As vote nears, California volunteers stream into Iowa / They embrace long hours, long underwear

As vote nears, California volunteers stream into Iowa / They embrace long hours, long underwear: “Des Moines , Iowa — The air is so shatteringly crisp, the landscape so unrelentingly frozen, the wind so unforgiving, that just one question looms for the sun- loving, salad-eating, politically minded Californian here:
What in the world are you doing in Iowa?
And yes, they are here — by the hundreds, arriving daily by train, plane and Greyhound — swaddled in scarves, mittens, long underwear and waterproof boots and toting the critical supply of ChapStick.
‘I certainly never participated in a political campaign, and I never flew across the country to sleep on anyone’s floor,” said Chris Finnie, 53, a marketing and ad copywriter from Boulder Creek near Santa Cruz, as she sat exhausted during a break inside the bustling Des Moines headquarters of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. ‘But this election is too important. It isn’t about Howard Dean. It’s about me.”
As more than 100,000 Iowans prepare to participate in Monday’s caucuses, the first test for the nine Democratic presidential hopefuls, Finnie is far from alone. An army of California campaign volunteers — representing a wide range of ages, occupations and political interests — has stormed into Iowa, the center this week of the American political universe.

Armed with literature, bumper stickers and passion, they are spreading out to small towns and universities and local schools, walking door to door to politely address independents and registered Democrats, handing out pins and bumper stickers, writing letters, and putting up lawn signs in the hard, cold — and lawn-less — Iowa earth.

Dean’s “Perfect Storm” volunteer effort is by far the biggest and most organized push, expected to reach 3,500 dedicated “Deaniacs” by this weekend, including dozens arriving from the Bay Area by train and plane in the final days of the heady Iowa campaign.

The Deaniacs are people such as Vicki Cosgrove, an unemployed marketing executive from Castro Valley, who describes herself as “just a suburban housewife” who never has been involved in politics.

But when she lost her job, she began feeling “like our government is being bought by big corporations, and there’s no concern for the average citizen … and I don’t feel any benefit from the Bush tax cuts.”

Cosgrove said that a week ago, she decided to take a gamble, and — armed with political materials and her “Dean for America” necklace — traveled two days by train to work for the former Vermont governor.

The Des Moines Perfect Storm headquarters is stocked with such impassioned Bay Area volunteers as Maile Melkonian, 48, a freelance writer and editor from San Francisco, who “cleared my calender in January” to work for Dean’s campaign.

“This is a slice of America here,” she says, motioning around the room festooned with “Dean for America” banners and crowded with retirees, students and homemakers stuffing envelopes and making cold calls. “People have taken paid vacations, and unpaid leave to be here. There’s three generations in one family, and another guy is a New York appellate judge.”

Timothy Griffiths, 28, from Oakland, a law student at UC Berkeley, says, “There’s a number of ingredients that come together to make the Deaniac.”

“One is a real sense of outrage,” said Griffiths, who has been sleeping on floors, couches and when he’s lucky, a bed, during his volunteer stint in Iowa. “Two is the stripping of civil liberties; as a law student, I couldn’t be silent on that,” he said. Then there’s “the war, the deficit, the lies.”

Combine those with “the inspiration coming from the vision of Howard Dean, ” he said. “It’s the feeling that we’re all in this together.”

Jay Lasnik, 40, of San Francisco, a senior craft artist for the San Francisco Opera costume shop, agrees. He’s usually making armor and helmets for the opera singers; but this week, he’s in Iowa for Dean.

“I’m hand-writing a letter a day to undecided voters,” he says. “And I’m telling them they have the opportunity, and the power, to make sure Howard Dean is the Democratic nominee.

“This is a participatory Democratic republic, and we must participate,” Lasnik said.

Other Democratic candidates also have inspired such sacrifices.

Take the young newlyweds on their dream honeymoon: making beautiful music together for Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich … in Iowa? In winter?

“He speaks the truth,” said Moriah-Melin Whoolilurie, 24, a musician from Santa Cruz who spent two days from the Bay Area on the Kucinich-dubbed “Peace Train” with her husband, John, 28, to join the campaign effort in Iowa. “I want to have children some day. And I want a world with peace.”

The entertainer couple last week loaded guitars, amps, makeup, bumper stickers, posters — and enough enthusiasm to fuel a John Deere tractor through the Iowa cornfields — on an Amtrak train from Emeryville. They were joined as part of Kucinich’s musical team by Leah DiTullio, a waitress from Oakland who also admitted, with some wonderment, “I’ve never been involved in a movement before.”

Alexi Bonifield, 48, a public relations specialist and theater director from Nevada City, said the 2004 election spurred her to go the extra mile for her candidate, Kucinich.

“I’ve never completely given up everything in my life to work for a major candidate,” she said. “But I gave up my apartment, I’m selling off all my furniture and my car, and I’m here to work for Dennis,” she said. “My hope is to go to New Hampshire. … He’s an honest man with high ideals and complete dedication to his work.”

She says the Iowa days, cold and all, have had warm moments.

“The California contingent is sticking together. It kind of is like family,” she said. “We’re out on the streets, drumming, singing and chanting. And everyone kind of looks at us — and then they get with it.”

E-mail Carla Marinucci at cmarinucci@sfchronicle.com “


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