Washington caucuses: Team Ballard gets down to work

Second in a series: Week two for supporters of Barack Obama who are preparing for the Feb. 9 caucuses in the Seattle neighborhood. Nationally, their candidate is not exactly cruising to the nomination – at once discouraging and motivating.
Crosscut archive image.
Second in a series: Week two for supporters of Barack Obama who are preparing for the Feb. 9 caucuses in the Seattle neighborhood. Nationally, their candidate is not exactly cruising to the nomination – at once discouraging and motivating.

Editor's note: This is the second in a series about Washington's role in choosing the next president.

It's week two for Barack Obama's Ballard-neighborhood supporters, and like the weather, spirits are a little damp. The effort to recruit other volunteers to the team has yielded hundreds of voice mail messages but no takers.

It's pouring outside; this is no gentle Northwest drizzle; and fewer volunteers have arrived at Dave Morehouse's place on this Saturday, Jan. 19. The results from Nevada are coming in, and Morehouse and fellow organizer Bert Wyman are worried.

But Carrie Evans and Jika Knight, our Obama youth contingent, show up as optimistic as ever. Carrie expresses hope for South Carolina. Knight organizes Students for Obama at the University of Washington and says the biggest challenge is getting them to commit to taking time out for caucus day on Feb. 9. Doris Andrechak, who said last week that Iowa made her feel more hopeful than she'd felt in years, has already gone through her list of Obama supporters in the Sunset Hill neighborhood. She's even dropped handwritten notes in the mailboxes of anyone with whom she hasn't yet spoken in person. Still running on the energy of that Iowa win, Andrechak says that two enthusiastic supporters returned her calls. "That was really reinforcing," she says.

Today, Team Ballard will receive caucus training from Mark Milodragovich, who has no official role in the Obama campaign — he's a volunteer who's filling a need. He estimates he spends "maybe a dozen" hours per week working on behalf of Obama. "I could easily spend 80," he says. "When I think about what Obama has to do on a daily basis, I feel embarrassed about being tired."

Milodragovich is a software developer and South Park resident. His kids made the Obama buttons that get passed out at the end of the meeting. Morehouse calls the buttons SWAG, Stuff We All Get. Outside of a handful of bumper stickers paid for by local supporters and Milodragovich's kids' buttons, there's not much SWAG to be had, and the supporters in the neighborhood want them. One woman requested two signs for her front windows.

Host Dave Morehouse asks Milodragovich for grassroots organizing tips. Morehouse spoke with one rude citizen who told him he didn't take phone solicitations and hung up. "At what point does a phone call become harassment?"

Milodragovich points out that everyone on their lists has taken it upon themselves to give their contact information to the Obama campaign. "It changes the game to get a volunteer in your own neighborhood calling," he says. "We don't have to second-guess ourselves. Just go for it."

Undiminished by rain or Nevada returns, Milodragovich underscores the importance of caucus participation. "You can have a million conversations at the water cooler, and it's not going to make a difference like the caucus will." I ask him what he would say to someone who argues, as fellow Crosscut writer and veteran political insider Ted Van Dyk has, that the Washington caucus probably won't matter. His reply: "For selecting the democratic nominee, it's the only thing that matters." The gravity of his words weighs heavily in the room.

To illustrate the power of organizing at the caucus level, Milodragovich reminds everyone how Pat Robertson swept Washington state in the 1988 race. (The Rev. Robertson also beat George H.W. Bush in Iowa that year.) "They did it because they were organized," he says.

He's worried about Obama's ability to claim Washington state, despite the fact that Obama supporters have out-spent their competitors here. "There's not as much traction among the Democratic regulars for Obama as there is in the general population."

Milodragovich comes equipped with charts, an Excel spreadsheet, and a YouTube video that makes the caucus look far less exciting than it truly can be. "This whole process is so daunting to me," he says. "It almost feels as if it's designed to discourage your participation." Given Washington's participation in both a caucus and a primary Feb. 19, and the differences between how the two parties choose to handle them, his words ring true. (How to participate in Washington's caucuses.)

For now, the Obama strategy for winning Washington is not to convince those who aren't supporters to cross over to his side but rather to get those who do support him simply to show up for the caucus. It's a strategy Milodragovich questions, pointing to tales from Iowa of volunteers who worked aggressively to shut out the other candidates. "I'm surprised by how the campaign is not pursuing every possible voter." Still, he says he's less interested in the final counts pouring in from other states' caucuses and primaries and more interested in the difference between which candidate caucus-goers showed up to support versus the final count.

Like most of the other volunteers in Team Ballard, Milodragovich is new to political organizing. He participated in his caucus in the past but has never before volunteered. He's amazed by the energy of Obama's movement but wants to see it develop into a more structured organization whose effect is felt long after the November election, no matter the results. "We think change is up to politicians," he says, "but it's really up to us."


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