Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Texas Two-Step: Step Two

As promised, today I bring to you Part 2 of the bizarre story of caucusing for Obama at the Texas Democratic primary in 2008. If you like rodeos, then you’re in the right place, padnah.


Originally written in March 2008

On Saturday morning, I awoke at 4:45 with only one thought in my mind: BARACK. It was time to get up and Barack the vote at the Travis County Democratic Convention.

You might remember that Nick and I were selected as alternate delegates from our precinct to the county convention. We got a phone call a couple of weeks ago letting us know that we had been promoted to full delegate status and that we would need to meet up with the other 66 Barack delegates from our precinct at 6:15am at the HEB. Woohoo! We can sleep when we're dead.

We met our fellow dazed delegates and caught a ride to the Travis County Expo center with a nice couple. The wife turned out to be a freelance copyeditor for UT Press -- SMALL WORLD. We were about a mile away from the expo center when traffic came to a dead stand-still. It took us nearly 45 minutes to make our way up to the expo center, where two traffic attendants were taking their time collecting $5 from each car for parking. Talk about a barrier to voting!

We made it up to the south side of the expo center and discovered multiple lines snaking through the parking line, and numerous people roaming around with hand-made signs with precinct numbers on them. We eventually ascertained that we needed to check in with our precinct leader, get our alternate credentials in long line #1, and then proceed to long line #2 to get our delegate credentials. We knew that we had to be signed in by 10am for our vote to count. From 7:30 to 9:55am, we dutifully stood in our lines and chatted with the folks around us. At 9:55, after much pushing and shoving and elbow-throwing, Nick and I finally clawed our way to the front of the line to sign in for Obama. We cheered triumphantly and smugly looked around at all of the poor chumps who would not be able to sign in. That is, until we saw a hand-written sign proclaiming that sign-in had been extended indefinitely. Gulp.

We knew that we would be waiting until all of the thousands of signatures were hand-tallied, so we decided to walk down the road a mile or so to the closest sign of humanity -- a Conoco gas station. Nick and I set off with Jessi, a friendly girl from our precinct, and picked our way down to the main road and down to the gas station. The traffic situation had evidently become untenable, and the main road, as well as the road leading to the expo center, was littered with abandoned cars. It was like a zombie movie, or the Rapture -- eerie quiet, dozens of empty cars, and confused-looking people wandering around the barren landscape. We reached the Conoco station and bought taquitos and danced to reggaton coming from cars in the parking lot. We were realizing just how much time we were going to have to kill.

We made it back to the expo center a little before noon to begin the Afternoon of Waiting. We sprawled in the lawn in front of the expo center, we napped in the grass, we tossed rocks into holes and shredded blades of grass. It was a lot like this:

Eventually we went inside to begin several hours of Buddhist-style sitting meditation.

The expo center is huge and well-suited for rodeos. But on Saturday, we were herdin' Democrats. The bleachers and chairs on the expo floor were divided up by precinct, and we dutifully took our place with our precinct on the floor. The day's entertainment was an endless parade of local politicians who all gave variations on the same speech: "Is today a great day to be a Democrat in Texas, or what???? WOOOOOOOOOOO!!! We gotta get those Republicans out of office! WOOOOOOOOOOOO." As you might imagine, we began to crave the brief moments of silence between speeches. I entertained myself by watching the sign language interpreter, who signed with such emotion and gusto that I could have understood most of the speeches with earplugs in.

Every so often, someone would assure us that we were mere moments from getting started with our caucus . We knew better. The crowd became restless. The food was expensive and inadequate; it was extremely hot and noisy inside the giant expo center; the lights were all blue generator lights that gave everything a sickly pallor and seemed to give everyone the same headache; the feedback from the microphone created an intense constant background throbbing that must be akin to the sound of being inside a womb. A woman passed out. Someone started the wave and it traveled around and around the expo center, gaining intensity. People would half-heartedly start chants: O-BA-MA versus HIL-LA-RY or just Sí se puede! Sí se puede! By far the highlight of the day was a frazzled father, who approached the podium clutching a screaming baby. "If anyone has Huggies size 3 diapers, please--please approach the podium. Thank you." He was mobbed by concerned-looking woman with diaperbags. Someone snapped a photo of him with his new stack of diapers and still-screaming baby.

Finally, around 5:30, things started happening and we actually conducted our caucus. What anti-climax! We were handed post-it notes by our precinct captain and instructed that we would vote when she held up a clipboard with our number. They predetermined our votes to maximize the number of delegates we got...or something. Basically, we were good little ducklings and we raised our hands when the nice lady told us to.

And then...that was it. We were free! The folks who drove us over decided to stay until the bitter end and sign up to be at-large delegates. We didn't know what that meant and we did not care to stick around to find out. I grabbed literally the next person who walked by who was wearing our precinct teeshirt and begged a ride back to town from her. We ended up piling 5 deep in the cab of a pick-up with two seats. On the way home, we rolled down the windows and shouted platitudes to other Obama folks. We also bypassed approximately two miles of cars lined up patiently, waiting to turn right, and at the last minute cut in front of a lagging car. I had spent all day hating the people who were cutting in line ahead of me, but I was so thankful that the stranger driving the truck decided to be a jerk. All the sooner to come home and collapse in exhaustion.

--31 March 2008, Austin, Texas

And that, my friends, is how I helped get Obama elected: by shredding blades of grass outside of a rodeo arena in Texas for twelve hours. I suppose there are many ways to get something like that accomplished. Sí se puede, y'all!

Discussion Question:
What’s your favorite way to get involved in the political process?

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Texas Two-Step Primary: Nominating a Presidential Candidate the Crazy Way

Last week, Texas held their 2012 primary for the Republican presidential candidate. I don’t think much of anyone noticed, since Mitt has got the nomination on lock.

In 2008, the primary situation in Texas was very different. Obama and Hillary Clinton were in the midst of a fierce battle for the nomination, and the large number of delegates out of Texas meant that the Lone Star State became the focus of much attention from both candidates. If you were a Democrat, it was an amazing time to live in Austin. I got to see both Barry O. and Hill speak live at a rally following one of the debates, and I even got to see Bill Clinton give a stump speech from the back of a pickup truck in the parking lot of the Clinton campaign headquarters. Should I have given into my considerable desire to throw my panties at any of the three of them, I was close enough to hit them easily. It was a magical time.

But the most exciting part of the whole election was the primary. If you ain’t never done the Texas Two-Step, then boy, you don’t know how we do things in a democratic republic. Please enjoy this piece I originally wrote in 2008 about the strange little process we call the

originally written in March 2008

In Texas, for some reason, everyone gets two votes in the Democratic primary. Once you vote in the primary, you are eligible to vote in the caucus as well. The primary accounts for 2/3 of the vote, and the caucus for 1/3. Here's how it works:

-Each precinct gets a set number of delegates.
-After the primaries close, voters are invited to return to their voting place and sign their name on a sheet of paper in support of their presidential candidate.
-After everyone has signed their names, each party selects three supporters of each candidate to conduct independent counts of the signatures.
-While the count is being conducted, the precinct votes on resolutions sent in by members of the community to send on to the Texas state legislature.
-Once the signatures are counted, the precinct delegates are assigned in proportion to the number of signatures for each candidate.
-Then supporters of each candidate organize and assign one person to fill each delegate slot assigned to their candidate, and then one alternate for each delegate. Each delegate must come to a day-long convention later in the month to cast their votes.

So Nick and I set off last night on our bikes to our voting place, an elementary school about a mile away. Nick's friend Tyler texted him that the lines would be long and we should bring a book. We took heed and stopped and got Goldfish crackers and M&Ms in lieu of an actual dinner. We got there and found that the voting line still stretched out the door and down the sidewalk, and that the caucus line was already about 100 people deep.

We took our place and noticed that behind us, instead of lining up into the parking lot, the line was creeping out into the street. There were families with strollers standing in the middle of the road! I called out that maybe it would make some sense to run the line into the parking lot. Everyone moved, and it's a good thing -- another 400+ people showed up for a total over 500 in our little precinct! For comparison, only 35 showed up to the 2004 presidential caucus.

We stood in line for 2.5 hours. It was chilly and we were hungry but we made friends with the folks around us line. We looked at constellations and talked about politics and really managed to have a lot of fun with our neighbors. About an hour in, some fellow pulled out of the parking lot across the street too fast and smashed into a Volkswagen that was sort of hanging out into the driveway. He smoked a cigarette, paced around, talked on the phone, and then left. About half an hour later, the owner of the Volkswagen came out, gave the car a quick look, and drove away. It was pretty wtf because the car looked like it was smashed up pretty bad.

We finally got inside and signed our names and were turning to leave when I spotted Lyric, my favorite student from my TAship with Doug Parker. She cried out, "Katie! You can't leave! Our precinct gets 90 delegates [one of the highest numbers in the county] and we have to have at least 180 people here to be delegates and alternates!" Nick and I sighed, looked at our watches (9:45pm now), and turned back around and went inside.

There were clearly less than 180 people sitting in the small elementary school auditorium. There was a tiny old TV playing MSNBC, flashing maps of the state of Texas flashing TOO CLOSE TO CALL, TOO CLOSE TO CALL. The Hillary supporters gathered in the back corner of the room and the Obama supporters took over the rest of the auditorium, as we were the majority by 3:1. We had to nominate someone to conduct the caucus, a caucus secretary, and a speaker, as well as three counters from each camp to count the signatures. This, as you can imagine, in a room full of people only vaguely familiar with parliamentary procedure, took a considerable amount of time. We sent them off to count signatures and settled in to vote on the 40 precinct resolutions on the table.

In the course of an hour and a half or so, our precinct voted to send resolutions to the State of Texas legislature to:

-decriminalize marijuana/stop the war on drugs
-pull out of Iraq by the end of 2009
-support a national rail system and make public transportation and walkability a top priority
-to give all state employees the same percentage raise and to adjust the figures for inflation
-to make discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation illegal

…and several other things I can't remember. The proceedings were so informal and only loosely followed parliamentary procedure. There was a lot of yelling and laughing and I basically could not believe it was an official government proceeding. We got a lot accomplished, but we did it with all of the parliamentary acumen of this golden retriever:

We didn't even get halfway through the resolutions before our counters came back with the results. We needed 68 delegates for Obama and 22 for Hill. We split up and for whatever reason it took over half an hour get everything settled and get Nick and I signed up to be alternate delegates. It looks like our precinct is going to be fine for both candidates in terms of delegates -- the Obama campaign already had a number of people lined up who had to go home before 11:30pm when they finally started electing delegates. IMAGINE THAT!

Nick and I left after that. I imagine a couple of die-hards stuck around to finish out the resolutions.

anyway, 4.5 hours later, this was the most exciting, most hands-on exercise of my democratic rights that I have ever experienced as an American. so exciting!

--5 March 2008, Austin, TX

It's not over yet, folks! What do rodeo arenas, taquitos, and size 3 Huggies have to do with Obama’s winning presidential campaign in 2008? Check back later this week to read about mine and Nick’s experience serving as precinct delegates for our county caucus to find out.

Discussion Question:
Discuss a time you exercised your rights.