including DWI and fleeing to elude arrest. He faced a possible six months to a year in jail if convicted.

Nearly a year later, the case was heard before a jury in the old county courthouse, in the middle of the traffic circle in Pittsboro, a small North Carolina town. The prosecution's witnesses were all police officers. Witnesses for the defense included Cesar, his wife Amy, and two of his employees, both of whom had worked with Hector Diaz for the two days he was employed by Cesar during September, 2006.

What should have been an open and shut case of a suspect who ran from the police when pulled over for a speeding violation took a surprising twist when it was discovered there was a videotape of the entire traffic stop. Filmed from the patrol car's dashboard, the videotape shows everything just as the arresting officer saw it. It also shows the detail this case would hinge on. Apparently, the driver of the car had a bald spot. The passenger did not. And although Hector Diaz was remembered by multiple witnesses as having a large scar on the back of his head, a patch where no hair grew, Cesar Garcia undeniably has a full head of hair.

Despite the videotaped evidence, and despite never having seen more than the back of the driver's head in the middle of the night before he had even stopped his patrol car, the officer was sure Cesar was the person he'd chased through the woods. "There were briars, but he was running like a rabbit," he said in court. He claimed that Cesar was sweating and had scratches on him from the briar patch when he cuffed him in his bedroom. But Amy testified that it was normal for Cesar to come home from roofing jobs with minor injuries, including scratches.

While on the stand, the arresting officer suggested to the jurors that Cesar had shaved a spot into the back of his head, then let the hair grow back. He helpfully pointed out the driver's bald spot on the videotape to jurors. Yet despite describing other details of Cesar's appearance during his arrest, neither he nor any other officer mentioned seeing a bald spot on the back of Cesar's head.

The jurors, judge, attorneys, witnesses, and everyone else in the courtroom crowded around the VCR every time the videotape was viewed. Here was incontrovertible proof of what happened on the night in question. Jurors squinted, some of them sitting no more than two feet from the monitor's screen. First the prosecution played the tape, then the defense. At one point, Cesar stood to the side of the screen, peering at the footage, up close and personal before the jury as they weighed his fate over the simple question of whether he was driving the car or riding shotgun.

After three days of testimony, it took the jury only fifteen minutes to reach a decision. The courtroom fell still as the verdict was read. Not guilty, on all four counts. Cesar looked down at the defense table and began to sob. The judge thanked the jury members for their time, and told them to contact the clerk's office if their employers asked for written proof of their service. The bailiff called out, "Court adjourned." And it was over.

In light of the fact that this case's proof was in the driver's bald spot, and there was a videotape clearly showing who had the bald spot, the real harebrained question is why the case was ever allowed to go to trial. As a North Carolina taxpayer, I'm outraged that the local district attorney's office thought this was the kind of case worthy of our already overburdened court system's time. As an advocate for equal rights and justice for all, I'm thrilled this small town jury lacking any Latino members was still able to reach a just verdict so quickly.

Will this case have any lasting impact? I'd like to think it will make the police officers involved more careful in the future, and not as quick to make snap judgements without knowing all the facts. Or was the outcome an aberration, and now it's back to business as usual in this particular county when it comes to suspects who are Latino and presumed guilty? Had Cesar been white, would his claim of innocence have fallen on the same deaf ears? Or would someone with the authority to dismiss the charges have viewed the videotape sooner, and realized this case was short a few hairs?

One sober reality is that now Cesar needs to watch his back, because the officers who think he somehow outsmarted them will either be gunning for him, or more charitably, waiting for him to take one step over some line. And North Carolina's history of racially divisive politicians isn't out of the woods yet. The current occupant of Helms' old seat, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), has lately turned to demagoguery against undocumented immigrants while trying to boost her sagging poll numbers for re-election in 2008.

But hopefully, a case like this teaches everyone involved some important lessons, whether they choose to pay attention or not. Sometimes, the bald spot is the grey area between honest mistakes and willful injustice, and growth can only come when those sitting in judgement of someone who's been wrongly accused are willing to stand up and put things right.

*(Names have been changed.)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Edwards to Giuliani: Drop Dead

The News & Observer, Raleigh NC, 8-23-07

CHAPEL HILL - John Edwards wasted no time after his fellow presidential hopeful, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, dropped his recent comments that he was "at Ground Zero as often, if not more, than most of the workers," and called himself "one of them." Edwards campaign manager David Bonoir released a statement blasting Giuliani for taking "every opportunity to exploit the memory of 9/11 for political gain." The Edwards campaign labeled it "outrageous for Giuliani to suggest, in any way, shape or form, that he did more at ground zero or spent more time there than the brave first responders."

Giuliani's campaign fired back, dismissing Edwards' criticism. "For John Edwards to lecture Rudy Giuliani about September 11th is laughable at best," said Katie Levinson, Giuliani's Communications Director. "This is, after all, the same guy who thinks the War on Terror is simply a 'bumper sticker.'"

Harder to dismiss was a New York Times analysis showing Giuliani spent a total of twenty-nine hours at Ground Zero between September 17 and December 16, 2001, compared with an average 400 hours for cleanup workers.

It's not the first time Edwards has focused his attacks on Giuliani. Speaking before a crowd in San Francisco on August 1, Edwards said Giuliani as president would be "George Bush on steroids." He warned that "we have insurance companies, drug companies and oil companies running this government. And they need to be stopped. Giuliani just wants to empower them."

And at private fundraisers, Edwards swaggers when he floats the possibility of taking on Giuliani in the general election. "Are you telling me that Giuliani is going to beat me in the South?" Edwards asked his top North Carolina donors at a June closed-press event hosted by his former law firm in Raleigh. "Are you kidding? That sounds like some kind of joke!"

Since Edwards still has to clinch the Democratic nomination before stepping into the ring for a potential match against Rudy, his Giuliani-bashing might seem premature. Yet for Edwards, whose poll numbers and fundraising totals are stuck in third place, slamming a top Republican contender could be a smart move.

For one thing, it elevates him above the Democratic primary infighting. It might distract from Edwards' string of campaign missteps, like his expensive haircuts or ties to a hedge fund for the wealthy that owns subprime mortgage companies, two of which were recently discovered trying to foreclose on Katrina victims. Not to mention generating goodwill for him among Democrats tired of seeing their candidates turning on each other like crabs in a barrel. The longer Obama and Clinton squabble over who has the experience to be Commander in Chief, they more they risk creating an opening for Edwards to slip through.

It also plays to Edwards' perceived strengths as a Southern Democrat. By raising the prospect of running against a Northeastern Republican like Giuliani who is pro-choice on abortion and supports gay rights, Edwards is subtly suggesting he can compete for the votes of social conservatives. "You get a Southerner against a former New York City mayor, and you've really got a cultural dichotomy that is tough on the GOP," veteran Democratic consultant Bill Carrick recently told Rolling Stone. "It's enough to make a Republican strategist suicidal."

But despite his accent, Edwards' appeal in Southern states is by no means a done deal. He was elected by North Carolina voters to his single Senate term in 1998 by a tight 51-47 margin, defeating incumbent Republican Senator Lauch Faircloth. Faircloth was outgunned by Edwards' telegenic, youthful appeal and natural skills as a campaigner, but he was also one of Bill Clinton's main tormentors and a casualty of voter anger over Clinton's impeachment.

In 2004, Edwards chose to give up his Senate seat after one term and run for president full throttle. Skeptics claimed it was because he wouldn't have been re-elected in North Carolina. Throughout most of his term, Edwards was dogged by criticism that his presidential ambitions were detracting from his ability to serve the state in Congress.

Although Edwards won the South Carolina primary in 2004, his only primary win of the season, it wasn't very overwhelming. He only managed 45 percent of the vote to Kerry's 30 percent, with 10 percent for Al Sharpton. And the Edwards campaign mounted an all-out organizing effort in South Carolina, the hardest they worked to win any contest all season. Just a week after his South Carolina victory, he still lost to Kerry by double-digit margins in both Virginia (52-27) and Tennessee (41-26).

When he was considering Edwards as a running mate, John Kerry sent his brother Cam to North Carolina to meet with local journalists and longtime political observers, one at a time. The first question he invariably asked was, "Can Edwards carry your state?" But in November, Bush took 56 percent of the vote in North Carolina, versus 43.5 percent for the Kerry/Edwards ticket, almost identical to his 56-43 victory there over Gore in 2000. The Democrats lost every Southern state, and couldn't even carry Edwards' home county or his hometown of Robbins, N.C.

In 2004, black voters made up 49 percent of Democratic primary voters in South Carolina. This time around, they're splitting almost exclusively between Obama and Clinton, which spells trouble for Edwards. Recent state polls reveal him about where he is nationally, in third place with an average of 15 percent.

It’s unclear whether Southern moderates would warm to John Edwards version ’08 in a general election. The centrist image Edwards staked out during his Senate term is a fair distance from the unabashedly liberal platform he’s running on today. In 2004, Edwards was to the right of Kerry and Dean. He’s since reinvented himself as the most progressive of the major Democratic candidates.

As far as the latest national numbers go, Edwards is in good shape for any eventual dust-up with Rudy. In polls from late June to late July compiled by the site RealClearPolitics, he leads Giuliani in a hypothetical general election matchup by an average of two points. Yet that's par for the course right now, at a time when the war in Iraq and six years of George W. Bush's countless mistakes have soured the country on the GOP brand. Clinton beats all Republican comers by an average of four points. Obama's got a nine-point advantage over Giuliani and company. In a June NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of generic presidential preferences, Democrats showed a 21-point advantage, 52 percent to 31 percent.

Lest Edwards gain any traction by beating up on the Republican Party's would-be standard bearer, Hillary was quick on the draw, contrasting herself with the current White House occupant.

Last week she released her first TV ad of the 2008 campaign in Iowa, which bashes Bush by showing her standing up for people like struggling families, single moms, and our nation's soldiers who seem "invisible to this president." Edwards can run against Giuliani all he wants, but first he's got to catch up with the other New Yorker in this race.

Friday, August 10, 2007

John Edwards is Out to Get Himself

CHAPEL HILL - John Edwards and I now share hairdressers. I'm not talking about Joseph Torrenueva, the Beverly Hills-based hair artist who cut his locks from 2003 until March of this year, and whose expensive services have caused much political grief for Edwards. To atone for the $400 haircuts he regularly received from Torrenueva Hair Designs, Edwards has begun seeing the stylists at my neighborhood Great Clips, where the going rate is a far more reasonable $12. They've told me he's very down to earth, and a good tipper.

For someone who's been caricatured as a rich phony, John and his wife Elizabeth are about as regular people as you're likely to find in a presidential race. Most people by now know the basics of his biography, how he grew up as the son of a millworker, and was the first in his family to go to college. Even today, in the middle of the family's second campaign for national office, Elizabeth still shops at Target, and John takes the kids on expeditions to nearby grocery stores.

Edwards recently created a stir when his campaign released a video of an appearance he made July 26 before a group of voters in Iowa. In the video, he refers to "this silly, frivolous nothing stuff" in the media. "This stuff's not an accident," said Edwards. "They want to shut me up. That's what this is about."

His defenders have consistently slammed the press for covering the gaffes known as Edwards' "three H's" - his newly constructed 28,000 square foot house, $400 haircuts, and large salary earned from a hedge fund for the wealthy. Now Edwards has raised the charge himself, accusing the media of playing a game called "Let's distract from people who don't have health care coverage."

But is it accurate? Can John Edwards' stumbles honestly be blamed on mainstream media organizations out to get a candidate whose policy positions are seen as hostile to corporate interests? There are plenty of right-wing Edwards haters out there who have gladly used the media spin machine to magnify any bad news about him. And in light of the many challenges America faces in cleaning up after George W. Bush, the attention supposed character issues like the "three H's" have received is unfortunate. Still, a large part of the problem is Edwards' own poor political judgement.

After the 2004 campaign, the Edwards family moved from their house in an upscale neighborhood of Raleigh, N.C. to Chapel Hill, where housing prices are among the highest in the state. They bought land on the outskirts of town, and waited for their new home to be constructed, a sprawling compound that combines home and office space. The tax value of the house is $6 million, and totals 28,000 square feet. By comparison, the Clintons' Dutch Colonial in Chappaqua, NY has a square footage of 5,200, and was purchased in 1999 for $1.7 million.

About his work for Fortress Investment Group, a New York-based hedge fund, Edwards has said he wanted to learn more about the role of financial markets in helping alleviate poverty. Asked if he couldn't have just taken a class, he replied, "That's true." Edwards was paid a $479,512 salary by Fortress as an advisor during 2005 and 2006, and earned another $1.2 million in investment income from the firm.

It doesn't take a political genius to realize a job with a high flying hedge fund could hurt a candidate's anti-poverty credentials. Fortress greatly expanded its investments into sub-prime mortgage lenders while Edwards worked there, the type of predatory companies he regularly denounces on the campaign trail. "He didn't go through the portfolio," admits Elizabeth.

Edwards deserves the benefit of the doubt about his explanation that he didn't know how much his $400 haircuts cost. But he must have realized it wasn't cheap to fly a hairdresser to the stars around the country to cut his hair for more than three years. He may have been unaware of how Republicans have repeatedly used Democrats' fancy hair stylists to paint them as out of touch with average voters, although it happened to his running mate John Kerry in 2004. Regardless, Edwards was tripped up by his own bad judgement in getting such gold-plated hair treatment to begin with.

He also got into haircut trouble because his campaign team screwed up. His haircuts would never have become an issue if a staffer had not inadvertently billed two of them to the campaign during the first quarter of 2007, instead of charging Edwards’ personal account. Since no one in charge of filing his finance reports saw a problem with $400 haircuts, they became public knowledge, and the media reported on them. Like it or not, if you're running for President, your every move is under press scrutiny.

Beyond the "three H's," Edwards has fumbled through a series of campaign missteps that also call his decision making into question. Hiring bloggers who drew fire for anti-religious writings they'd previously posted on their personal blogs. Asking anti-war supporters to stage protests at Memorial Day parades, with a promise to post photos of the best demonstrations on a campaign-run website. Most recently, attacking Hillary Clinton for accepting $20,000 in campaign contributions from Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch and Fox executives, saying "the time has come for Democrats to stop pretending to be friends with the very people who demonize the Democratic Party." Predictably, Fox News wasted no time reminding the world that Edwards earned $800,000 last year from a book deal with Murdoch's HarperCollins unit.

When it comes to lifestyle, John and Elizabeth defend their choices by pointing out John worked hard as a highly successful trial lawyer to achieve their estimated $29.5 million net worth, and their family should be allowed to enjoy it. Giving every American the opportunities John Edwards has been afforded is one of his candidacy's central themes, an underpinning of Edwards' crusade against poverty.

Yet Edwards is taking a big risk by allowing displays of wealth to undercut his appeal as someone who knows what it's like to come from humble means. According to Drew Westen, professor of psychology at Emory and author of The Political Brain, a candidate's personal characteristics trump their policy positions every time. Voters look for emotional details that help them measure judgement, integrity, and leadership, rewarding consistent narratives about what values and vision a candidate possesses. The voting public doesn't decide between candidates by rationally weighing their platforms. This reality helped sink nominees like Kerry and Al Gore, even though their policies were backed by more Americans than those of George W. Bush.

I want to root for the guy who goes to the same haircut joint as me, even if he's a Johnny-come-lately to Great Clips. His '08 proposals are the most progressive of the major Democratic contenders, from providing universal health care to raising taxes on the super rich. But Edwards is making it hard with his unending string of self-inflicted political nicks and cuts. The next time he wonders who's really out to shut him up, John might want to sit down in our $12 stylist's chair and take a good look in the mirror.

(UPDATE 8/12/08 – Versions of this column were rejected by multiple media outlets, including the LA Times, New York Times, New Republic, Slate,, and USA Today. Clearly they didn’t like the piece, but why? Maybe the news cycle was already saturated with stories about Edwards’ “three H” gaffes, or editors were giving Edwards a pass after he accused them on July 26, 2007 of trying to “distract from people who don't have health care coverage” by reporting on his campaign missteps. Footnote to the story: after getting a haircut once at the local Great Clips to comb over his $400 haircut flap, Edwards didn't visit again throughout the rest of the ’08 campaign.)

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

John Edwards needs a reboot, but Obama's got buzz

The Hill, 8-1-07


John Edwards' campaign wanted to be Dean 2.0, counting on netroots support to power him to victory. But Obama stole Edwards' online thunder.

When a prominent internet strategist for John Edwards was interviewing prospective bloggers to work on the former Senator's 2008 campaign for president, he wooed one potential hire over baklava in New York City. It was January 14, 2007, just three weeks after Edwards' official entry into the race, and the candidate spoke that day at a Martin Luther King Day commemoration service at Riverside Church in Harlem. The strategist told the blogger, Lindsay Beyerstein, author of the left-wing blog Majikthise, that Edwards' campaign would tap the power of the internet in revolutionary ways.

As Beyerstein put it, he proclaimed "how John Edwards was going to be a different kind of candidate. We, a new generation of Internet-savvy activists, had finally come of age. We were going to help Edwards run a campaign that was totally outside the Beltway." He promised the Edwards campaign "was going to be a decentralized grass-roots operation," and before leaving the cafe, offered her a job as Edwards' official blogmistress.

From the moment Edwards launched his 2008 campaign by posting a video of his announcement speech on YouTube, he seemed poised to win the title of most internet-savvy presidential candidate. His slick-looking website, his wife Elizabeth's regular posts to the top-rated political blog DailyKos, and his hiring of high profile veterans of Howard Dean's 2004 internet-fueled run like Joe Trippi and Matthew Gross all signaled that Edwards would be making a strong play for netroots support. In the campaign's early days, the media breathlessly covered the campaign's online know-how and swallowed the hype that Edwards 2008 would be Dean version 2.0 - bigger, smarter, and better at using the internet to harvest money, volunteers, and votes.

Things haven't quite turned out that way. Record-breaking fundraising totals, massive turnouts at rallies and campaign events stoked by online organizing, building an online community of like-minded supporters - it's all happening, and on a level that dwarfs anything Howard Dean was able to achieve. But it's being done by Barack Obama, the candidate who's stolen Edwards' online thunder.

Clicking for dollars

Looking at fundraising totals tells part of the story. The part of Dean's campaign that all the 2008 candidates want to emulate is his amazing money-generating internet machine. And at this point in the last presidential race, Dean burst onto the national political radar by announcing he had raised $7.5 million in the second quarter of 2003, $4 million of it online, which was more than twice what he'd raised in the first quarter. Overnight, thanks to this infusion of internet cash, he went from long shot to serious contender.

True, Edwards posted decent figures by raising approximately $3.3 million via internet donations in the first quarter of 2007, out of an overall haul of $14 million. That was approximately three times as much as he raised online while running for president in the first quarter of 2003. But it took him the first two months of 2007 to cross the online $1 million mark, and a significant amount of his online first quarter totals poured in after his wife Elizabeth announced on March 22 that she was battling an incurable form of cancer. Following inaccurate press reports that Edwards was preparing to suspend his campaign, his supporters responded to Edwards' decision to stay in the race with a wave of donations, contributing $540,000 online in the week after Elizabeth's announcement. And in the second quarter, Edwards' fundraising numbers dropped, as his $9 million total came up $5 million short of what he was able to raise from January through March.

Obama, by contrast, has blown Dean's 2003 figures out of the water. During the second quarter of 2007, he raised nearly four times as much as Dean's second quarter 2003 total - $32.8 million, of which $31 million can be used for the primaries. $10.3 million of Obama's haul, or about a third, was from online donations, compared with $3.5 million for Edwards. He outraised frontrunner Hillary Clinton, who took in only $27 million overall, with $21.5 million in primary dollars. And he beat Edwards in the fundraising race by more than 3-1, including more money raised online than Edwards collected from all sources.

These numbers are on top of the astonishing $25.8 million Obama raised in the first quarter, including $6.9 million from internet donors, compared with Clinton's take of $26 million with $4.2 million raised online. 2007 is only half over, and Obama and Clinton have each already raised more money than the $50 million Dean pulled in during his entire presidential campaign.

Obama has also topped all Democrats in his total number of contributors, another crucial way to measure the breadth of a candidate's support. In the first quarter, Obama reported contributions from 104,000 individual donors, versus Edwards' 40,000 and 50,000 for Clinton. In the second quarter, Obama gained an additional 154,000 donors, for a year-to-date total of 258,000 who have made 358,000 individual contributions. In comparison, throughout Dean's 2004 campaign, he attracted approximately 318,000 donors who anted up 454,000 times. Edwards lagged behind, with an additional 60,000 second quarter donors, and Clinton declined to release her donor numbers for the second quarter in advance of the July 15 reporting deadline.

The online fundraising discrepancy between Edwards and Obama can partially be explained by how each campaign went about trying to recreate the Dean magic. Team Edwards tried hiring Dean's veteran staffers, including Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, and Matthew Gross, who ran the Dean campaign's blog. Obama's folks signed on Dean talent, too, but they scooped up the software engineers who coordinated the nuts and bolts of Dean's internet fundraising operation. They then brought the co-founder of Facebook onboard to help create cutting edge campaign technology that would empower Obama supporters to fundraise and network in their own creative ways. Those two divergent approaches set the stage for a lot of what happened next.

Edwards: Early online promise stalls

One of Edwards' first announced hires for 2008 was Matthew Gross, who serves as Senior Advisor for Online Communications. Gross was Director of Internet Communications for the Dean campaign and launched the first presidential campaign weblog, Dean's Blog for America. Since 2004, Gross had relocated to Greensboro, N.C., an hour's drive from Edwards' national campaign headquarters in Chapel Hill. He was close at hand, and seemed a natural pick.

Back to Lindsay Beyerstein, of Majikthise, who was one of the first to be offered the job. As told to Salon, on that January afternoon, she immediately sensed trouble. "I'm probably not ... the person you want," she said. "I mean, I'm on the record saying that abortion is good and that all drugs should be legalized, including heroin. Don't you think that might be a little embarrassing for the campaign?" Beyerstein is also an atheist, and blogs about her religious views regularly. "(He) assured me that my controversial posts weren't a problem as far as the campaign was concerned. They were familiar with my work."

Incredibly, Beyerstein was promised she wouldn't even have to abandon her personal blog. "He noted, he hadn't given up his own blog, and neither had another member of the Edwards Internet team." In the end, she declined the campaign position, noting that "a bunch of Internet staffers with private blogs sounded like a disaster waiting to happen."

In mid-February, blog trouble did strike the Edwards campaign. The two bloggers ultimately hired, Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, came under withering fire for things they'd previously posted to their personal political blogs. Anti-religious charges against the bloggers were leveled by right-wing attack dogs like Bill O'Reilly, Michelle Malkin, and William Donahue, president of the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

Clearly, these hires were not properly vetted by Edwards' staff, since bloggers' words are available on the internet for all to see. Despite the candidate's declaration of support, within a week's time, both bloggers had quit. The episode hurt Edwards by giving his right-wing critics ammunition to say he supported anti-religious bigotry, but the effects on his standing in the liberal blogosphere were a wash. He drew praise for publicly supporting the bloggers, but their quick resignations left a bad taste in some corners - those who persisted in believing Marcotte and McEwan had been forced out.

Edwards would continue to stock up on former Dean staffers. On April 19, former Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi announced on the Edwards campaign blog that he had reconsidered his retirement from politics and was signing on as a senior Edwards adviser.

This move followed the earlier hire of Trippi's most senior associate from his consulting firm, Daren Berringer, as Edwards' national field director. In addition to advising Edwards on strategy, Trippi was said to be joining the media team and helping to create Edwards' television, internet and radio ads. In a July 1 profile, the New York Times' Adam Nagourney reported that Elizabeth Edwards had advocated hiring Trippi "in large part to address her concern about lackluster fund-raising by the campaign."

Another of Edwards' major internet hires was Ben Brandzel, brought on board as Director of Online Communications. Brandzel was formerly Advocacy Director for, and an organizer for Dean. Brandzel's arrival was followed by a Memorial Day stir when the campaign's online team asked anti-war Edwards supporters to stage protests at Memorial Day events. On a new website created by the Edwards campaign called, people were urged to "buy a bunch of poster-board and markers," and "at a picnic or with family and friends, make signs that say ‘SUPPORT THE TROOPS — END THE WAR.’ Bring them to your local Memorial Day parade. Then take a digital photo of yourself and your family or friends holding up the poster and tell us about it. We’ll include it in a ‘Democracy Photo Album’ on our site."

Sounding suspiciously like a typical e-mail appeal, the idea drew fire from the usual right-wing suspects, but also condemnation from veterans groups and mainstream newspaper editorials. Elizabeth Edwards wisely amended this plan by subsequently asking supporters not to protest on the Monday holiday, only the weekend before, because "Memorial Day itself is not supposed to be a day of protest. It's a day of honor." Lesson? What works in an advocacy group's e-mailed action alerts, directed at a narrow group of activists, doesn't always translate into effective ways to promote a presidential campaign.

Edwards' critics on the right had tasted blood during Bloggergate, and from that moment on intensified their efforts to malign his personal character in the hopes of derailing the Edwards campaign. They seized upon the existence of a two-minute video called "I Feel Pretty" that had been uploaded to YouTube in November, 2006 by an unknown Edwards skeptic.

The video contains behind-the-scenes footage of John Edwards arranging and fixing his hair for two agonizingly long minutes with the help of a female stylist, assumedly prior to a campaign appearance. It's set to the tune of "I Feel Pretty," from West Side Story. Fairly tame stuff, as campaign gaffes go. The footage is similar to unguarded candidate moments like those captured in the classic campaign trail documentary "Feed," shot during the 1992 New Hampshire presidential primary.

Unfortunately for Edwards, it reinforced the pre-existing storyline established by his political opponents ever since he stepped onto the national stage - that he was a blow-dried phony, more hairspray than substance. Larry Sabato of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia said Edwards risked being labeled a "pretty-boy," and longtime Roll Call columnist Norman Ornstein called the video "one of the more politically devastating things I've seen." The Republicans have spent years trying to paint him as the "Breck Girl," and somebody on Team Edwards should have immediately realized how dangerous this video might be.

Instead, the Edwards campaign has worked hard since the start of the 2008 campaign to drive traffic to YouTube, assuming that viewers who visited the site to learn about John Edwards would primarily view the campaign's own videos. These include footage of his campaign launch in New Orleans, Edwards' early campaign commercials, and a series of "Webisodes" created by Rielle Hunter, a New York filmmaker, showing scenes from the campaign trail. In one of them, Edwards tells viewers, "I've come to the conclusion I just want the country to see who I really am - not based on some plastic Ken doll you put up in front of audiences." And until March, total viewership of all Edwards' video content on YouTube remained about steady with the number of viewers who had stumbled onto the single "I Feel Pretty" clip.

Then right-wing columnists, talking heads, and bloggers all began making reference to the "I Feel Pretty" video in hit pieces focusing on the non-issue of Edwards' supposed vanity. Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker was typical of this approach when she wrote in a mid-March column called "John Edwards' Death by Bangs," that "vanity is deemed unmanly...women don't trust men who spend more time in the bathroom than they do. And men don't trust men who primp."

Especially memorable was Ann Coulter's remark at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference on March 2, in which she infamously used an anti-gay slur while telling the audience why she couldn't talk about John Edwards. The Edwards campaign showed it was capable of harnessing the internet's viral fundraising power for a brief moment, when it posted a C-SPAN clip of Coulter's comments on its website, and used the controversy as a fundraising boost. Over $100,000 in online "Coulter Cash" came in over the next week from supporters who answered the campaign's call to "fight back against the politics of bigotry."

Despite the best efforts of Edwards-haters, the "I Feel Pretty" video didn't gain traction until mid-April, when Edwards gave his critics a surprise gift. News broke on April 17 that he had gotten two $400 haircuts during the first quarter, and according to his finance reports, the campaign had paid for both. Edwards claimed he had sat for the cuts in hotel rooms, on the campaign trail, and hadn't known they would be that expensive. He said it was a billing mistake for the campaign to have picked up the tab, and quickly reimbursed his treasury $800.

But his haircuts still became the political punchline of the moment. Leno and Letterman milked it, Edwards' right-wing enemies pounced, and rival candidates took aim, like Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), who ducked into a New Hampshire barbershop for a $12 trim.

Former Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee got the biggest laugh line of the Republicans' second debate on May 15 when he claimed the current Congress had "spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop."

Unlike other Edwards missteps, such as the news that he had accepted a large salary from a New York-based hedge fund for the super rich during 2005, the haircut flap had accompanying visuals. Predictably, views of the "I Feel Pretty" video soared.

As of July, it's now the first thing that pops up when someone does a simple search for "john edwards" on YouTube. It's been viewed over 800,000 times, with more than 300,000 views clocked during the first two weeks that news of Edwards' $400 haircuts broke in mid-April. By comparison, it took only 400,000 YouTube views of former Sen. George Allen (R-VA)'s infamous "macaca" moment to help seal his loss to Jim Webb in 2006.

How badly have the haircut brouhaha and his other stumbles hurt Edwards? According to polls compiled by the site RealClearPolitics, his average standing in national polls has fallen from 17.8 percent in April to 11.5 percent by mid July. In the liberal blogosphere, Edwards' defenders have consistently condemned attention given to the haircuts as proof that the mainstream media is out to get a candidate whose policy positions are seen as hostile to corporate interests. But most admit the story has done damage. On June 18, DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas Zuniga posted a commentary called "No freakin' Clue," about the vulnerabilities of all the major Democratic presidential candidates. He singled out Edwards' ineffective response to the haircut mess as his campaign's biggest gaffe to date. The post drew nearly a thousand comments, and half were about Edwards' hair.

What should the Edwards campaign have done about its hairy YouTube situation? Credited to Chuck DeFeo, e-campaign manager for Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, the concept "flooding the zone" means to upload a torrent of random videos to YouTube as soon as a damaging video surfaces. The videos should share the exact same titles and labels as the already existing, damaging YouTube clip, since the aim is to make it difficult for users to find the video they're searching for.

So for starters, Team Edwards could have flooded the zone. Not by following DeFeo's strategy entirely, but by encouraging their supporters to upload their own videos about how the price of a candidate's haircuts is a distraction from more important issues. Or they might have uploaded some new, campaign-produced content, and worked to get it noticed.

Like devising a video starring John that took the vanity issue head on by spoofing it. Media guru Mandy Grunwald put a variation of this tactic to effective use for Hillary Clinton in her recent YouTube parody of the Sopranos finale. The campaign could have orchestrated a viral reaction, by directing supporters to forward the clip to friends and embed it as a video link within posts and comments on high-traffic blogs. All in the hopes that something unrelated to "I Feel Pretty" would end up the most-watched John Edwards video on YouTube.

At the Democrats' CNN/YouTube debate on July 23, the Edwards campaign unveiled a 30-second spot designed for YouTube that might have fit the bill nicely. Appropriately set to the song "Hair," from the Broadway musical, the video features scenes of the Iraq War, Bush's "Mission Accomplished" moment, and Hurricane Katrina victims. At the end, the spot asks, "What really matters? You choose." Better three months late than never.

Several of Edwards' other initiatives as an e-candidate haven't lived up to their hype. He got a lot of press for his early presence on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, as well as the sheer number of sites where his staffers set up campaign pages, more than two dozen in all. A few months into the campaign, many of the same pages had negligible traffic, and some hadn't been updated since their creation.

Similarly, Edwards got buzz mileage out of being the first candidate to start using Twitter, a site that lets you post short, two-sentence snippets about what you're doing at any given moment. But, as skeptics of the service have noted, who really cares? Aren't the same people who want to follow what John Edwards is doing every hour on the hour already rabid enough about his campaign not to need any more hand-holding?

Although Joe Trippi hasn't yet turned Edwards' internet fortunes around, he recently made news starring in, what else, a YouTube video for the campaign. He and deputy campaign manager Jonathan Prince attempted to make a pecan pie using John's mother's homemade recipe, during a fundraising push timed to coincide with the candidate's 54th birthday. They posted the video showing them baking and burning the pie to YouTube, featuring a cameo from Elizabeth seeking donations. "We brought in close to $300,000," said Trippi. "All we spent was a couple of bucks for the milk and eggs." But so far, only 39,696 views. And increasingly, that number counts.

Obama: All the right online moves

Barack Obama is leading the Democrats' online charge. According to Nielsen BuzzMetrics' latest internet ratings, Democratic presidential candidates are dominating the blogosphere, beating the Republicans at "buzz," defined as online mentions in blogs and discussion, by nearly a 2-1 ratio over the past twelve months. Obama has created the greatest buzz overall, with a 2-1 lead over Hillary Clinton, who is a distant second.

Through June, Obama, Edwards, and Clinton netted $28 million online, not including Clinton's second quarter totals, compared with $18 million for Guiliani, McCain, and Romney. Obama's website generated the greatest number of unique visitors of any candidate site in April, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. Obama led with 647,000 unique visitors, followed by Clinton with 498,000 and Edwards with 385,000. John McCain had the highest-ranked Republican candidate site, in fourth place with 212,000 visitors.

Incredibly, Obama has built his online juice without buying any internet ads on other sites, except for Google-sponsored search links. Heavy online ad spending is assumed to be the only reason McCain's website placed fourth in recent traffic rankings. Obama's website also led the presidential field in generating 3.8 million pageviews by its visitors during April.

Of Obama's 258,000 donors, more than 40 percent (110,000) have contributed online. This is near the 50 percent of contributions that Dean raised online, accounting for $25 million of his approximately $50 million total. The Obama campaign now has more contributors than the leading Republican presidential candidates combined. During the second quarter, Obama averaged 1,500 new donors a day. His average donation was $202, down from $247 in the first quarter, reflecting a higher number of small contributions. Skeptics who have focused on the fact that Obama's donor numbers include fans who have bought Obama swag like t-shirts and bumper stickers at rallies are missing the point. Each supporter purchasing Obama gear gets added to the campaign's e-mail list, to be hit up for future donations.

In a New York Times interview shortly after second quarter figures were released, campaign manager David Plouffe trumpeted the strengths that come from relying on a broad base of small donors instead of deep-pocketed Democratic fatcats giving a thousand or two at a pop. He estimated more than 90 percent of Obama's supporters were not yet "maxed out," and could continue contributing to the campaign. "This gives us a deep financial base that will continue to allow us to perform strongly throughout the course of the campaign," Plouffe said. "It also gives us a huge foundation of volunteers and organizational support."

When it comes to social networking sites, nobody can touch Obama's popularity on MySpace and Facebook. But Obama had a brush with MySpace controversy in early May when his campaign asserted control over a volunteer-built page that had amassed over 160,000 MySpace "friends." The page was originally created in November, 2004 by Joe Anthony, a paralegal from Los Angeles. After Obama announced for President, the number of people signing on as his friends exploded. As Anthony's workload grew, he eventually asked to be paid as a consultant. Obama's online team balked, deciding the MySpace page was a valuable campaign asset that they needed to directly control. So they appealed to MySpace, and Joe Anthony's access to the site was shut down.

The move generated waves throughout the online community. For a year and a half, Anthony had nurtured the MySpace page's growth as an unpaid volunteer. Had he been working as a consultant for Obama from the start, he undoubtedly would have been well rewarded. However, since the page was created unofficially, on his own initiative, using the valuable real estate, it was a form of domain name squatting. If there was no widespread interest in Obama to begin with, the page would never have attracted 160,000 friends on its own.

The Obama campaign could have avoided this episode's inevitable backlash by compensating Anthony for his past work in exchange for ceding his rights to the page. Campaign staff initially proposed such a deal, then rejected Anthony's price, claiming his request for approximately $50,000 was too high. In the end, the controversy blew over. By late July, Obama's MySpace page was back up to 150,000 friends, compared with 123,000 for Clinton and only 45,000 for Edwards.

Since the moment he announced in February before 15,000 in Springfield, Illinois, Obama has been attracting rock star-sized crowds - 10,000 in Los Angeles, an estimated 20,000 in both Austin and Atlanta. The campaign has capitalized on the candidate's drawing power and turned his rallies into pioneering, small donor fundraising events. Some of them cost as little as $5 a person, a sum Obama highlighted when he asked the audience at a Cleveland rally in March "to pony up $5, $10 for this campaign. I don’t care how poor you are, you’ve got $5." Edwards and Clinton have set up small donor event programs of their own. Edwards' is called Small Change for Big Change, and was responsible for much of his increase in contributors from 40,000 in the first quarter to 60,000 in the second.

The 45-year old Obama's groundswell of support on MySpace and Facebook (111,000 supporters on Facebook as of late July, versus Clinton's 28,000 and only 11,000 for Edwards) reflects his huge following among students and young voters. At his campaign's New England fundraising kickoff, an event held at Boston University’s Agganis Arena on April 20, supporters sold 5,700 tickets. The rally netted over $700,000, including more than $100,000 from student ticket sales, priced at $23 each. Alison Ross, a 28-year-old BU law student with no prior campaign experience, posted a link to the event on her Facebook page. Ross ended up selling 118 tickets to the kickoff. Tufts students Mitch Robinson and Dan Grant sold 250 tickets on their campus, outside the library and dining hall.

Online appeals for Obama haven't yet included pie recipes, but they have made use of traditionally gimmicky come-ons like running a contest to have dinner with the candidate. Yet the secret to Obama's netroots success is more basic. Fundamentally, the reason his online strategy is working so well is that the campaign is making real attempts to empower supporters by giving them powerful internet tools to work with. Instead of a top-down approach, one that pays lip service to empowerment, the Obama machine is going the distance to get people truly involved as donors and volunteers. Despite the flap over his MySpace page, Obama's genius has been to let go of some control.

Chris Hughes, the 23-year old Facebook co-founder, signed on at the beginning of the year to overhaul the campaign's website, and created So far, MyBO is delivering on its social networking promise. The site allows users to create or join online groups like "Women for Obama" or "Barack the Youth Vote," with over 5,500 created so far. Group members share blogs, and can link up with supporters in their areas to organize events or fundraisers. More than 10,000 grass-roots events have already been held. It's a souped up, in-house version of the site that originally powered Dean's rise,

Most of the major presidential candidates have rolled out similar social networking tools, from McCainSpace to Edwards' One Corps, but Obama's is outperforming the rest. The site's resource center allows supporters to do everything from the low tech (download Obama flyers to print and distribute), to the high tech (turn Obama videos into DVD's). But its real strength is a series of easy-to-follow volunteer guides that instruct would-be supporters on exactly how to translate their enthusiasm for Obama into action, using step-by-step, easy-to-follow directions. How to create a group, attend or plan an event, communicate with the campaign, create a YouTube video, use MySpace and Facebook to show support for Obama, or post comments to popular Democratic blogs like DailyKos and MyDD.

Mark Wiznitzer, an Obama supporter who attended Camp Obama, a week-long training camp held the first week of June in Chicago for campaign volunteers and interns, recently posted an essay on Obama's campaign website describing some of the activities he'd been able to tap into through the campaign's online outreach. "I joined grassroots groups on that work to counter negative and disinformation in the media. I found volunteers online to help translate materials to Spanish for use with the Hispanic community. I collected signatures on a petition to put Obama on the Vermont primary ballot, and joined hundreds of other like-minded supporters in a canvas of voters in New Hampshire in mid-May."

Besides Hughes, the Obama campaign's online staff includes Scott Goodstein, who has years of experience coordinating online advocacy for non-profits, and New Media Director Joe Rospars. Rospars is himself a former Dean staffer, and founded consulting firm Blue State Digital with several other members of Dean's online team after the Dean campaign ended. The founding partners of Blue State Digital, including Rospars, were the brains behind the software that powered Dean's online fundraising and grassroots organizing. Blue State Digital now handles software development and hosting for Obama. Rospars seems to understand what not to do this time around. As he recently stated in a Wall Street Journal interview, "We don't just do technology for technology's sake. How does something help the campaign or help reach a campaign goal?"

And as Obama's fundraising numbers show, his web operation is bringing in the bucks. MyBO lets supporters create their own fundraising pages for Obama, along with a thermometer showing dollars raised and tools to create customizable e-mail pitches that promote the page. Of course, giving supporters easy-to-use internet tools is one thing, but if there's no passion for the candidate, those tools may go to waste. So far, over 9,000 supporters have bundled contributions for Obama using MyBO pages. People are enthusiastic enough about Obama to bombard their personal e-mail lists with fundraising appeals for him, and it's paying off.

One notable MyBO user is Mark Goodman, a 39-year old venture capitalist from Boston and member of Obama's national finance committee. This marks his first involvement with any political campaign, but he's been a fan ever since Obama's keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. During the first quarter of the year, Goodman raised more than $31,000 from 27 different donors. He first hit up family and friends, then sent an e-mail appeal out to the 150 names in his address book, urging those interested to visit his personal MyBo fundraising page. He spent an hour a day making follow up phone calls to the e-mail recipients. "There is no trick, no secret," he told Boston Magazine. "If you’re passionate about it, you’ve got to be articulate: communicate why you’re behind that person."

In June, Obama got an unexpected YouTube boost from a supporter's self-created video. "I Got A Crush on Obama," by Obama Girl, aka model Amber Lee Ettinger, was an immediate sensation, sparking 2.7 million views to date and global press coverage. The video shows shapely Ettinger wearing tight outfits, including a pair of red shorts marked "OBAMA" across the rear. She suggestively purrs lyrics like "You're into border security / let's break these borders between you and me," and "You tell the truth unlike the right / You can love but you can fight / You can Barack me tonight." Ettinger calls Obama's answering machine on her cell phone and leaves a message, "Hey B, it's me...if you're there pick up...I was just watching you on C-Span."

An earlier pro-Obama video on YouTube, released in March, was a parody of Apple's classic 1984 commercial with the oppressive dictator Big Brother replaced by footage of Hillary Clinton as Big Sister. It was heralded as the first viral video of the 2008 presidential race, and to date has been viewed over 4 million times on YouTube. Unlike the Obama Girl video, produced by Ben Relles, a 32-year old ad executive with no ties to the Obama campaign, the 1984 parody drew fire when it was revealed to have been created by Phil de Vellis, an employee who worked for Blue State Digital. De Vellis was fired immediately when the news hit, and Blue State Digital insisted that he had created the video on his own time, without the firm's knowledge, unsanctioned by Obama strategists.

Can Edwards Catch Up?

It may be that the Edwards staff, technically proficient and experienced with online organizing as they are from their work on Dean's campaign, aren't doing anything especially groundbreaking with their internet strategy. It's possible that the self-inflicted wounds John Edwards has suffered over supposed issues like haircuts and hedge funds have dented enthusiasm for his candidacy online, just as they've dragged down his standing in national polls. Or it could just be that Edwards is no longer the freshest face in the race. In 2008, it's Obama who's the newcomer, and the candidate most likely to inspire passionate involvement on the part of folks who have never worked on or donated to political campaigns before, whether online or off.

Ironically, only days after announcing the hire of yet another Dean campaign veteran, former political director and Joe Trippi protege Paul Blank, Edwards explicitly told reporters they should look to Dean's implosion as a reason not to count him out of the race. "Money will not decide who the nominee's going to be," Edwards said in an AP interview, spinning his lackluster recent fundraising totals. "Everyone will remember Governor Dean who out raised everyone else by more than 2-to-1 and wasn't able to win the nomination." In order to avoid Dean's fate, Edwards had better hope his campaign learns a lot more lessons fast about the perils and possibilities of campaigning in the era of YouTube and MySpace. And then he'll have to catch up to Obama, who seems to be learning pretty well on his own.

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