Wednesday, March 7, 2012

My friend Sue O'Brien wrote in this editorial in 2002 when our wonderful Colorado Caucus, our neighborhood system for nominating candidates to the primary ballot, was in danger of being killed by Amendment 29. Partly because of Sue's and The Denver Post's strong support of the Colorado Caucus, the misguided Amendment 29 was defeated.

Sue's wonderful column is still very much worth reading as a reminder of why the caucus-assembly system is worth preserving, warts and all. I hope someone forwards a copy of this to the Republican National Committee, which is considering whether or not to ban the caucus as a way to pick the delegates who nominate the RNC's Presidential candidate.  Here's what Sue wrote in the Denver Post:

Caucuses aren't for ciphers
October 6, 2002
by Sue O'Brien

cipher - a person or thing of no importance or value; nonentity

- New World College Dictionary

So, what will we choose to be: ciphers or individuals?

Ciphers are faceless. They have value only as something to count - a signature on a petition or a vote to tally by machine. It's easy for ciphers to hide out. Hey, they're just part of the mob.

Individuals, by contrast, stand out. They take responsibility. And they rarely hide.

We have a sovereign opportunity to become ciphers this November. One of the few mechanisms left in modern politics that rewards individual initiative - the precinct caucus - is on the brink of being eliminated in favor of a political nominating system that would let wannabe candidates get on the ballot only by collecting - and counting - petition signatures.

It's a lousy proposal put forth by an otherwise admirable organization: the Bighorn Center for Public Policy.

Now, I have nothing against getting on the ballot by petition. But why eliminate the choice - caucus or petition - that our present system provides?

It's not as though there's something inherently wrong with the caucus. And, even though these grassroots conclaves have seen declining attendance in recent years, there's a lot inherently good about them.

Look around modern society. We have a woeful lack of what Harvard scholar Robert Putnam calls "social capital" - the dynamism that comes from doing things together and making community decisions together. Yet the spate of election "reforms" we're seeing these days almost seems designed to stomp out the last vestiges of community collaboration.

"Voting and following politics are relatively undemanding forms of participation," writes Putnam in his influential "Bowling Alone." "In fact, they are not, strictly speaking, forms of social capital at all, because they can be done utterly alone."

We can be utterly alone, too, when we perform the two other actions modern politics seems to want to limit us to: writing checks and watching attack ads on TV. We're systematically replacing "social capital" with plain old monetary capital.

Colorado's traditional caucus-convention system, in contrast, rewards the shoe-leather and diligence. It provides a low-cost way for aspirants to work the neighborhoods, investing energy instead of dollars. Recent proof of this pudding came in the race for the GOP nomination in the 7th Congressional District, where Rick O'Donnell captured first line on the primary ballot with a low-budget campaign that focused on traditional caucus and door-to-door campaigning. O'Donnell eventually lost the primary to the better-funded Bob Beauprez, but his achievement in getting on the ballot was impressive.

But even more important than the caucus' benefits for candidates is its benefit for ordinary citizens. It's a vibrant neighborhood forum for hashing out ideas - the last remaining arena in which you can get on the first rung of the ladder toward political effectiveness by just showing up.

I've covered precinct or town caucuses in Iowa, Maine, Minnesota and Mississippi as well as Colorado. My favorite memory is of escorting a big-deal network analyst to his very first caucus in an American Legion hall in Iowa. This was a political expert well into his 50s, yet he'd never seen a caucus; primaries had always been his beat. He was blown away. For the first time in years of covering politics, he told me, he'd seen the true face of America.

He was right. Caucuses offer a peculiarly intimate view of a community and its people. They'll amaze you with the quality of caring and thought participants bring to the discussion. And sometimes, if you're very lucky, you'll see new, young leaders find their first toehold in the process.

Why is the Colorado caucus withering? First, because the legislature, in an ineffectual grab for national headlines, created a meaningless presidential primary that eliminated the headline race that once inspired much caucus activism.

Second, because we're all getting good at sitting on the sidelines. The Kettering Foundation's David Mathews once reminded readers that the word idiot comes from the Greeks. Privacy, they thought, was akin to stupidity. "Idiots" were incapable of finding their place in the social order.

Why bow to the trend of letting the next guy do it? Why sell out to letting money replace shoe-leather at every level of American politics?

Why not keep the caucus as an open door to involvement, while continuing to provide the petition alternative? Bighorn's goal may be to increase the number of people peripherally involved in the process - but the initiative will never replace the quality of participation the caucus can provide.

Good political talk … is where we recognize the connectedness of things - and our own connectedness. … Good political talk is also where we discover what is common amidst our differences. -David Mathews, "Civic Intelligence"

Sue O'Brien was editor of the Denver Post editorial page.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Just back from attending Denver District 2 meeting in the cafeteria at Morey Jr. High, then first of breakout for Precinct 206 where I live (10th & Grant on Capitol Hill.) I Tweeted @JohnSWren. I'm registered Unaffiliated, so I only attended tonight to observe and to try and get support for my idea of a monthly neighborhood meeting.

District Captain Micheal told me it was his first time in the role, I thought he did a great job. But it was a tough crowd. Most energetic person was a woman rounding up volunteers for Obama for America phone bank.

Micheal led the Pledge of Allegiance, read the rules, and went through the agenda and the paperwork that needed to be complete.Rick Palacio. Rep Mark Ferrandino and a couple of others gave short talks, and the next District 2 meeting at the end of March was announced. Then everyone was sent to meet with their neighbors.

Only 3 men were in the classroom breakout for our Precinct 206, and they were very open to my idea of holding a monthly neighborhood meeting at Charlie Brown's, social, not political. GOP precinct caucus and new committee person Chris were also open to it, so it should happen. It will be interesting to see what impact it has on attendance for GOP and Dem 206 attendance in two years.

Micheal thought our idea for a monthly non-political, non-partisan  was a good idea, and that he might  encourage other districts to do the same thing, which would be great.

Even though the attendance was shockingly low, it seemed to me it was a positive experience for everyone who attended. I can hardly wait to see what it's like in 2014.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Love your neighbor!

Fr. Drew Kirschman, Assistant to the President of Arrupe Jesuit High School gave a talk at Denver's St. Ignatius of Loyola Church today about trust as part of the metro-Denver Jesuit's Lenten Lecture Series which has been reconstituted after a 5 year hiatus.

Trust is a process, it about relationships, and it has to do with expectations. It was a great talk, and lessons that need to be carried into the state-wide Colorado Caucus next Tuesday (March 6). These are free, open meetings, if you are registered as a Democrat and have lived where you are now you can vote, but anyone can attend. I'm suggesting that people "Occupy the Caucus." If you don't know where to go, use the search tool on