Islanders flock to caucuses, overwhelmingly endorse Obama



Staff Writers

Island Democrats turned out in record numbers for precinct caucuses on Saturday, cramming into McMurray Middle School where they hoisted signs, gave speeches and ultimately threw their collective weight behind Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

In a turnout that left party leaders both buoyed by the enthusiasm and at times challenged by the logistics, Obama received 92 delegates, Sen. Hillary Clinton received 22 and two remained uncommitted.

According to Ivan Weiss, an Islander who chairs the 34th Legislative District, 1,663 people participated — nearly double the number from four years ago. Party leaders said the record attendance underscores both the energy Obama is generating as well as Democrats’ growing frustration after eight years under President George W. Bush.

“It foretells the Democratic wave,” said Rep. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island. “What we’re seeing is that people are tired of the Bush administration.”

Vashon Republicans, meanwhile, caucused off-Island, at the Southwest Community Center in West Seattle. According to Michael Young, the King County Republican chairman, they weren’t able to hold caucuses on Vashon because the 34th Legislative District Republicans haven’t been able to find party activists on the Island to organize such events.

“It’s been really hard to find a precinct committee officer willing to do the political organizing,” he said. “Most of the people who move there want to retire.

“It’s not a horrible inconvenience,” he added. “But obviously, it would be easier for Islanders to caucus if they could do it on Vashon. I’m aware of that and would like to change that.”

GOP results from the Island’s 19 caucuses weren’t available at press time.

On Vashon, the scene was often chaotic.

The line of cars that inched toward the middle school shortly before the caucuses were slated to start Saturday afternoon was more than a mile long, and many parked several blocks from the school. Inside the building, the throngs were thick as people searched for their precincts, denoted by Island place names — Colvos, Dilworth, Tahlequah, Cove. Children held tight to their parents’ hands; a few dogs sported stickers; one group of girls carried a large, hand-made sign that said “Girls for Hillary.”

Jeff Adberg, who lives in Burton, went to sign in with the Burton precinct, only to learn his precinct is really Shawnee.

“I had to cross the gym,” he said. “It took me 10 minutes.”

Standing in the school’s foyer watching the crowds stream past, Rayna Holtz shook her head in amazement.

“This is the biggest turnout on the Island since the bridge,” she said, referring to a meeting in 1992 when nearly one-fifth of the Island’s residents gathered to oppose a proposed cross-Sound bridge.

The caucuses give voters a chance not simply to register their support for a candidate but to lobby their neighbors and build even more energy, as well as votes, for their preferred candidate — something that happened in spades on Saturday. In crowded, noisy rooms, where in some cases several precincts were crammed, Islander after Islander gave rousing speeches for Obama and Clinton, occasionally engaging in heated exchanges as they sparred on behalf of their candidates. A few advocated for U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich; others told their precincts they were undecided and had come to the caucus to get their questions answered or become convinced that one candidate was better than another.

Many gave strong, often emotional pitches for Obama, the clear favorite throughout the afternoon. They spoke of his appeal to young people, his message of hope and his opposition to the war in Iraq.

“Obama has moved me more than any candidate in the 35, 40 years that I’ve been voting,” Rich Murphy, a Dilworth participant, told his caucus.

A few feet away, at another precinct, Bill Koogler told the group that his “apolitical, 30-year-old son” is excited about Obama. “If a candidate can get my son involved in politics, I’m voting for that candidate,” he said.

Others argued in favor of Clinton, calling her a seasoned politician who has honed her skills over the course of many tough years and who has put forward clear proposals on health care, immigration reform and other issues.

“I’m voting for Hillary because I know what I’m going to get. … There’s no secret with her,” said Arlene Landers.

Many seemed to revel in the process — noisy, at times confusing and, as some said, inherently democratic.

“I love it,” said Joseph Bogaard, a precinct committee officer who spent much of the caucus onstage in the McMurray multi-purpose room, trying to make himself heard to his Dilworth precinct. “It’s so accessible and grass-rootsy, and it’s absolutely chaotic. … It’s like a rock concert here.”

Others, however, were frustrated by the confusion. Vickie Mercer, precinct committee officer for the Dolphin neighborhood, directed people as they entered the gym to sign in and cast their first vote; she found difficulty in the sheer numbers of people at the caucus.

“Some people were disenfranchised by the crowds,” she said. “I estimated there were 100 people who turned around at the door to the gym.”

Many precincts shared a space, making hearing what others said difficult. The Lisabuela precinct had the largest turnout and its own room, Mercer said. But there were still challenges.

“One hundred and seventy people showed up for a classroom designed for 40 people,” she said of the Lisabuela precinct. “It is totally unrealistic.”

Evan Simmons, who said he was recruited to oversee his precinct’s caucus at a party the night before, walked in to lead the process on Saturday without the envelope containing the rules.

“I was basically at sea,” he said, “We basically just made it up.”

One man in his group fainted but came to quickly as people backed away and gave him air, Simmons said. Some senior citizens, meanwhile, wanted to speak on behalf of their candidates, but weren’t able to stand up to talk — so 30 to 40 fellow precinct members crowded around as close as they could to hear them, Simmons said; other times, at his admonition, people shouted to be heard, he added.

“I was actually impressed with the grassroots nature of it, which is inherently chaotic,” Simmons said.

Roger Fulton, president of the Vashon-Maury Island Democratic Club, said that next time, if similar numbers are expected, multiple locations will be chosen to better accommodate people. But prior to 2004, few people attended their precinct caucuses, and many party organizers have been blindsided by the numbers that have turned out in the last few weeks. In some parts of the country, he noted, caucus organizers reported 10- to 20-fold increases in the number of voters this year over 2004.

“The excitement of people energized to do their civic duty far outweighs the negative,” he added.

Weiss, the 34th District chairman and this year’s area caucus coordinator, said organizers tried to make arrangements for larger crowds. In the 2004 caucus, all the precincts met in one room of the high school, he said. This year, to better accommodate the number of people, organizers chose to use McMurray and part of Chautauqua, where a few precincts gathered.

If political interest remains high, Weiss said, the goal will be to give each precinct its own room in the next caucus. But the process, he said, is almost by necessity messy.

“For every system that we might use, there must be some unpleasant tradeoffs,” he said. “If we were to use a primary, we would never meet our neighbors face to face and therefore could never judge the level of their commitment. Effective politics is all about relationships. The caucus system helps us to establish those relationships as no primary could.”