Tuesday night was caucus night in Utah--for Democrats. Weren't aware of it? Join the 98 percent who didn't know it either.
The agenda was simple: listen to candidate pitches, break into precinct meetings, elect a precinct chair and elect county and state delegates.
As a college student who was too young to vote in 2008, these were my first caucuses. My dad, who's been chairman of the Murray City Council and a precinct captain, told me to expect few people. If 20 show up, he said, it'll be a good turnout for a caucus in an incumbent year. Which momentarily worried me, given that it could portend an enthusiasm gap in November.
Then again, considering that only two percent of eligible voters normally show up to their caucuses, my dad's estimate wasn't so cynical and forboding.
Yet over a hundred people packed into the multipurpose room at James Moss Elementary School, one of 52 caucus locations in Salt Lake County, out of 721 in Utah overall. There were more people than chairs, so the turnout exceeded even party officials' expectations. There were young voters, Latino voters, moms and dads with babies, and seniors.
Visibly excited to see the standing-room-only crowd, the chair, Marion Smith, said, "We miss out when we don't participate; those who don't come don't have a right to complain."
Smith read a letter from Mary Bishop, chair of the Salt Lake County Democratic Party, encouraging further participation in the democratic process.
Then she passed around brown paper bags asking for donations in a contest called "Dollars for Democrats." Each caucus location was challenged to outpace its counterparts by raising the most money from attendees. Don't call me a bad Democrat for not carrying cash to donate. I've given to Obama's campaign multiple times -- every time he invites supporters to dinner (I've yet to win).
Mark Wheatly, our caucus' state representative, spoke on behalf of his wife, Josie Valdez, who's running for Senate in District 8. A 23-year veteran of the U.S. Small Business Administration and a former member of Rocky Anderson's mayoral administration, Valdez seemed well prepared to run.
Bill Anderson, next up, admitted to being a disaffected Republican, a confession met with silence that quickly gave way to cheering, jeering and laughing.
He spoke on behalf of Ben McAdams, who's running for Salt Lake County major. McAdams , he said, exemplifies solutions, not politics, having passed a bill allowing for a public-private partnership to redevelop an abandoned high school when South Salt Lake realized it could not afford the project on its own.
"Democrats do have a place [in Utah]," Anderson said. A hundred heads nodded in agreement as he claimed that Democrats must offer solutions in order to maintain political influence in Utah, while Republicans can simply rely on politics to perpetuate their power.
"Politics should not be about politics," Anderson concluded.
Al Peterson, the Vice Chair of the caucus, summed up the sentiment of Democrats across the country, in offices local and national alike: "The Party has a chance to make a difference while Republicans tear themselves apart."
Some stragglers entered the meeting late. One wore a camouflage tie. Only in Utah, I thought.
The last speaker offered his thoughts. Fighting for over 20 years against Orrin Hatch--he said he took Hatch to court in 1995 to no avail--Bill Peterson seemed to declare his candidacy against the longtime incumbent. The more the merrier.
Our smaller precinct meetings then began. We had 20 minutes to agree on a precinct chair and delegates, and an extra 40 if delegates were contested. We filled out a preference poll so that the State Party could gauge support for President Obama. We could voice our support for Obama or declare ourselves uncommitted. A guy in an Obama beanie can't vote against Obama, so you can guess where my support fell.
Eight people, including myself, met from Precinct 8. Ours was one of the smallest in the room. Only one of us, moreover, had ever attended a caucus before. Turnout was high; first-time turnout was even higher.
I nominated myself as a delegate. A union member threw his hat in the ring, rather reluctantly, I think because he didn't want to challenge a college-aged kid.
I spoke in favor of Ben McAdams. I support Ben, I said, because for the fourth consecutive year, he sponsored a bill to amend Utah's nondiscrimination laws to include protection for LGBTQ individuals. What's more, he sponsored legislation that would increase public school funding by $600 million.
I agree with the position that the most significant action government can take in an economic downturn is investing in education. Cutting education budgets to mend budget deficits shortchanges the long-term economy by under-educating future workforces. It's counterproductive and Utah needs to realize that.
I'm a reporter for my school's newspaper. In my first column on budget cuts for higher education, Scott Howell, director of public policy for IBM, told me IBM would be more inclined to move to a state with a talented, educated workforce than to a state that offered a tax break or a low tax rate. Enough said.
My delegate challenger also supported McAdams, and so threw his support behind me. I was elected county and state delegate from precinct 8 in Murray by a show of hands. It's weird to think that I'll be the voice for all of Precinct 8--hundreds, maybe even thousands of people--but I'm excited to go to the conventions.
Several friends from the University of Utah were elected delegates too, so young people will have a strong contingency next month.
The Utah constitution reads, "All political power is inherent in the people." This is what the caucus system captures. And this is why it's important that everyone--at least more than two percent--shows up on caucus night.