One impression of the recent U.S. 7th District Democratic caucus in Seattle lingers: youth supplanting age. Part of that may be the change-driven politics of Sen. Barrack Obama's campaign — and Obama supporters dominated the caucus. But it is due in to the fact the Democratic party has morphed into a more grassroots operation than in the old days. The people who looked most out of place at the caucus were some of the few, gray, eminence politicians who attended: Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott of Seattle, and former Gov. Mike Lowry, who also once held McDermott's seat in Congress. The delegates were generally young and highly diverse, racially and ethnically. The warhorses were older, white males who smelled like yesterday's news.
It was a huge contrast to my last foray this deep into Democratic politics. In 1972, I was an 18-year-old delegate elected at my precinct caucus. Everyone looked older back then — almost everyone was older — but the meetings, conventions, and caucuses I attended were dominated by old white guys in ties. And there was definitely a machine: smoke-filled rooms were operating, delegates were handed pre-picked slates and platform positions to support. You had the feeling all the real business was being done out of sight, and you were merely a foot soldier, there to take orders.
Not this time. Most of the delegates at the caucus on May 17 were young, the process was far more open and chaotic, older white guys were few and far between, there were almost no neckties, and smoking was prohibited. At times there seemed to be little adult supervision — the caucus organizers, however, were good cat-herders. More than 200 of the some 300 delegates were running to be one of nine to go on from the 7th to the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Conservative commentator William F. Buckley once said he'd rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone directory than the 2,000 members of the Harvard faculty. This caucus had the feel of a direct democracy in which the Seattle phone book's listees were all candidates. Nearly everyone was in campaign mode. If nothing else, it added fizz to the proceedings.
Plus, there was still a slim chance for the Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton supporters to convert other delegates to their candidate. Clinton boosters were a smaller contingent, of about 70, but loud and well organized (and older). The men's room door was plastered with Hillary signs. Inside one of the bathroom stalls, at eye level on the inside door, was a disconcerting sign that said, "Vote Chelsea," visible to all male throne-sitters. It turned out this wasn't the Clintons' thinking ahead but rather a delegate candidate with that name.
Would-be delegates made placards, stamped out buttons, gave away chotchkes (door stops, bottled water, home-made Obama fans). It was as if everyone in school was running for prom king or queen and had been up all night with the craft paper and felt pens. Some had been sending e-mails, postcards, and letters to their fellow delegates for weeks.
The setting contributed to the back-to-school feel. Hand-drawn banners and posters festooned the North Seattle Community College gym where the caucus was held. Some delegates had sign-waving posses in matching t-shirts, others touted endorsements from party big-wigs. Everyone was given 30 seconds to make a direct pitch for election. So make that a prom royalty election crossed with American Idol.
Nickels and McDermott made brief appearances before the delegate voting began. Nickels reminded people that turnout in November was key and said that in 2004, Sen. John Kerry only failed to carry one Seattle precinct, the gated community of Broadmoor. (Warning to Broadmoor: Expect to be boarded by doorbellers!)
McDermott told the audience that he has never been more excited to go back to Congress, because he might actually be able to get something done, especially with the prospect of a Democratic president and an expanded Democratic majority in the House. For me, this emphasized the rap against McDermott as a guy who hasn't delivered much, but his symbolic importance as an enemy of the far right still appeals to his Seattle base.
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