Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Leadership lives at a little Texas caucus

By Carol Gee

Our Texas "Two-Step" Democratic primary was held all day Tuesday, March 4, in the church activities room of a typical little old white Southern Baptist church. This polling place has long served two precincts at the far edge of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Nestled in a 1950's neighborhood, sociologists would define it as "in transition." The church building evidently grew as its members could afford to buy an old house, convert it for worship, and finally add a new sanctuary years later. They are happy to share it with their community.

As is the practice, this polling place was used by both Democrats and Republicans -- Dems on one side of the room, Repubs on the other. The mood of the workers was cordial, attentive to proprieties and helpful. There was nothing at all out of line as far as I could tell, as a former poll worker. Voters shared the small number of curtain-less "booths," but used separate paper ballots (bubbled-in), that we then optically scanned into the counting machine: two more for Obama.

At around 7:00 PM, our two "precinct conventions" (Texas "caucuses" to most readers) were gathering where we had voted earlier in the day. There were probably about 200 of us standing in the dimly lit and chilly parking lot and spilling over onto front lawn of the church. Men and women, old and very young, Black and Hispanic and Anglo -- people were visibly excited to be there, though a bit cold and fairly confused about what to do next.

We were among the lucky precincts, however. A middle-aged man, who had somehow gotten the necessary manila envelope of instructions and forms, volunteered to get us started. He had been through it before, he said. The man got up into the bed of a pickup and called for nominations for leader and secretary of what I now call the "evening festivities." A man behind me was nominated, a woman volunteered to record, the nominee agreed to serve and they were elected by unanimous and enthusiastic voice vote. We then became stalwarts in waiting mode until the last people in line had voted so the polls could close and the primary vote count (what will amount to 65% of the final total) could start.

Neither my "roommate" nor I had dressed for an outside winter evening with bright "Orion" visible overhead. So we made a quick trip home for ear-muffs, heavy coats and a flashlight. Upon our return people were sorting themselves into two precinct groups by asking those nearby the precinct number in which they voted. Because we have done this for over fifty years now, we were able to explain the caucus procedure to those nearby who asked us.

Our two lines stretched to the dark at the street. Voters moved gingerly across the poorly illuminated lawn, avoided the bushes, and moved up the steps to the tiny front porch of the church sanctuary. At the legally correct time, our voter lines began to register as caucus attendees. We moved slowly, getting to know each other. We visited with a young school teacher,so very excited to be involved. She holds a 5th grade "leadership class" in an elementary school in a nearby town. She and her husband, a Republican who was elsewhere, kept in touch on her colorful cell phone.

Under two little porch lights those of us ending the line wrote our names, addresses and for whom we had voted. We borrowed pens and used whatever we could find that was firm enough to support the forms. Blessedly, we were welcomed into the warm church, 72 people "for Clinton" on the right side of the aisle, and 97 of us "for Obama" on the left. I must note that no African-Americans sat across the way. We sat behind a couple who appeared to be professionals who had brought their voting age son to participate.

Filling the leadership roles for the separate Obama and Clinton contingents became the next tasks. A confident and willing African-American woman, whose husband happened to be white, volunteered to chair our very multi-ethnic group. Everybody easily agreed to that. The Clinton people chose their leader in the same volunteering style. Our Chair immediately got to her job. She asked people who would like to attend to stand; those standing along the wall, including our young teacher friend, raised a hand. Amazingly there were the necessary number to send 10 delegates to attend the March 22 County Democratic Convention. The chair gathered her 10 alternates. The Clinton group elected 7 and 7. And we were through and on our way home in a reasonable length of time.

As one trained in the social sciences, I was very struck by how group leadership emerged out of nowhere when they were needed. I was also impressed by how excited the newcomers seemed to be as they joined in something they saw as historic and unprecedented. Texas mirrors the nation in that. I send heartfelt "Congratulations" to Senator Clinton for her Texas primary win and the same to Senator Obama for getting a majority of the caucus delegates.

(Cross-posted at South by Southwest.)

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