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.
When Nickels was introduced, there were a few boos (not so for Sunny Jim), and Nickels and McDermott seemed to pass each other with nary a nod. But mostly they stood out because they didn't reflect the demographics of the room.
Then there was the wraith-like presence of Mike Lowry, who looked older, slimmer, and unusually sartorially splendid in a nice gray suit. He was there to support one of the candidates for delegate, environmental activist Janet Wainwright, who mounted an impressive effort with major endorsements, mailers, and a phone-call campaign to drum up support.
Lowry sat in the hot gym all day to make a less-than-30-second pitch for Wainwright. While he waited, he sat off to the side against a wall. The sight of a former governor and member of Congress spending so much time on so small an errand seemed almost poignant. The fact that Wainwright lost in the first round of voting made it even more so. In the old Democratic party, such a thing would have been unthinkable. An elder statesman like Lowry would have used his influence and won. And if he was not assured of victory, he would not have used his political capital at all.
So even the politically well-connected were not assured of anything with the grassroots rising. There were many in the room who didn't know who Mike Lowry was. Not only were many of the delegates young, many were newcomers to Seattle. The grassroots tide is heavily made up of immigrants, domestic and foreign — accents ranged from Iraqi and east Indian to New York and the deep South. It's not that memories are short, it's that Lowry has not made it into the memory banks of many. He is so 1990s.
At the end of a long, hot day (it was a record 90 degrees outside), after many votes and too many speeches and silly "point-of-order" diversions that are typical of such affairs, after eight or nine hours sitting in the bleachers, after bearing the disappointment of nearly two-thirds of the delegates losing their election to be a national delegate despite their 200 individual, creative, and special ways of loving Obama, people could be excused for ending the day feeling deflated and disappointed. Some folks drooped the way on old campaign banner does in the last hour.
But a message seemed to be reverberating throughout the crowd and the party. You want change? You got it.
Footnote: After being elected as a Democratic delegate to the congressional district caucus and the state convention, I decided not to run to be a national delegate, so I attended the caucus not as a candidate, merely as a voter. The reason: When I asked myself why I should go to Denver, I realized I didn't have a better answer than "because I want to." Many people have a sense that history is being made and want to be part of it. Me too. But I felt like the delegates who deserved to go should be real, 24/7 Obama activists — and that's how I cast my caucus ballots. I think most of my fellow delegates felt and voted the same way.