Destination: Vermont

Destination: Vermont

<bt>Felicia Banks joined the chant of "We Want Dean, We

Want Dean" and began waving her "Dean for President" sign in unison with the crowd of 5,000. Only 24 hours before, when Banks boarded the bus in the Springfield Mall parking lot headed for Burlington, Vt., Howard Dean was just another name on a list of Democratic candidates for the 2004 presidential election.

Banks decided to take the nine-hour bus ride to Burlington for Dean's announcement in the hopes of finding a candidate she could support. "In my search for the right candidate," Banks said, "I've been discouraged by the recent candidates."

Marvin McGraw, the Springfield Democratic Committee chairman, organized the Burlington trip, including a one-night hotel stay, a special audience with Dean and front-row tickets to the announcement ceremony. When Kathy Lash, a Virginian and the Dean campaign deputy press secretary, approached McGraw with the idea of bringing a group of minorities from Northern Virginia to Vermont for Dean's announcement, McGraw saw it as a great educational opportunity for the community.

McGraw, with the help of his business partner Ken Witcher, a Springfield resident, assembled a group of Northern Virginians from Alexandria; Loudoun County; Washington, D.C.; and Maryland. The group, which included children, teen-agers, middle-age adults and senior citizens, was predominantly African American, with the exception of three Pakistani-Americans and three white Americans.

The sleepy-eyed students, business owners, health-care workers and education workers boarded the bus headed for Burlington, on Sunday, June 22, at 6 a.m. Some were not as interested in Dean as they were to see firsthand a presidential bid announcement, and others looked forward to a road trip to Vermont.

After arriving in Burlington on Sunday afternoon, the group rested for the night at the Marriott Town Suites at the outskirts of Burlington. On Monday morning, June 23, the group gathered at the steps of Burlington City Hall for an audience with the former Vermont governor.

Dean greeted the group, thanked them for making the long journey to Vermont and then answered a few questions about the economy and the war.

"I enjoyed myself," said Banks. "I liked the Q&A opportunity. It was important for people who are deciding if they are going to support him."

Linda Jones, a Fairfax County resident and human resource administrator, began the trip with some reservations about Dean. However, by the end of the day, her attitude toward Dean had gone from neutral to one of admiration.

Jones liked Dean's idea of establishing a sense of community where the well-off have a responsibility to help others who are not.

"He certainly presents his views well," Jones said. "He is tuned in to people's issues."

THE ONE-ON-ONE contact with a candidate sparked interest in the presidential election for the first time among some of the high-school students who had not known much about Dean or any of the other Democratic candidates. Kevin Horne, a Robinson Secondary School senior, was impressed by Dean's determination and said he is ready to cast his vote for Dean.

"He knows what he wants to do," Horne said.

Zenita Johnson, another Robinson Secondary School senior, liked Dean's idea of having a health-care worker visit newborns from low-income families.

"I like the idea about how they visit newborns in the hospital," Johnson said. "You couldn't do that in Fairfax because there would be too many, but it's a nice idea."

Neil Ribeiro, a Robinson Secondary School junior, was surprised by some of the things Dean said about the Bush administration regarding the war and economy.

"He opened our eyes to the negative things Bush had done," Ribeiro said.

The Northern Virginia group, which was only a few feet away from the stage, was in the midst of the fever and excitement of the rally. With water bottles passing through the crowd as the temperature reached 90 degrees, the Northern Virginia group members stood side by side other Dean supporters.

Banks said that Dean had impressed her enough that she didn't mind joining the rally and holding the "Dean for President" sign.

Jones said that actually being at the rally was much more beneficial than watching it on television.

"We got to sense and gauge him in person instead of through sound bytes that the media projects," Jones said.

After the announcement, the 45 travelers boarded the bus to head back home, having gained a new perspective and information.

"I think you all witnessed the energy coming from this man," McGraw said, addressing the group. "I think the purpose of this trip was information and learning, and I think we accomplished that objective."