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KEEPING THE HEAT ON

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Shortly after she was named Al Gore's campaign manager, Donna Brazile was asked about the Republican plan to address hunger in America. She said, "They'd rather take pictures with black children than feed them."

In Brazile's home state of Louisiana, that's known as cooking with grease, and Brazile can serve it up with the best of them. But as the first black women to manage a major presidential campaign, she learned that different rules apply to her. She was forced to apologize for saying what she still believes to be true.

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"I took enormous heat," Brazile, 44, says in a recent interview in her downtown Washington office. "Not just from Republicans - who should be angry because I just hit them - but my own side comes back and says you're not supposed to say that. Well, hell, I grew up poor and black in America, and I can't say that?"

Brazile, who will be speaking at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore tonight and signing copies of her new book, Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics, learned to avoid speaking about race while working for Gore. But now that she is on her own, she is free to say whatever she wants.

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So she says that John Kerry doesn't have enough minorities on his staff. She says that the Democrats are fighting with one hand tied behind their back, afraid to hit their opponents when they're down. She says President Bush's wheels are coming off.

And she admits she made mistakes in 2000.

"We made a lot of mistakes in 2000, and I'm partly responsible for many of the mistakes," she says, mentioning how the campaign gave up the fight in places like Tennessee and West Virginia, misused President Bill Clinton and failed to define Gore before Bush tagged him as a serial exaggerator.

But mostly, she says, the campaign failed in educating people before they went out to vote. That led to widespread voting problems, not only in Florida but also across the country in places where people were told wrongly that they needed multiple forms of ID to vote or where people in line were illegally turned away when polling places closed.

To that end, Brazile has pledged to donate much of her profits from the book to programs that print sample ballots and make sure voters know their rights. She wants to distribute the ballots at churches and community centers, but she admits she has another agenda as well.

"Now I am partisan," she says. "I'm not going to tell you where George Bush is on the ballot. I am going to tell you where John Kerry's name is on the ballot."

While Brazile admits to errors in 2000, she nonetheless believes that Gore was robbed of an election he fairly won, and she is not sure if she wants to work in politics again, after having served on 56 congressional, 19 state and local, and seven presidential campaigns.

"In the aftermath of the Gore campaign, I was, like most of my colleagues, very tired, very bitter, very angry at what had happened," she says. "In campaigns, you accept defeat as well as victory. But when the election was decided by the Supreme Court and not by the people who actually went out to cast the ballots, it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth."

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Brazile's book is not all about presidential politics. Much of it, in fact, is the story of a girl growing up in the South in the waning years of the civil-rights movement, experiencing forced busing and being pelted with eggs and rocks in the schoolyard. Her mother cleaned homes and her father was a janitor. They each worked two or three jobs to feed their nine children.

But that doesn't mean her childhood was always unpleasant. She was a small businesswoman early on, organizing young boys to collects cans for recycling or to deliver prescriptions. She also tells of afternoons spent in the kitchen, listening to members of her family tell stories and talk about politics as they prepared meals of jambalaya and smothered chicken.

Each chapter in her book is named for a Southern dish and begins with a vivid description of the food. It may very well be the first political memoir to include a four-page recipe for seafood gumbo.

Brazile's inspiration was her grandmother. "From Grandma's generation, we learned patience and loyalty," Brazile writes. "They taught us to pray for wisdom and guidance. They taught us to tell the truth and to never surrender. Most of all, they taught us to give back and to be responsible for others."

When Gore was on his way to deliver a concession speech on election night in 2000 - a speech that would be hastily canceled as the margin in Florida narrowed - Brazile sent him an urgent message on his pager: "Never surrender."

She was always something of a rabble-rouser. At the mostly white middle school to which Brazile was bused, she refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. She told her principal it was against her religion. Which religion?

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She was a practicing Catholic, she said. But she just might convert to Jehovah's Witness. She refused to salute the flag because of its last six words: "with liberty and justice for all." She didn't think there was justice in the United States. She wrote an essay in eighth grade titled "What's Wrong With the Pledge of Allegiance." She got in trouble for that, too.

After graduating from Louisiana State University, Brazile got a job as a national student organizer in Washington. The job included visiting college campuses to get students to vote. It wasn't long before she was involved in politics, organizing the 20th-anniversary "I Have a Dream" march and signing up with the Rev. Jesse Jackson's 1984 campaign.

In her first Washington job as an organizer, Brazile shared an office with Cassandra Pye, now the deputy chief of staff for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Pye remembers Brazile coming to the office in T-shirts and jeans and working around the clock.

"We were both born at the tail end of the first civil-rights movement, but she didn't feel like the work was done," Pye says. "People were becoming more materialistic and focused on their future and degrees ... . But we both felt there was still more to be done, and she was committed to keep the fire going."

Brazile is now an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and an informal adviser to campaigns across the country. She desperately wants to see Democrats win, but she's worried the party is only looking to the presidency. She says the Republicans have a strategy to win at all levels. The Democrats don't.

"We have an electoral battleground strategy that may get John Kerry in the White House, but then what about Congress?" she says.

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Brazile never did convert to Jehovah's Witness, by the way. She says her faith has pulled her through much in life. She has two Bibles in her office and 10 in her Washington home, and she quotes scripture like a television evangelist.

"The Bible is a book for warriors," she says, going on to cite Psalm 35 ("Fight against those that fight against thee"), Psalm 27 ("Whom shall I fear?"), and Psalm 19 ("Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight"), which she recites before going on CNN, where she is a frequent political commentator.

"I would be nothing without my faith," Brazile says. "Many liberal Democrats don't like to talk about their faith, but I talk about my faith because my faith is my foundation. If you believe in something, then you must act."

Donna Brazile

Born: Dec. 15, 1959, New Orleans

Education: B.A., psychology, Louisiana State University, 1981

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First taste of politics: At age 9, went door-to-door for a Kenner, La., City Council candidate who promised to build more playgrounds.

Experience: Campaign manager for Al Gore's 2000 presidential bid; chief of staff for D.C. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, 1990-1999; senior adviser on black voter turnout for Clinton-Gore 1992; field director for presidential campaigns of Dick Gephardt and Michael Dukakis, 1988; deputy campaign manager for the Rev. Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential run; organized 20th-anniversary commemoration of the Rev. Martin Luther King's 1963 march on Washington.

Favorite dish: Her mother's seafood gumbo

Quote: "As it stands right now, we have one of the worst-performing democracies. The biggest party in American politics today is not the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. It's the no-voting party, and I want to change that."

Book-signing

What: Donna Brazile reads from and signs copies of her book Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics

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When: 6:30 p.m. today

Where: Enoch Pratt Free Library, Central Library, Wheeler Auditorium, 400 Cathedral St.

Admission: Free


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