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Michael Silberman monitors Dean's meet-up program

And you thought your Outlook inbox was full. Michael Silberman leans over his Macintosh laptop at 11 a.m. Friday morning in the Dean for America national headquarters on Farrell Street in South Burlington. Howard Dean's surprising climb to front-runner has been the talk of politics for months now -- and much of that chatter has focused the campaign's "revolutionary" use of technology, the "new paradigm" it establishes for the future of democracy, its role as a "radical experiment" in grassroots politics. But what does all that mean on the ground? For Silberman, national coordinator of the campaign's burgeoning monthly "meetups," it translates into sipping coffee out of a plastic travel mug while responding to an essentially endless cascade of emails.

There's Jeff Qualls in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who reports a severe case of writer's cramp from writing six letters by hand to his local legislators; Joel Castellaw in San Diego, California, who signs his email, "a true Deanocrat;" and Lucy Stephens, a single mother who recently adopted a daughter from China and writes, "Howard Dean, as President, will make me proud to be an American. I want my kids to be proud Americans too."

When Silberman arrived at the Dean campaign after graduating from Middlebury College last February, meetup.com was still an obscure Web site used by local chihuahua owners or sociable quilters looking for like-minded company. The month Silberman started work, 450 Dean supporters met in 11 locations nationwide. Ten months later, there are 130,000 registered meetup members joining in more than 700 cities and towns around the country -- even around the globe. "The whole meetup organization is totally new. It's never been used in a political campaign before," Silberman says, "No other campaign has taken advantage of the process like we have. Dean is saying that it's not just about him, but it's about the people's ability to change the way politics runs in this country."

Silberman, wearing worn jeans, a collared shirt and hiking boots, rouses himself from behind his monitor and walks briskly about the campaign-headquarter office. One staff member aims a toy bazooka toward him as he passes and shouts, "It's only 'cuz I love you Silberman." The office itself is sprinkled with the kind of paraphernalia usually only found in college dorms -- a scooter, a red clown wig and a five-gallon container of protein powder perch in a corner office.

But Silberman, 23, is a little more reserved than most of his colleagues. A water bottle and nature calendar exhibit his love for the outdoors, and the bumper stickers posted behind his desk sum up his personality and his purpose -- "Think Locally. Act Neighborly" and "Bush Lied."

The staff members log in long, grueling hours in the office often working 12 hour days, seven days a week. For kids used to hiking the Adirondacks and kayaking Lake Champlain, the sacrifice of natural sunlight and fresh air can be difficult, says Silberman. But the staff maintains an abnormally upbeat vibe for a group sequestered in a cubicle-packed office space with the constant murmur of CNN Headline News blaring in the background.

Silberman, an avid road cyclist and outdoorsman, says he repeats his mantra regularly. "There's nothing else I'd rather be doing. It's inspiring to talk to the hosts. We're pushing limits left and right and bringing the power back to the people."

A vegetarian since age 8, Silberman has always been passionate about things ecological. As an environmental studies and political science joint major at Middlebury, he spearheaded a drive to reduce carbon dioxide emissions on the college campus by, among other things, studying a conversion of the college's heating plans from oil to wood. He spent the summer before he graduated living in Berkeley, California, working for a nonprofit alliance that helped push a bill, signed by Gov. Gray Davis, that will make California the first state to regulate carbon emissions from cars by mandating better gas mileage.

Campaigning for Dean seemed like the logical next step. In one sense, it's the big time, with all the pressures of a promising presidential campaign. But because of the new technology, it's also strangely personal, oddly local.

For example, Cathy Padfield from Denver, Colorado, is the kind of supporter the staff would never meet, except that because she was the hundred-thousandth Dean supporter nationwide to sign up on meetup.com, Silberman flew her to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to meet the candidate in person before his debates in Albuquerque. "People like Cathy help prove to us that this campaign is really for, and powered by, the people," he says.

"Kennedy was the first president to use television to launch himself into the White House, and I am betting that Dean will be the Internet equivalent," writes a Dean supporter via email.

On meetup.com, members can create personal profiles, upload photographs, and discuss pertinent issues among themselves. A meetup member in Austin, Texas, describes herself online as: "Little Old Lady. Former technical writer, avid gardener, yellow dog Democrat (I'd vote for a yellow dog rather than a Republican -- fortunately, I don't have to as we have Dr. Dean!)."

Another member in Portland, Oregon, posts, "I'm a young artist who supports Dean for 2004 in hopes that our present political situation will be replaced by a saner future. What more can I say?"

A man from Louisville, Kentucky, writes, "I'm a biotech engineer who has never been politically active before, but I'm eager to do what I can to help get the good Gov. into office."

*****

Silberman, who goes by "Meetup Michael" around the office, ships crate after crate of supplies to Pocatello, Idaho; Hickory, North Carolina; and even Berlin, Mexico City and Hong Kong. He jokes about going to work for UPS after the campaign, now that he's familiar with half the zip codes in the nation. He rattles off the names of various hosts and their respective hometowns with practiced ease: There's Jonathon, a 14-year-old meetup host in Juneau, Alaska, and Michele in State College, Pennsylvania, who has raised $7000 for Dean despite the fact that her family often struggles to make ends meet.

"We're all really proud of our meetup hosts and the amount of time and work they put into the campaign, on top of their full-time jobs," Silberman says. "I don't think they get enough credit for what they do."

Silberman plans and suggests a national action-item for each monthly meetup -- anything from letter-writing campaigns to brainstorming ways to reach specific groups of voters. But ultimately the meetings take their own shape, in coffeeshops and church basements. "The meetups belong to the people. All we're doing is providing them with tools to communicate and to show them that they have the power to take back their country," he says.

At the October meetings, people all over the country sent handwritten letters to their elected Democratic officials expressing their personal reasons for supporting Dean. The Burlington meetup, one of 15 in Vermont, brought a couple hundred people to Nectar's, where the waitresses wore Dean T-shirts and served drinks to a wide array of people -- but no fat cats. A coordinator asked how many of them had never participated in a political event before. People stood up by the dozens.

And the group at Nectar's was surprised by a special guest, whom they greeted with a lengthy standing ovation and cheers. "The Burlington meetup was unique because Howard Dean showed up. The place was packed. Everyone was rooting for him and cheering, ‘Welcome home,'" recalls Silberman.

Back at his desk in the headquarters, though, there's only the endless hum of the iBook. Silberman reads new batches of emails from people who received responses to the letters they had written to Iowa and New Hampshire voters at previous meetups. A woman in Berkeley, California, writes, "I got an email from one of the recipients of my letters. While reading her response I choked back a few tears, as here were two strangers that took the time and effort to connect and say that we love our country, yet we know that America can do so much better -- and we are willing to pitch in to make it happen."

The spirits of his correspondents rub off on Silberman. "Michael has great optimism. He's constantly in touch with people outside the office who contribute to the Dean campaign. He brings their hopefulness and excitement back to the office," says Courtney O'Donnell, the campaign's deputy communications director.

Later in the day, Silberman stands above a large map of the United States with red circular stickers indicating meetup locations. He gives instructions to Jamie Hoggson, a recent University of Vermont graduate who joined the Dean volunteer staff in September -- more stickers, meaning more meetups, and more people pulled into politics.

"This campaign, unlike most others, is based on a system of concentric circles, as opposed to the traditional hierarchical structure," says Silberman, "We are working from the center outwards and using a network of supporters to really get the campaign going."

His loyalty to Dean runs deep. "Everyone here is working because they believe in Dean. I can't see myself going directly to another campaign after this," Silberman says with assurance. "Dean has the combination of being headstrong with a strong personality and also having all the facts of a scientist."

But the campaign is in many ways at least as exciting as the candidate. It is late in the evening on Friday, and Silberman is back where he started -- in front of his computer. His tired eyes gaze at the screen. He smiles. This time, he's reading an email from Marc Love in San Jose, California, who states simply, "Thank you so much for putting the humanity back in politics."

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Megan Michelson

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