Caucus Chaos

Local Democratic leaders complain that preparations for Washington's presidential caucuses are a mess.

"IF WE WEREN'T disorganized, we wouldn't be Democrats," quips Tom Keefe, past congressional candidate and former chair of the Spokane County Democrats. Although Keefe is laughing, he just quit as county chair a couple of weeks ago, in intense frustration over the poor planning and rigid thinking of his party as the Feb. 7 presidential caucuses approach. "Our party has this incredible opportunity," he says. "There is this surge of interest from people who don't eat politics seven days a week, and it comes fairly close to the caucuses. My central committee was not interested in reaching out." Grassroots party activists in Seattle and Tacoma echo Keefe's criticism: The caucuses are badly organized and are too costly for local Democratic organizations, and the party hierarchy discourages new participants. Representatives of the four major Democratic presidential candidates in the stateformer Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinichexpress similar concerns. Paul Berendt, chair of the state Democratic Party, dismisses the grumbling. "To all those people who grouse, I say, 'Bunk!' We are going to have our party, and we are going to come out better for it in the end."

THE FEBRUARY CAUCUSES are the only opportunity for Washingtonians to express their preferences for the Democratic nomination for president. The Legislature eliminated this year's presidential primary to save money because the Republicans already had their nominee and the Democrats declared they would heed only caucus results, not an election. Caucuses are popular with political parties because they are great organizing tools, but they are unpopular with the electorate and advocates of broad political participation. While more than a million Washingtonians voted in 2000's presidential primary, probably fewer than 150,000 people will turn out for the caucuses of both parties this year. It's easy to see why. First, voters have to figure out where they can attend a caucus. (Information is available at www.wa-democrats.org, or by calling 206-583-0664.) And when they show up, they have to participate in a ritual that is tedious and odd for most people. Democratic caucus rules state that no meeting can last less than an hour mandating lots of political rigmarole. Each caucus divides up according to candidate preference, and all candidates that have the support of at least 15 percent of those in attendance get to send a delegate on to county and legislative-district meetings. "Can you conceive of a way to make elections more voter-hostile?" asks David Olson, University of Washington professor of political science.

"It's a guilty pleasure," responds state party Chair Berendt. "It's people-to-people politics. It will bring new blood into the party." Berendt claims that he is counting on new recruits from caucuses to help level the playing field against the GOP in the fall. "I expect the Republicans to have three times as much money as we have," he says. "I hope to gain troops for my ground war." Berendt says one of the things the state party did to increase participation in caucuses was to change the day of the week from the traditional Tuesday evening to Saturday, at 10 a.m.

LOCAL DEMOCRATS say that decision had unintended consequences. Where once caucuses were held in living rooms, the Democrats now prefer public buildings that are handicapped accessible. Schools are a popular location, but some are demanding steep rents to open their buildings on a Saturday and provide weekend staffing and heat. "There should have been a lot more thinking on how to pay for it," says Keefe of Spokane. Responds Berendt: "Are we talking about an astronomical amount of money? No, we're not, maybe $500 per legislative district. It's a burden but not an outrageous one." The change to Saturday has left many districts scrambling to find affordable spaces. "It is a chaotic mess," says Beckie Summers, Democratic chair of Tacoma's 29th Legislative District. Says Betty Means, state campaign director of Dean for America: "It's later than people would like."

Berendt says 85 percent of the caucus sites are chosen. He claims that Iowa's Democrats only had 95 percent of their sites chosen 10 days before their caucuses on Monday, Jan. 19. "We're ahead of the game," he declares.

Summers and Keefe also complain that while the candidates' campaigns are doing a fine job of encouraging first-timers to attend, some in the party are discouraging participation. "You do have to fight the hacks," Summers says. "They know everybody in the party, and they like it that way." Keefe says, "It's like dealing with the old Russian politburo."

BERENDT DENIES the charge. He points out that the Spokane County Democrats just agreed to spend $15,000 on TV advertising to promote the caucuses. The state party is sending out 25,000 postcards and making 50,000 calls to stir up more interest. "This is important, and we want it done right," he says.

Summers and representatives from the Kerry and Clark campaigns say information is not as forthcoming as it should be from the state party. "Communication is very poor," says Summers. People in the Clark and Kerry campaigns wonder if the difficulty they have receiving information reflects support for Dean by Berendt and other state party leaders. "The leadership of the state party is going to have to answer for some things when this is all done," says Kevin Price, state director of Washington for Wesley Clark. "Information has not been forthcoming in the way that it should have been. Anyone who has been privy to the process understands there is a political dimension to this." Berendt has endorsed Dean for president but says, "Everyone has been treated fairly and equitably."

All the Democrats agree that there will be more than the 24,000 caucus attendees who showed up in 2000. There is also widespread agreement around the state, and even among the different campaigns, that Dean is the front-runner, while Kerry and Clark are battling for second place. And Kucinich inspires many who have never participated before. "We are going to have a big turnout," predicts Berendt. "I am absolutely convinced that it will be a huge shot in the arm."

ghowland@seattleweekly.com

 
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