Caucus Season: It's Our Turn

Obama's got an office, Clinton's “grassroots,” and we may actually matter.

We Have an Office If you're struggling over which candidate to support in the Feb. 9 caucuses, and need one more piece of dubious data to absorb, consider this: Barack Obama is the only Democratic contender who's got a real physical office in Washington state. It's in Pioneer Square, on the third floor of the Howard Building, upstairs from an Asian tapas joint, and Obama volunteers have been there since June. Last week, the scene there showed the calm before the storm, as official Obama staff had yet to arrive. A handful of loyal volunteers worked the phones and handed out buttons, amid a smattering of miniature American flags, giant posters of the candidate and his message, and photos of the candidate with local volunteers. A TV loop of Obama's greatest hits—the 2004 Democratic convention speech, his speech from the Illinois statehouse when he entered the presidential race last year—ran soundlessly in the corner. Nathan Williams, an Obama volunteer and Seattle resident, said he's not new to presidential campaigns, but this is the first Washington caucus he's worked that might actually have some impact on choosing the party's nominee. Just back from pounding the pavement in Nevada, he said the goal is simple: identify supporters and get them to the caucus. "We have no doubt the Hillary people will be organized," he said. "But our strength is in having motivated people who aren't political pros getting their friends out." Richard May, another volunteer and self-described "Obama apostle," got his first glimpse of the future candidate as a Washington delegate to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He says the unique thing about the Obama effort compared with his previous experience on presidential campaigns for John Kerry and Bill Bradley is the amount of autonomy and freedom the "grassroots" volunteers have. (A poster above the reception desk with the words "Respect, Empower, Include" scrawled at the bottom reminds the volunteers of as much.) May boasts a local network of willing button and bumper-sticker pushers statewide, encouraging voters to attend caucus training at the Obama offices Sundays at 1 p.m. and, more important, to show up Feb. 9. "You don't need to know how to caucus," says May. "You just need to know where to go." We Have No Office The Hillary Clinton campaign, not surprisingly, spins its lack of a brick-and-mortar headquarters here as a positive. You see, "to put in an office would really diffuse the grassroots nature of the way we're running our campaign," says James Kainber, a former executive director of the state Democratic Party, now working as a Clinton volunteer. Grassroots or not, the Clinton campaign has the state's political A-list on its side. Gov. Chris Gregoire, former Gov. Gary Locke, Sen. Maria Cantwell, Rep. Jay Inslee, and King County Executive Ron Sims are the state campaign co-chairs. But it's mostly an honorary title. They haven't been taking on much in the way of speaking engagements, says Kainber. "They're ready to go wherever we need them, but we're not getting requests very often." Kainber says the campaign is hosting continuous trainings to get people ready for Feb. 9. A recent event in Seattle, he says, had more than 100 participants, including Sims. Other Clinton supporters are organizing on their own. Molly Lerma and Shannon De Rubens say they've never been active in campaigning before, but this year they started a group on called the Hillraisers. Jan. 24 found them gathering with about 20 others at T.S. McHugh's on Queen Anne to discuss efforts for getting people to show up for the caucuses. Lerma says she got into it in part so she could say she'd done everything she could to get her candidate into office, and she'll "have license to bitch for the next four years" if Clinton isn't elected. De Rubens gets more to the heart of what many pundits say may be the key to Clinton's success. "I'm really proud that the most competent and intelligent candidate also happens to be a woman," she says. "Go Hillary!" Circus on Its Way? The face of the John Edwards campaign in Washington is former Democratic Party chair Paul Berendt. This isn't the first time Berendt has backed an underdog; in 2004 he supported Howard Dean, who was losing steam by Washington's Feb. 7 caucuses. Though Dean did well in the Seattle area that year, John Kerry was the big winner statewide. This time Berendt has organized a group of Democratic Party regulars who act as surrogates for the candidate, spreading the message at every potluck, sewing circle, and ladies' luncheon they can. Berendt recently spent a day at Panorama City, an enormous retirement complex in Thurston County, explaining Edwards' health care plan to elderly potential voters. The candidates themselves could come to town before the caucus, especially if, as seems likely, the 22 Democratic caucuses and primaries on Feb. 5 don't sew up the race. "If Super Tuesday is close, we're the next big thing," says Dwight Pelz, chairman of the Washington State Democrats. "I expect [the candidates] to come out, be on the next plane to campaign." Pelz himself is thoroughly politic on the race: "I have no idea who people are going to support. As I travel around, I get one-third for Clinton, one-third for Obama, one-third for Edwards," he says. Even a man who sounds out local opinion for a living isn't bothering with this one. "Caucus polling is a needle in a haystack," says Stuart Elway of Elway Research. "The biggest challenge is to get people to interview who are actually going to participate. Beyond that, people change their minds once they're there. Stuff starts to happen, they're having fun, eating the muffins, and pretty soon they're in the Obama camp." He says the only way to be accurate is to do some "real heavy screening" of the people you're talking to, but even then it's "a minefield." Which is precisely why Elway, who polls on everything from taxes to transportation, is staying out of it. "I don't do predictive polling," he says. "I don't see the purpose in it." That said, he's still looking forward to the circus coming to town, post–Super Tuesday. "The candidates tromped around Nevada for a week for what, a few dozen delegates?" says Elway. "It's certainly well within the realm of possibility that we could see some action." Union gloves mostly on The unions are typically bruising political machines, but they're not making any big moves yet—at least when it comes to picking a favorite. Kathy Cummings, communications director for the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, says her group hasn't made a decision on a horse to endorse, and likely won't until after Washington's February contest. "There's so many good candidates out there and the unions are all over the map. I think it's best for us to hang out and wait," she says. Perhaps more important: Unions are extremely hierarchical, and the state chapter has to wait for the national AFL-CIO to give the nod. John Kerry got the AFL-CIO endorsement in 2004, but not until after Washington's caucus. Tepid support also exists at the Washington Education Association, which is following its national chapter in not endorsing per se but listing "acceptable candidates" (all of the Democrats and Republican Mike Huckabee). Edwards is the candidate who's been most assiduous in courting the unions, of course, but now that he's sinking, his early backers may be backing off. The service employees' union, SEIU, officially endorsed Edwards last fall. But Rachel Berkson, executive director of SEIU Washington, says she can't comment on the endorsement or even whether it still exists. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers hosted Edwards in Seattle over May Day last spring. But now they're opting for Clinton. (On the R side: Huckabee.) Larry Brown, the union's state legislative and political director, says the machinists are pushing Hillary hard: "We're working with the campaign doing phone banks, caucus training, mobilizing our activists to participate." And don't forget the primary; Or maybe forget the primary David McDonald loves democracy. He was the attorney who filed suit on behalf of the state Democrats during the contested 2004 governor's race. He's also a fan of caucusing, something he's been doing since 1974. The last time the Preston Gates attorney recalls Washington's caucus actually meaning something, however, was in 1984, when Walter Mondale and Gary Hart were locked in a close fight nationwide, so every delegate counted, raising the profile of states like Washington. Ultimately, the Democratic nominee wasn't decided until the super delegates (party officials who aren't bound by the results of either the caucus or the primary) weighed in. If the race is still close after Super Tuesday, McDonald says, candidates will be in a dogfight for the remaining delegates. "Every state has become more important," he says. But McDonald says that Washington's presidential primary is a waste of time and money. It will cost $9.6 million and mean nothing for Democrats. All the Democratic delegates, and half the Republican, will already have been chosen through the caucuses. Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed called a press conference last week to try to rally enthusiasm for the meaningless primary. He said it will be an important source of momentum for the campaigns and he fully expects to see campaigning in the intervening 10 days after the caucuses. McDonald was unimpressed. The primary is "not going to affect what the nominees do; it's not going to affect the nomination process. I don't think [the campaigns are] going to spend any money here as a result of it." No money? Then surely it's meaningless.

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