ALL THOSE eager volunteers in former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's presidential campaign didn't disappear after his effort flamed out last year -- they've morphed into a grass-roots group called Democracy for America, which has a local chapter.
"I got really excited by the idea that people who can write a $25 check instead of a $2,000 check are important," said Dawn Popp, 36, of Elkridge, a lawyer taking time from a career to raise her children.
She volunteered for Dean, but after the presidential campaign, she decided to use that enthusiasm and feeling that "we really need to get to work here" to pursue progressive, if not always Democratic Party, causes.
"We're independents, Greens -- individuals can make a difference," she said.
Democracy for Howard County, the local chapter of Democracy for America, holds monthly 7 p.m. "meet-ups" at the Elkridge library on the second Monday of each month. The next meeting is tomorrow.
This month's topic is the national campaign focused on Wal-Mart, America's biggest retailer, via bills including the one approved by the General Assembly that Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoed. The bill would require all employers with more than 10,000 workers to spend at least 8 percent of their payrolls on health care -- affecting only Wal-Mart, as a practical matter.
David Osmundson, 64, of Sykesville, a retired National Security Agency employee, is helping to run the group.
Osmundson is active in the local Democratic Party, too, but he said Democracy for Howard County is technically nonpartisan, and he is not shy about criticizing either Democrats or Republicans -- or newspapers -- for obscuring real issues with too many political horse race stories.
Members want to spend their time trying to change things, not just write a check to some bloated campaign fund, he said.
Dean, he said, "gave you the feeling you were important. To me, the Democratic National Committee seemed like all they wanted was your money. We stress activism rather than money. You give your time and contribute to the candidates you're enthused about."
In Maryland, Osmundson said big college tuition increases and Ehrlich's veto of the so-called "Wal-Mart bill" are bad moves.
Although the group is liberal on many issues, he said, it is also "conservative on fiscally responsible government."
That's why he feels, he said, that former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, "did leave things in a mess. Maybe he wasn't the most fiscally responsible."
At the same time, "Republicans really go in lock step -- that elephant thing," he said, recalling that circus pachyderms walk single file, trunk holding the tail on the animal in front.
"Democrats have always argued with each other. I think it's a strength, because out of conflict you get better," he said. "There used to be liberal Republicans, but they seem to be dying out."
While contenders for governor, U.S. Senate and Howard County executive get most of the attention locally, State's Attorney Tim McCrone, a Democrat, is quietly building his campaign war chest. He held a $75-a-ticket fund-raiser for about 125 people Tuesday night at a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Ellicott City.
McCrone, 52, barely lost the 1998 election -- by a mere 94 votes -- to former State's Attorney Marna McLendon, a Republican. In 2002, McCrone won, beating Republican Robert Ryan Tousey with 56 percent of the vote.
Running for state's attorney doesn't take the money that higher profile, policy-making offices require, McCrone said.
Besides, "things have been going so well that I think there's a common perception that the office is functioning at a very high level and with a great deal of success. We won every single big case. We've been pretty aggressive with drug distribution, taken a hard line on DWI, and the homicide rate is nearly nonexistent. That doesn't make much to criticize," he said.
As if to emphasize McCrone's point, Republican County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, who is running for county executive, stopped by, though Merdon said he is not endorsing anyone.
McCrone said he tries to hold one event a year "just so we have a little bit of a nest egg to run the campaign. We're going to have to run a campaign, even if we have no opposition," he said.