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Independent and United

Loudoun for Kerry provides place for John Kerry supporters to gather outside the Democratic Party.

Jill LaMotte is out of Kerry/Edwards buttons. She's got a Socas for Congress, a "W" with a red slash through it and a variety of other liberal slogans in button form on her blue fleece jacket, but not the classic, simple Kerry/Edwards endorsement. Why? She's given them all away.

"When someone says, 'Nice button,' I take it off and give it to them," LaMotte said at a recent Loudoun for Kerry rally in Leesburg. It was a cold, dreary day, but that didn't stop LaMotte and a few dozen others from gathering in Fox Ridge Park to share some food, music and a common interest in the Kerry/Edwards campaign.

Before she joined Loudoun for Kerry, LaMotte had never been active in politics. Loudoun for Kerry, a casual group formed earlier this year, has attracted a number of independents, Republicans and political newbies like LaMotte as a venue for participation for those not quite willing to work inside the Democratic party machine.

"When I learned about Loudoun for Kerry ... I felt that this was a group I'd be comfortable in," LaMotte said.

After joining, LaMotte became one of the group's most active members. In addition to attending events, she spent three evenings registering voters at Ida Lee Park.

"I felt like I had done something and I was really proud of that," LaMotte said. She has signed up to volunteer at the polls for the Loudoun Democratic Committee on Nov. 2.

IT ALL STARTED with a group of Kerry supporters sitting around a Leesburg Starbucks in March, wondering what they could do to make Loudoun a more liberal-friendly place. By October, Loudoun for Kerry was filling Del Rio, a Mexican restaurant in Leesburg, with supporters to watch John Kerry take on George Bush in the debates.

"We were people who were passionate," said Mel Pine, who became the group's unofficial leader. "We just kind of grew from there."

Pine, who considers himself an independent, has steered Loudoun for Kerry towards cooperating with the Loudoun County Democratic Committee — sending them volunteers like LaMotte, for example — but the original group still remains intact.

"Some of our members don't like the two-party system," Pine said. "We see ourselves as close to the issues and principles."

While Pine has become Loudoun for Kerry's unofficial head, like many of its members, he has never been as deeply involved in an election before this year. The stakes are higher this year, he believes, and people are responding.

"We're almost in a non-violent civil war," he said. "We have two completely different visions for the county."

Steve Deak, the Loudoun County Democratic Committee chairman, appreciates the role Loudoun for Kerry fills.

"It's a niche group that allows independents and Republicans to feel welcome without the pressure of feeling they have to join the Democratic party," he said.

The Democrats will use about 1,000 volunteers like LaMotte on election day, he added.

IN A COUNTY that had traditionally voted Republican in presidential elections, and in a state that hasn't given its electoral votes to a Democrat since 1964, many of the more liberal-minded residents kept their thoughts to themselves.

Connie Niccolls, a librarian at Stone Bridge High School, "grew up blue blooded," she said, with both parents strong Democrats. But since moving to Loudoun in 1996, she had never felt the support of fellow Democrats before joining Loudoun for Kerry — and now, her political leanings have come out of the closet.

"I have no reserve about supporting Kerry out in public because there are so many people with me," Niccolls said.

For Dianne Sanchez, living for 10 years in London was an education in how the rest of the world viewed President Bush. She moved to Leesburg in 2001.

"I really know how the rest of the world felt," Sanchez said. In her travels and in her job as a flight attendant, she added, she'd met just one non-American who supported Bush — a South African woman.

Sanchez considers herself a "conservative liberal" and is not a member of the Democratic party. She's comfortable in the auspices of Loudoun for Kerry, however, and has volunteered to spread support for Kerry with the group.

THE RALLY broke down after a few hours and some music by the Swing States Road Show, an acoustic band that has traveled to eight states on its own musical Kerry campaign. "This is a look inside the brain of our president," said singer Lea Jones while introducing a typical tune, called "Psycho Cowboy."

For Jill LaMotte, her political awakening via Loudoun for Kerry is still in progress. Even after the election, regardless of who wins, she says she can't go back to being uninvolved.

"I don't want to sit back," LaMotte said. "I want to let people know how I feel about things."