Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Place of the Caucus

Why the old-fashioned caucus still exists!
by Charlie Leck

If you want to see a video on just how the caucus system
works, go to this excellent explanation put up by
the Al Franken for Senate campaign:

If you want to read about caucusing in Minnesota,
go to this page on the party’s website. You’ll be able
to locate your precinct caucus and read all the rules
and procedures about caucusing.

Minnesota’s Republicans and Democrats will caucus on Tuesday, 5 February 2008. Have you ever attended a caucus? Not many people have. They’re great fun. If your state holds party caucuses, instead of primary elections, you should get aboard and give it a try. Because so few people turn out for the caucus system, you will have much more impact and a bigger voice in the process. Just be prepared. Unlike the primary election process, you do not just walk in, cast a ballot and walk out. Most caucus endeavors will take a few hours.

At a caucus, you’ll work toward selecting convention delegates – to the county level and then to the congressional district conventions. At those higher levels, delegates will be selected to go to the state party convention and then delegates are chosen to go to the national party convention. These delegates, at each level, will carry with them their agreement to vote, at least on the first ballot, for a particular candidate.

Let’s create an imaginary caucus for you.

A number of people have claimed that the word, caucus, comes from the Algonquin Native Americans, meaning “a meeting of the chiefs.” Remember this, the first caucus, which is usually held at the precinct level, is only the beginning of this series of meetings of the chiefs. The caucus is supposed to resemble a town-meeting, a gathering of the community to discuss issues and to act to resolve problems.

I will begin the caucus process at my voting precinct level and I’ll amble over to our city hall on that evening in February. In one room the Republicans will be meeting and I’ll stop in and ridicule them for going to the wrong room. I’ll invite them to straighten up and come on over to the room with the more articulate, brighter delegates. They’ll scoff at me and shoo me away! When I make for their podium and the microphone, they’ll move to block me. There’s still time before the caucus begins, so I chat with some of my misled and misinformed friends, and then I’ll head off to the correct, proper room.

The state Democratic Farmer Labor Party (DFL) has chosen someone in the precinct to convene the caucus. That person begins by making some announcements that the party has asked him to make. These will include the dates of the various conventions leading up to the state convention. This is done so people can check to see if they can attend those meetings before they put themselves up as candidates. When the announcements are made and any questions about them answered, a caucus chairman will probably be elected. It may be the same person who convened the meeting. the attendees will be invited to split up in various sections and corners of the room according to the various candidates they favor for a particular office. This year we may go through this a few times – for President, for Senate, and for Congressional Representative.

At this moment, I have no idea to which corner I will go; however, let’s say, just for the sake of completing this description, that I choose to go to the John Edwards corner and join the very small group of people gathering there. When I get there, I find we will only amount to a group of only four people and our group is not considered “viable” – that is, we don’t have enough people to count. We look around the room and realize there are about forty over in the Hillary Clinton corner and just less than forty in the Barak Obama corner. At a small table in the center of the room, there are only two candidates for Dennis Cucinich. Time is given for a walk around, so you can negotiate with the other groups. The Barack Obama group has already starting chatting with those two lonely people, inviting them to realize they are a lost cause and to come on over to join them. The two rise from their chairs and walk over to join the group supporting the Illinois Senator. They are received with a large round of applause. Now, representatives of both the Clinton and Obama groups are putting the pressure on the four of us to give up and join them. The three delegates who are with me in our corner of the room are rookies to the process and they give up and go right on over to join Obama. I’ve done this before and I choose to stall a bit.
Someone begins counting and we all realize there are forty delegates in each of the Obama and Clinton groups. I realize I am in the cat-bird seat.

The person who has taken over leadership in the Obama group introduces himself to me and bends over and whispers in my ear. “We’ll promise you a delegate position city at the county convention,” he says. In spite of the whispered voice, the Hillary Clinton group has heard the promise. The leader shouts over the same promise and then pledges that they recommend me for the congressional district conference, too. And, she says, “we’ll get you a personal, private meeting with President Clinton.”“Oops,” she says, “I mean Senator Clinton.”

I’m quite torn. I like them both; however, I have strong feelings now about Senator John Edwards. I ask if I can say a few words before making up my mind. I’m given permission. I step out into the center of the room, equidistant from each of the groups. I make one of the best and most stirring speeches of my life, explaining what John Edwards stands for and what he intends. I explain that he has taken a stronger stance than any candidate on a national health care program, how he intends to put an end to poverty, how committed he is to improving education for everyone in America, and how he is the only candidate who has declared a time-certain for withdrawal from Iraq. I can see some people nodding their heads. I proudly declare I will stand for John Edwards even though it looks hopeless tonight, that I’ll stand for him because it is the right thing to do.

I return to my corner and sit down. Surprisingly, people from each group begin wandering over. Fourteen people leaving the Clinton group and come over to shake my hand and sit with me. We all begin waving to the Obama group, inviting people to return. The three folks who originally left me alone return and 12 more people follow them.

There are a couple more speeches and more invitations to switch groups, but everyone holds firm. The final results at our caucus:

31 people for John Edwards = 6 total delgates
26 people for Hillary Clinton= 5 total delgates
25 people for Barack Obama = 5 total delgates

The results are called in to the state party headquarters. They tell us that the results so far show everything is very close all over the state. We go on now to tackle the question of a candidate for the Senate.

When we leave our big room, we realize the Republicans are still caucusing. The chiefs are shouting at one another and it’s not going well. I resist the temptation to stick my head in and chuckle at them.

On the 10 o’clock news that night, the results are announced. Edwards has finished last and far back. He’s finished. He’ll drop out of the race the next morning. I’ve been elected as a delegate to the county convention. I’ll need to change candidates there if John Edward releases me – which he will when he drops out of the race in the morning. Clinton and Obama finished almost dead-even. Clinton wins by just one delegate. It will be close again at the county conventions. My choices are down to two now. I need to make a decision pretty soon.

Remember, this was pure fantasy. It won’t go anything like this. And, anyway, it’s the Senate caucus that interests me more this particular year. I’ve got to choose between Al Franken and Mike Ciresi.

1 comment:

  1. My advice would be to go with Mike, although I have nothing against Al Franken. When I ran for the legislature 25 years ago his mom supported me, and I've always enjoyed his books and radio work.

    Ciresi brings decades of success in law and business. As one of the nation's most successful lawyers, he has fought many of the same interests that need to be beaten back again.

    Mike may not be as flashy as Al, but If I needed someone representing me it wouldn't be a tough choice.

    Sorry to hear about the weather back there. Our kids are suffering in White Bear Lake and St. Paul.

    It's 75 and sunny here.

    Jim Miller
    (formerly of Hopkins, now a resident of Honolulu, but still interested in Minnesota politics.)