Editor's note: This is the first of a series about Washington's role in choosing the next president.
On a Saturday afternoon during a "sun break" in the Seattle rain, I went to a stranger's house to watch Barack Obama supporters prepare for the upcoming Washington state caucuses. The Seahawks were playing the Packers, and it felt, as I walked the uncharacteristically quiet streets, as if everyone in Seattle were tuned in to the game on TV somewhere. The host, Dave Morehouse, lives in a brand new three-floor duplex townhome in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. In his living room, the game was indeed on but the sound muted. The townhouse was full of people who'd left their shoes at the door and were sitting around in stocking feet. Morehouse let the football game play in snowy pantomime (it was in Wisconsin) on his widescreen TV during the meeting, but few watched it.
What they watched was Morehouse himself, who emphasized the importance of the next few weeks leading up to the caucuses. In Washington, the caucuses are on Feb. 9, with the primary following on Feb. 19. If the results of the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday primary narrow the field to each party's top candidates, Washington could be a pivotal state in final candidate selection, Morehouse said. While Republican Party members can still hope to influence the candidacy at the primary stage, the Democratic Party in Washington does not use the primary to apportion delegates, so the caucus would be the last best hope for Obama delegates. "The game is in the caucus," Morehouse told the group.
Morehouse said he hasn't been involved in politics since 1992, when he caucused for Bill Clinton. He attributes his sudden activism to an "epiphany" on Christmas Eve when he talked about the upcoming election with his father and stepmother — who were in attendance at the meeting as "political tourists," they said.
Later, I asked Morehouse why Obama served as a catalyst for his return to political activism after 15 years. "Obama's message of change and hope, to me, comes at just the right time and is way more than a catchy campaign slogan," he says. "And it just seemed so fitting to me that this message comes to us from a man whose father was from Kenya and mother from Kansas, who was both a child of divorce – my own parents divorced when I was eight – and a student of the world, who both figuratively and literally embodies the diversity and promise of the American experience." Morehouse decided it was time to "put up or shut up," so he joined the Obama movement.
What he found was a true grassroots effort. He characterizes the central Seattle office for Obama as "not particularly organized at this point." His comment doesn't come off as a criticism but rather conveys the spontaneity of the central office's establishment. Morehouse and another attendee at the meeting, Carrie Evans, agree that it's a very active place, where "a lot of volunteers help each other out," a place where you can attend caucus training any Sunday afternoon at 1 pm. But make sure you get there around 12:30 to get a spot, suggests Evans. There have been crowds.
Evans and a friend, Jika Knight, a law student in his 20s, had been to the 36th legislative district caucus training that morning and were well prepared to dig in. They fit the profile of the young Obama supporters who turned out in droves in Iowa to capture victory for their hero. I'd expected more Carries and Jikas, but they were the only two in the room. The rest were gray-haired or merely wizened or at least in their 30s. One had caucused for Howard Dean in '04. Another wanted to learn about the caucus process and would in turn educate her friends about how to influence candidate selection.
Influencing candidate selection was the point of the meeting, and Morehouse got to it with panache. "This is a volunteer effort, so whatever you can do is great," he said. However, the Obama for America people would be arriving in town soon, and they would bring performance goals with them. Within the first week, the volunteers will be expected to recruit Obama supporters to their teams. Two weeks before the Feb. 9 caucuses, they and their teammates will go door-to-door and make phone calls to secure caucus support for Obama. "It'Ã'ês a lot of footwork," Morehouse said.
There were 15 in attendance including the political tourists, the journalist, and her photographer, so only 10 were left to cover two caucuses in two zip codes, or 97 precincts. Marie-Louise Kayinamura, who is not a U.S. citizen, volunteered to canvass even though she is ineligible to participate in the caucus. The original goal of the meeting was to divide into teams, but there were enough activists only to assign a team captain to each caucus location. Thus, the first step would be to build their teams, working first from a list of Obama supporters, which number 260 in one zip code and 300 in the other.
Kayinamura, who grew up in Rwanda and has lived in Seattle for five years, has supported Obama since his 2004 race for the U.S. Senate from Illinois. "Somebody gave me his book, and I sat down and read the whole thing," she says. By book, Kayinamura means Obama's first book, Dreams from My Father, the memoir published in 1995, not the better-known second book, The Audacity of Hope. Joe Klein, writing for Time, said it was possibly "the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician." Kayinamura assured me this is no brag book from an ambitious young politico. "He's the only politician who really can reach everybody," she says. "He's been in every type of cultural situation, socially and economically. He understands everyone."
Evans, who is 30, had also read Dreams from My Father and named it as a chief inspiration for her decision to work on behalf of Obama. "It's this 30-year-old, talking about politics," she says. "It's genuine." She caucused for John Kerry in '04.
Sixty-one-year-old Marjorie Mouton read Dreams from My Father after she heard Obama's now legendary speech at the Democratic National Convention. "You just knew he was the one," she says. She likens Obama's speech to John F. Kennedy's nomination acceptance address in 1960. Obama's ability to emerge untainted by the shadow of past ethics problems or support for a very unpopular war, coupled with his insistence on bipartisan compromise and a rejection of red vs. blue politics seems to represent well the spirit of Kennedy's address. "We are not here to curse the darkness; we are here to light a candle," said Kennedy.
For Doris Andrechak, Obama indeed represents a candle against the darkness. During introductions when the meeting commenced, she said she had dreaded the coming election cycle. "The Iowa caucus blew everything away," she told me later. "It said a lot that they chose an African American." She was so excited by the results, she talked to her brother in Montana about it for more than an hour the day after the caucus. "We'd grown into cynics," she says, "but Iowa made us feel better." Shocked at the outcome of the presidential race in '04, Andrechak candidly told me she'd felt alienated from her countrymen and without hope for what would happen this time around until Iowa.
Andrechak and Mouton, according to pundits, pollsters, and demographers, should be Hillary Clinton supporters. A recent cartoon by David Horsey in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer shows a middle-aged woman wearing a "Boomer Women for Hillary" T-shirt. She's on the phone, and the caption reads, "Yes, Sweetheart, I'm proud of you for making the dean's list ... I'm just saying, if you campaign for Obama, you'll be paying your own tuition!"
Neither woman found excitement in Clinton's candidacy. Mouton says she doesn't get as passionate listening to Clinton speak as she does Obama. I asked Andrechak if she felt any pull toward Clinton as the first viable opportunity to see a woman in the Oval Office. "That's important, but not enough to support her over Obama," she says. She's worried that a Clinton victory would reactivate a broken Republican party, and even though she sees Clinton's pragmatism as an attribute, Andrechak worries about such matters as ethics and consistency regarding the Iraq War. "What Obama had to say about the war was right on," she says. She appreciated that he didn't profess to be against all wars but questioned this one.
Andrechak is new to politics; this will be her first caucus. "I've always voted but never considered myself political until the day after 9/11," she says. "I was in my office, and I saw people around me getting really worked up in this nationalistic way," she says. She doesn't want to discount the legitimate anger and fear people felt in the wake of the attacks, but something at the root of Americans' reactions prompted her to send a check to the American Civil Liberties Union. "I saw reasonable people behave unreasonably based on fear," she says.
While Andrechak is what you might expect in a Seattleite, right down to the hiking pants she'd worn for the occasion, Mouton breaks all expectations. She sports a baseball cap and sweater emblazoned with the American flag, tiny Mickey Mouse heads serving as stars. She says she voted for "the first Bush" because of one issue: abortion. "It used to be more important to me, but there's more at stake now," she says. For her, what's at stake are the war, health care, and something else, an attitude she associates with the second Bush's presidency. She believes the current Republican leaders favor the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Gesturing toward the silent football game on TV, she says, "Look at what is spent proportionately on sports as opposed to more important things, like education or housing." Echoing the sentiments of too many Seattle residents, she says, "I have a decent job, but I can't afford a place to live."
I ask her if she is comfortable with Obama's stance on abortion.
"I can't tell you what his stance is," she says, but not as if she hasn't considered the question. "Maybe I should know where he stands more precisely," she says. "But I know me. If I get too hung up on that, I'll lose sight of the bigger picture. Abortion — especially partial birth abortion — I based my past vote on that alone. This time, I have to set aside my personal views for the good of all."
I was sincerely tempted to pitch in and help this group of activists, despite my own deep disappointment after the 2004 election. After listening to Barack Obama, and feeling inspired by the genuine dedication of his supporters, I began to feel my cynicism and despair give way to something else, something I haven't felt in a very long time: The desire to get back into the game.