Though Wesley Clark may emerge as the boomer favorite among the Democratic presidential candidates, the hipster choice so far is Howard Dean. It’s not just his rolled-up sleeves or down-home oratory style; over the past three months, his events have developed a reputation as de facto singles mixers for young activists on the make.
Many of the events are set up through Meetup.com, a nonpolitical site that lets users arrange events. Most Dean meet-ups (nicknamed “meat-ups” by some) are in flirt-friendly locales like bars and restaurants. There are so many swinging supporters that they’ve formed a group, Singles for Dean, and the campaign recently launched Deanlink, where users post provocative photos alongside their political interests.
The only problem is that it can be hard to tell the politicos from the Lotharios. “I invited two guys in my Friendster network to Dean’s Bryant Park rally,” says Jeff Brenner, a gay marketing consultant in his early thirties. “They each confided that they were attracted to me. I was telling one why he should vote for Dean over Kerry, but all he wanted to talk about was our chemistry.”
Straight women, meanwhile, have been spreading the word that Dean guys are passionate and cute. “I want to meet some nice, hunky, liberal-minded boys who aren’t apathetic losers living in their parents’ basements,” says Abigail Gullo, 30, an actress and teacher who has attended two meet-ups and a recent fund-raiser at Avalon. Dean guys, she says, are attractive, if not studly—kind of like the doctor himself. “It’s the dorky-glasses, slightly-thinning-hair-but-I’m-really-not-worried-about-it look. They’re hipsters who have given up the ironic T-shirts and are now in refined primary colors and button-down guayabera shirts. But they’re there! And that immediately puts them leaps and bounds ahead of any guy I’m going to meet on Match.com.”
“Decisiveness is hot,” agrees Kat Kinsman, 31, a Webmaster. She says Dean events help her separate the wheat from the chaff. (This is a woman who once ended a date when the guy told her he’d voted for Bush.) “You have an immediate avenue for conversation, and you can exchange digits without any awkwardness because it seems like you’re doing it for political reasons.”
To get a firsthand look at the singles factor at work in the campaign, I go to a fund-raiser on the Upper West Side one rainy Saturday night. It’s a two-bedroom duplex with a rooftop terrace, and the walls are plastered with posters of Clinton and JFK. The guests (the ones without wedding rings) are engaged in full-frontal flirting, chatting over Rolling Rocks about Dean’s views on Israel and Whoopi Goldberg’s show of support. Upstairs, two twentysomething women and three hipster guys are introducing themselves. When I ask if they came with ulterior motives, they grin. “You don’t go to a birthday party just for the piñata,” says Sam, a six-foot milk-fed brunette, “but you’re glad it’s there.”
“I just wish there were more men,” says Chris, 25, a cute, scruffy-faced guy.
After some initial confusion, Chris explains that he and his buddy, a redhead named Mark, are both gay, but Art, Chris’s roommate, who resembles a muscular Matthew Broderick, is not. “Let’s get everything clear here!” Art says, raising his hands in the air. “They’re gay! I’m straight!” So did he come to meet chicks? “You know whoever you meet here is going to be intelligent.” Art smiles at the girls.
An hour later, after most of the wine has disappeared, there’s a conference call with Dean, who answers questions from “house parties” all over the state. The guests crowd around the bed, leaning against one another to hear. But underneath Dean’s voice there’s another noise—the giggling and shouting of people mingling on the rooftop.
After the call, the hearty partyers linger. Joe Zamarelli, 22, a short guy with closely cropped hair, comes up to me and grins. When I say that I’m a reporter, he seems disappointed but obliges. He’s gone to a half-dozen Dean events and first scored at the Bryant Park rally, with a woman sitting next to him on the grass. “We started talking about foreign policy, then Dean started speaking and we were pressed together.” They wound up sleeping together, but it didn’t get serious. “Neither of us was looking for a relationship.”
A curvy brunette named Kirsten says she’s been meeting lots of people: “I’m not a big political person. I came to get to know Dean and to be social because it’s hard to meet men in New York. Here you know the guys aren’t just looking to hook up with you.” But what if they are? “If they’re dogs, I’ll find out eventually.”
A blonde woman named Erin brushes by with a clipboard. “This whole place is turning into a bar,” she says in an Alabama drawl. “We’re opening the good stuff soon.”
A few days later, I hear that after I left, there was a group makeout on the terrace; a guy from the campaign kissed two women in succession and then tried, unsuccessfully, to enlist a third. Afterward, a smaller group went to a gay bar in Hell’s Kitchen. “I was blitzed,” Erin tells me. “I started talking to Art, and we made out for a really long time at the bar. I don’t know if I’ll see him again, but he was nice.”
Does Art think it’s true love? “No,” he says. “It’s what happens when you’re out at a bar with a group of people.” Was it true love for Dean? “I’m not convinced he can win,” he says. “And now that Wesley Clark’s in, I’m waiting to see what his events are like.”