January 20, 2004

Caucus notes

So tonight I went over to Burlington, Iowa to observe the caucus. I went to precinct 6, since that's where I was doorknocking on Saturday (and I recognised a few people, even). It was just about the coolest thing I'd seen.

There was a long line of people signing in, and once they were in, they sat down in the middle section of the school auditorium (except for those of us who were observing---we didn't need to sign in, we just went straight in to the "guest seating"). It was supposed to start at 7, but it took longer to get everyone registered and signed in; the precinct has 680-some registered Dems, and usually gets a turnout of about 50 or 60, but tonight there were well over a hundred.

Once they were all in, the chair called the caucus to order and everyone counted off, military-style. This has the advantage of feeling participatory and making everybody sure that they were counted. Total: 144 people. This meant that the "viability number" (more on that later) was 22. That done, the chair had everyone break off into their preference groups, scattered around the auditorium.

Lieberman, Clark, and Sharpton all had exactly zero people, and the initial breakdowns in the various camps was as follows: nine or ten for Kucinich; about 25 each for Dean and Edwards; over 50 for Kerry; about 15 for Gephardt; and five or six uncommitted. These last were mostly enticed to Gephardt, I think. That's how it stood for the next half hour, with maybe a couple people changing hands. There was some fairly active campaigning---at one point an old guy with a cane wandered from the Dean group to lecture the Gephardt-ites, saying, "We've already had plenty of wars! I was in WWII. If you've been in a war, you don't want to go back to war!" At the two minute warning, the Kucinich people joined the Edwards camp, to much applause from the latter.

See, the way this works is, if your precinct is sending four or more delegates to the county convention, the minimum viable group size is 15% of those in attendance. That means that even if your precinct has many delegates (this one had 14, each representing about 7% of the crowd, or ten caucusers), you need to get over that viability threshold or you won't get any. Now, Edwards and Kucinich had struck a deal earlier in the day that if either or both were unviable at a given precinct, they should unite under the banner of the larger group. I suppose this went in Kucinich's favour in a couple cases, but mostly this benefitted Edwards. Certainly at my precinct, the deal got Edwards an extra delegate.

So anyway, at the 7:45 tally, the numbers were these: Dean 29; Edwards 37; Kucinich 1 (that was the caucus chairman!); Kerry 57; Gephardt 20. That left only Dean, Edwards, and Kerry viable, Gephardt missing the mark by two people. I had overheard one of the Gephardt guys saying "If we're not viable, we're gonna challenge the whole count," but nothing really came of it. The non-viability of Gephardt, though, caused that group to disperse. They went in ones and twos, and as each batch of people joined some group or another, there was raucous applause from the group they joined. Only a couple went to Dean, a few more to Kerry, but the most of them to Edwards.

The final 7:55 tally: Dean 32; Edwards 49; Kerry 63. They calculate the delegation as follows: 32 votes, times 14 delegates, divided by 144 caucus attendees, yields 3.111 or 3 delegates for Dean. Edwards got 5, and Kerry 6. Apparently, I got Iowa in microcosm right there in my auditorium.

After the voting was done, and some red tape involving appointing delegates, the caucus put up resolutions to be sent along to the county convention. Apparently these resolutions are submitted at the precinct level and then wend their way up through the county and then the state convention to become part of the state party platform. Participatory democracy at work. The resolutions:

  • Social security: reform it carefully, keep it basically intact, encourage investment alongside but don't carve it out of the main social security fund. Passed by acclamation.
  • Two on health insurance, both substantively the same: establish a proper single-payer government health insurance. Passed by acclamation.
  • Medicare: remove the coverage gap. Passed by acclamation.
  • Drug laws: This one was really interesting. Apparently, in Iowa, if you are convicted of any form of drug offence at all, you mandatorily lose your driver's licence for 180 days. As you might imagine, this gives a lot of people a choice of 1) lose your job or 2) drive on a suspended licence. They do the latter, it gets permanently suspended, you lose your job anyway... as the resolution put it, it creates a "permanent underclass", and it doesn't even make sense since the drug offence has nothing at all to do with driving; the resolution was to work to repeal this sentencing system. Well, in the discussion section one cranky old lady piped up with "you should revoke it permanently, they can carpool", to some vocal agreement from her neighbours. Put up for a vote, the "aye"s sounded pretty even with the "nay"s, and they had to take a hand vote. Happily, it passed, 32-24.
  • Education: fully fund it by the state of Iowa. Passed by acclamation.
  • Iraq: UN in, US out. Passed by acclamation.
  • Prescription drug ads: ban them. Let your doctor prescribe drugs, not the drug companies and lobbyists. There were perhaps four or five nay votes, but the "aye"s carried it.
  • Amendments: I didn't really understand this one, but it appeared to be some sort of screed against attaching random, unrelated rider amendments to big bills. Again, a few "nay"s, but the "aye"s had it.

Finally, the caucus ended. I drove to the downtown headquarters, where Josh had said there would be a post-caucus gathering, but it was a ghost town. There was a sign on the door that said that the "Perfect Storm" (that's what they called the big volunteer effort) was out at the Best Western, so I thought I'd try to find it. I figure, probably off 34, right? I'd gone way past the edge of Burlington, and figured I'd just take the next exit to turn around. But there was a Comfort Inn and so... maybe a Best Western too? Sure enough.

Inside, I asked a waitress and she said the Dean folks had all left already; the other waitress said that no, there was still a group there. So I chatted with them---a family from Arkansas that had driven up to help with the weekend. They'd been in Ottumwa all weekend, but were told to come up to Burlington today to help out with the effort there, but then apparently the campaign organisation totally dried up this afternoon. We're not really sure what happened. At their precinct, Dean was unviable by two votes, which could have been picked up several different ways if the campaign had been on the ball (two Dean people walked in too late, two Dean people were at the wrong precinct, and a few couldn't get rides---which the Arkansans would've been happy to give if the precinct 10 captain had had contact info on her list of thirty or so probable voters). Alas.

Anyway, I hung out with the Arkansans for a while and watched Dean's speech in Des Moines; we also met a couple of local Dean folks who were getting dinner there. They were particularly riled, one of them to the extent of claiming he was making preparations to move to Canada, if Dean didn't win (and hence, in his mind, that Bush would win). Fascinating.

And that wraps it up. Memorable evening. I really feel like this caucus system is the way to go. Illinois needs to get us some o' that.

"All this talk in the ongoing immigration debate that immigrants "do the jobs that Americans don't want to do" is misleadingly incomplete. In fact, immigrants do the jobs that Americans don't want to do for the wages American employers are willing to pay." --Eric Zorn

Posted by blahedo at 12:26am on 20 Jan 2004
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