In a caucus ruckus in Oklahoma City, you hear democracy roar
A caucus is a caucus is a caucus. What is a caucus? Some 15 states have now held caucuses to begin the process of determining who will emerge as the presidential candidate in each party in the November election. Minnesota holds caucuses today. Kansas and Montana caucuses come up later this week.Skip to next paragraph
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Most voting citizens have a fuzzy notion - if any notion at all - of what caucuses are all about. Yet caucuses, or party gatherings, are becoming preferred over primaries as a way of strengthening the political parties. The reason is that a citizen really has to care about the democratic process to take part in a caucus. It filters out the casual voters who just want to slip into voting booth on primary day and pull a lever. It engages the activists - those who are seriously inclined to the hurly-burly of participatory democracy.
Take the Democratic caucus for Precinct 96, held recently at the Gatewood School in Oklahoma City. There were nine caucuses at the school, and some 2,200 other precinct caucuses were taking place in schools, homes, and farmhouses throughout the state.
It all began at 7:30 in the evening. Precinct 96 voters were directed to an elementary school room, where they signed their names and put their candidate preference on a sheet watched over zealously by a party precinct worker. Crowding into the room were young and old, fathers and mothers with tiny children in tow, college students, senior citizens, whites, blacks. A din filled the air as the prospective voters swapped views on candidates.
''I'm for Hart,'' said a middle-aged man dressed in a plaid, open-collar shirt. He was sitting precariously on a child's stool. ''I don't think Mondale can do it, and I'm not impressed with Reagan.''
''You're right,'' a young woman agreed. ''There's a lot of cheese being eaten in this neighborhood. People are suffering.''
Lively exchanges went on until 68 people had signed in and the roll was closed. The acting caucus chairman, state Sen. Bernest Cain, holding his daughter, Millicent, proceeded to divide the assemblage into groups representing each candidate: Mondale, Hart, Jackson, and - ''Who's the other guy? Oh yeah, the astronaut.''
Two individuals sauntered in late. The list was closed. What to do? ''I move that they be permitted to participate,'' a voice from the Glenn group called out. ''All in favor?'' asked the chairman. A resounding ''aye'' carried the day. The two joined the Hart cluster.
Each group then counted itself. Hart, 37. Glenn, 14. Mondale, 11. Jackson, 4 . McGovern, 1. Uncommitted, 1. Under Oklahoma's complicated caucus system, this meant that only those with at least 20 percent of the 68 voters present could send one or more delegates to the coming county convention. Only the Harts and the Glenns qualified. So the Mondales, Jacksons, and one McGovernite had the choice of joining another group or remaining uncommitted.
To try to influence a switch, each group was permitted one speech on behalf of its candidate. The groups huddled to select a spokesman.
''Glenn stands for morality and stability,'' the Glenn spokesman said vehemently. ''He grew up tough and married his boyhood sweetheart. He was a war hero. His political life has been marked by fairness and opportunity.''
As the Hart spokesman readied for his moment, some one yelled, ''Where's the beef?'' The young man laughed but proceeded undeterred: ''Hart's down-to-earth. He's sensitive to energy problems. He'd give Reagan a run for his money. He does offer new ideas - the media caught on to him late.''
''Jesse's the first candidate I've heard say we should have a woman for vice-president,'' said the Jackson man, a young black. ''He's pointed out this nation has moral, economic, political relations with the rest of the world. We need leadership that is capable of nose-to-nose negotiations. It would be the most strategic moral move now to elect Jesse Jackson.''
His fervency won him the biggest applause.