The Congressional District Caucus

The Omni Center is too far from our house to get there by bike early on a Sunday, so Cathy promised to give us a ride and arranged to pick us up at 12:45. Just as in the county caucus, anyone arriving after 2pm would be shut out, so we wanted to get there early.

Also, getting there early allows for time to schmooze, which seemed more important to Cathy than it was to me.

The Omni Center is a rather bland complex on the northern fringes of Onalaska, with a basketball/hockey arena (arguably the biggest indoor hockey venue in the region) and a bunch of meeting rooms.

We were greeted at the door by a table with sign-in lists; a green list for Bernie delegates and a yellow list for Hillary delegates. We each found our printed name on the list and signed our name next to it. Then we were handed slips of paper to sign. We would need to present that slip of paper to get a ballot.

Once our legitimacy was established, we were directed to go down the hall and turn right. At the end of the hall was a door to a dark and empty hockey arena. To the right was a hallway lined with high tables leading to a large meeting room.

We found some friends from our La Crosse group at one of the tables and hung out there until it got closer to 2 o’clock. Cathy came by and nudged me to go in and schmooze. I couldn’t do it. Not yet.

When our cup of coffee ran out, I took it as a signal to find our seats. We opted for seats in the front row (because I like leg room) and close to the door (which means close to the rest room).

We were given self-sticking paper with which to make name tags. I was wearing my favorite travel shirt, which is made of lightweight technical material that turns out to be completely incompatible with self-adhesive name tags. So I had a hard time convincing my name tag to stick.

One of the other candidates, Bill from neighboring Monroe County, introduced himself to make his pitch for my support. Like everyone there, he was sincerely dedicated to the movement, but I interrupted him when I thought his pitch sounded too much like a resume of his activism so far.

I told him that what’s more important is “not what you’ve done, but what you’re going to do.” I meant my advice to be encouraging, as I was coaching myself a bit, too. “What do you bring to the Bernie delegation that will push this movement forward? What do you hope to accomplish at the convention? What do you hope to learn from this experience and bring home to your fellow activists?”

We wished each other well as we found our seats and the meeting was called to order.

The Caucus Begins

At our end of the meeting room was a whiteboard with the names of all Bernie delegate hopefuls. Men were listed in alphabetical order on the left and women were on the right. At the opposite end of the room was another whiteboard with a similar list of names for Hillary delegates.

The meeting began with both camps gathered in our end of the room. Some announcements were made about the state convention and the process for today’s voting. Once that business was taken care of, the Hillary people were sent to the back of the room. A partition was deployed between us and the caucus began.

Once again, we had a facilitator that did a fair and effective job, even though I have no idea how this important position is filled. She verified that each delegate candidate was present, and removed any from the board who weren’t.

Her next step was to ask anyone who wished to withdraw to call out their name, and she would erase it from the board. That got several more names removed from the board, which narrowed to 17 candidates (11 men and 6 women).

By rule, each candidate had one minute to speak. No one felt like that was enough. So a motion was made to extend the time limit to two minutes, and it easily passed by a voice vote.

Candidates came to speak in the order they were listed on the board: first the men, then the women, with each group in alphabetical order by last name. Each person talked of his/her dedication to the Bernie campaign, and most listed their experience in the campaign. Some were more comfortable than others addressing a group of eighty people with a TV camera in the room.

The facilitator used a stopwatch, and when two minutes were up she would quietly and politely approach the speaker from the side. The speaker would notice, some would sheepishly say, “is my time up?”, and with a quick thank you would politely yield to the next speaker. Everyone got at least a polite applause.

Obbie’s Turn To Speak

My turn came up, and I stood before the crowd holding these notes:

set the agenda
football analogy
go big (Kennedy/Moon)
reduce power of money
every other election matters

It wasn’t a well-prepared speech… it was more a list of things to talk about. Each line represented a story or a rant that was well committed to memory.

As it turned out, I only got to the third line before my time ran out. The speech turned out something like this:

My name is Obbie, and I’m a lifelong campaigner for ecological sustainability, economic fairness and social justice. The Bernie campaign is closer to my world view than any major party presidential campaign of my lifetime.. in fact, I haven’t seen this much excitement behind a campaign since Bobby Kennedy, which was a little before my time…

I rambled and stuttered a bit as I tried to talk about all the other important things that happen at conventions, the things that don’t get talked about on TV. But I was having a rough time with that part so I jumped ahead to the football analogy.

Since elections happen during football season, I like to use a football metaphor to contrast Bernie’s idealism with Hillary’s pragmatism. For instance, Bernie calls for universal health care, while Hillary wants to improve on Obamacare.

Those goals aren’t mutually exclusive. When a football team runs a play, it usually wants to get a touchdown. But that doesn’t mean we won’t accept first downs along the way. And when we get the first down, we don’t celebrate and go home. We go back out onto the field and keep moving the ball until we have a touchdown.

I saw people nodding in the crowd. Time to move onto the “Kennedy/Moon” line of my notes, a story I hadn’t used before.

Incrementalism doesn’t excite people, it’s the aspirational goals that do. When the Soviets were putting men into orbit in the early 60s, President Kennedy didn’t come before Congress and say, “let’s go into orbit.” No, he said “Let’s go to the Moon,” and that inspired and excited people to eventually get there.

This is our Moon shot, so let’s inspire and make history…

Or something like that.

I wasn’t sure where to go from there, but just as I checked my notes I noticed the facilitator quietly and politely approaching me to let me know my time was up. So that was a good ending. I thanked the crowd and sat down, wondering if the applause I was hearing sounded louder than it did for everyone else.

The Other Prospective Delegates

There was a guy named Bruce from a county further up the river who seemed very capable and well-spoken. Matthew is a young tall guy from central Wisconsin (we have a large and gerrymandered district) who also stood out as an effective communicator.

Among the women, Alicia is running for a Republican-held assembly seat in neighboring Vernon County, Jillian is a young candidate who articulates and presents herself very well. Our friend Xong spoke passionately of the work she does for the Hmong community.

As we were handed our first set of ballots, the facilitator read off the names on the board one more time, and each candidate stood up and waved or nodded to the crowd. So that was an efficient reminder to match names to faces. We wished we could pick at least twice as many candidates, but we could only choose two men and two women.

RoZ and I were both decided on voting for me on the men’s side (obviously), and for Xong on the women’s side. The Hmong community is a significant part of the population of this district, so it must be represented in the delegation. We can’t think of anyone who could represent and advocate for that community more effectively than Xong.

On the men’s side, my second vote went to Bruce and RoZ voted for Matthew. Since Bruce is close to my age, she thought that it would be better to have two generations represented rather than one. She was right.

We both gave our second women’s vote to Alicia. We marked our ballots, handed them in and were told that it’ll take a few minutes to count the ballots, so this would be a good time to take a break.

People started to stream out of the room, passing us as we sat in our front-row seats near the door. We were greeted with lots of smiles and thumbs-ups, and some even came by with warm words of encouragement. Wow, I guess I did connect!

As the counting was completed, numbers were written next to our names on the board. On the top was written, “42 needed to win.” My vote total was in the mid-30’s and Matthew was in the high 30’s. Alicia had something like 44 and was elected.

The Second Ballot

One man and several women who polled in the single digits withdrew. The facilitator asked Alicia to fill out a form, and the second round of ballots were handed out. We were asked to vote for two men and one woman. Again we handed in our ballots, took a break, and waited for them to be counted and for numbers to appear on the board.

When the numbers were written next to our names, my name had a number that was bigger than 42. Holy shit! I’m in! I stood up and waved a thank you to the room.

Matthew is still in the high 30’s, and none of the women have a majority. The facilitator gives me the same form she gave to Alicia, and the third ballot comes with instructions to vote for one man and one woman.

As the third set of ballots were being counted, I was filling out my delegate form while sitting and chatting with Xong.  It wasn’t much different from my first “declaration of intent” form. Name, address, contact info, etc. There was a section for “staff name”, “staff phone”, etc. I don’t have a “staff”, but RoZ will be with me so I guess that makes her my “staff”.

There were also the same “diversity” checkboxes. Am I African American, Native American, Hispanic, young, old, or diverse in any way? I remarked to Xong that I “feel diverse” even though I can’t check any of the diversity boxes. “There’s no check box for hippies!”

The reality hadn’t yet sunk in with RoZ. She asked whether there’s another level of voting I have to go thru before I’m a delegate. “No there isn’t, we’re going to Philadelphia.” I didn’t believe it either.

Matthew was easily elected on the third ballot. On the women’s side, Xong had the most votes but there was a three-way deadlock between Xong, Jillian, and a woman from central Wisconsin whose name I forget (sorry).

As the facilitator handed out the fourth round of ballots (vote for one woman), the prospect of an extended deadlock cast a pall over a tiring room full of people. Jillian said, “I’ll withdraw,” and Xong was easily elected on the fourth ballot.

As the caucus started to disband and people prepared to leave, a lot of people from various areas of the district came to greet and congratulate me and the other new delegates. A guy from central Wisconsin had discovered an Indian place in Onalaska and invited everyone to get together there afterwards.

We were counting on Cathy for our ride home, and she couldn’t join us for Indian food. But Xong was able to go, and could bring us home afterwards. So a group of about 15 of us congregated at the Indian restaurant in Onalaska’s Center 90 strip mall.

Alicia was there with a handful of Vernon County people. There were a few folks from the Eau Claire area, and some other random counties were represented. We shared war stories of the campaign, and tales of the other down-ballot races we are all involved in.

One of the Vernon County guys told me a story of the race on the Hillary side of the room. There were two slots available for men, and there were only three men running for those two delegate positions.

The one woman elected as a Hillary delegate is Vicky. So I guess we’re not finished crossing paths yet. I remember seeing her as I left the Omni Center, and I almost said, “see you in Philadelphia.”

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