Sunday, February 10, 2008

Westbrook Democratic Caucus: The Bold-Faced Edition

I arrive at the Westbrook High School and am greeted by a full parking lot and two lines of people strung from the cafeteria to the lobby outside the auditorium.

Registration is a two-layered process. First, the caucus-goers are required to register in the hallway outside the cafeteria with City Clerk Lynda Adams and Deputy City Clerk Kathy Jones. Then the voters are required to register with the Westbrook Democratic Party.

Tables draped with campaign signs are set up with various petitions for voters to sign. Surrogates for Congressman Tom Allen and surrogates for Tom Ledue are collecting signatures to get their respective candidates on the primary ballot for the U.S. Senate in June. Tables for the Michael Brennan, Mark Lawrence, and Ethan Strimling campaigns are set up, and petitions to get those candidates on the primary ballot for the U.S. House of Representatives are scattered about. Ann Peoples, one of Westbrook's two representatives in Augusta, has nomination papers and Clean Election papers out and ready for signatures. And Jacqueline Murphy is manning a table that features a Maine People's Alliance petition for universal single-payer healthcare in Maine, along with a petition urging state lawmakers to vote against Governor Baldacci's proposed budget (Murphy sells this petition by saying the proposed cuts are too deep).

State Senator Ethan Strimling (D-Cumberland), who is running in a contentious primary for the U.S. House of Representatives, is greeting voters waiting in line to register.

It's difficult to gauge the level of support for the two presidential candidates, senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. By my count, there are two tables boasting a Clinton placard and three tables with an Obama placard. It does seem the voters are generally clustered by candidate, though. I asked a group sitting at one of the tables with a Clinton placard if they were all Clinton supporters, and they all answered in the affirmative. My wife, who is waiting in line outside the cafeteria, calls me to tell me the line still stretches to the auditorium lobby.

Steve Richard, a Westbrook resident attending his first caucus, predicts a 65-35% win for Obama. When I ask why, he tells me to look at all the Obama stickers. He's right, there are quite a few Obama stickers running around, but no Clinton ones.

A sign is posted on a pole in a corner of the cafeteria heavy with Clinton supporters, which reads: "Welcome to Clinton Country."

Michael Brennan, a Democratic hopeful for the U.S. House of Representatives, walks into the cafeteria and makes the rounds.

Rick Goss is at the podium and informs the caucus-goers that the caucus will start in five minutes. He apologizes for the delay and says it's been "total chaos, and it's not because we're Democrats."

Rick Goss declares "we're ready to go" and seems to be relieved that his job as designated staller is over. About fifteen people are still waiting to register in the hallway.

Adam Cote, another Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, walks by.

Ethan Strimling is introduced and greeted with hearty applause. He immediately launches into his speech about ending the war in Iraq and closing the yawning gap between the rich and the middle class. He closes by touting his work at the Portland West community center as the reason he's the best Democratic candidate for the U.S. House

Michael Brennan receives a less enthusiastic response from the crowd than did Strimling. He opens with his speech by reminding the crowd about his service as one of Westbrook's state senators a couple years ago and he talks about his son, a firefighter and EMT at the Westbrook Fire Department. He closes with the reasons he's the best Democratic candidate for the U.S. House.

The line in the hallway has finally dissipated, so I check in with Lynda Adams and Kathy Jones to see if they have a tally of the number of participants. Neither Adams nor Jones have any idea, but both seem relieved the line is gone. State Senator Phil Bartlett (D-Cumberland), one of Westbrook's two state senators, enters the cafeteria.

Adam Cote takes the lectern next and tells the crowd the last time he was in the Westbrook High School cafeteria was just before his unit was deployed to Iraq. He points to his service in Iraq as a signficant reason why he should be elected to the U.S. House and says that unlike his opponents, he is not a career politician. He closes his speech with a prediction that the upcoming campaign will be positive and issue-oriented.

Phil Bartlett speaks on behalf on Congressman Allen and opens by saying Allen's contest against Senator Susan Collins will be close. He said the early conventional wisdom was that Allen didn't have much of a chance against Collins, but pointed to recent fundraising figures as evidence that the race has and will become more contentious.

Jacqueline Murphy stumps on behalf of Senator Hillary Clinton. Murphy points to Senator Clinton's gender, her support for universal single-payer healthcare, and her ability to make change on "day one" as the reasons she is supporting Senator Clinton. She also said that Senator Clinton has been committed to providing fuel assistance to Mainers and closes her speech by saying she's supporting Clinton not only because Clinton is a woman, but also because Clinton's been "tested and is ready to go."

Phil Bartlett is introduced to speak on behalf of Senator Clinton and opens his speech with a joke that it's his goal to speak so often at the caucus that the crowd will grow sick of him. Bartlett then relates how he came to support Senator Clinton after looking into the eyes of his baby daughter and deciding Senator Clinton was the best candidate to deliver the American Dream. He closed by touting Clinton's ecomonic, energy, and healthcare policies.

Westbrook City Councilor, Brendan Rielly, stumps on behalf of Senator Barack Obama. He's greeted with thunderous applause and jokes that he appreciates the warm welcome. It's obvious, however, that the applause is for Obama, and it is quickly clear who has more supporters in the room. Rielly opens his speech by highlighting the absence of Bob Carrier, a fixture at these events who was unable to attend today for health reasons. Then Rielly summarizes Obama's biography (Kenyan father, Kansan mother, skinny boy with a funny name, etc.) and talks about Obama's experience as a community organizer in Chicago in the 1980s. He closes by saying it's time to stick it to the "slicers and dicers of the Republican Party and the right-wing nutjobs." Applause abounds.

Rick Goss is nominated and seconded as caucus moderator. No votes takes place, but it is decided he will have the job. Ann Peoples is nominated and seconded to be the caucus secretary and is approved, again without a vote. Goss instructs Ward 5 voters to remain in the cafeteria, voters from wards 3 and 4 to go to the auditorium, and voters from wards 1 and 2 to report to the Warren Centennial Gymnasium.

Voters from wards one and two are returning from the gym. Apparently there's a 3v3 basketball tournament taking place in the gym, so the voters have been redirected to the hallway upstairs.

Supporters of Barack Obama from Ward One are gathered into Room 225.

Ward Two supporters of Barack Obama have lined up along the wall to the right of Room 222, Clinton supporters from that ward have lined up along the wall to the left of that room. It's relatively chaotic and State Representative Tim Driscoll (D-Westbrook) is forced to recount a couple times.

Ward One supporters of Hillary Clinton have gathered in Room 223. There are obviously fewer people in this room than there are in Room 225.

Meanwhile in the auditorium, Wards Three and Four are seated according to ward. Voters are counting off aloud to get a total tally, but recounts are required.

Ward Five voters have segregated themselves by candidate, but they're still waiting for someone to lead the caucus process.

Ward Two evidently is done voting, as they have been dismissed and most are streaming toward the exits.

Ward Five starts their count. Lynda Adams closes the doors to the cafeteria so that the Ward 5 results won't be confused by voters from other wards coming in to retrieve their belongings. People from wards that are done voting are gathering outside the cafeteria and are waiting for Ward Five to be done.

Ward Five completes its count and there is a loud cheer from Obama supporters once the total results have been tallied.

I check in with Lynda Adams and Kathy Jones to see if they have a final count. They don't, but they do offer a count of newly registered voters and a count of voters who switched parties in order to participate. According to Jones, there were ninety-six such voters.

A huddle has formed around one of the red tables in the cafeteria. Rick Goss and others are counting the absentee ballots and incorporating them into the previous totals from each ward. Only about twenty die-hard politicos are gathered and awaiting the results.

The results are announced: Barack Obama won each ward. Now about ten people have taken out calculators to calculate the number of delegates each candidate has earned to the state convention. By using a formula that consists of taking the number of votes a candidate has earned in a ward, dividing that number by the total votes available in the ward, and multiplying that number by the number of delegates available in each ward (got that?), Rick Goss figures out that Senator Obama earned 26 Westbrook delegates for the state convention, while Hillary Clinton earned 16.

I leave the caucus and all the chaos associated with it. Nearly 2.5 hours and 430 votes later, Barack Obama has won the Westbrook Democratic presidential caucus.

- John C.L. Morgan

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