Friday, March 7, 2008

Texas Two-Step

830 PM: I had just escorted Maria Hernandez to and from her caucus site at Austin High School in north El Paso. Headquarters was as empty as I had seen it as most of the volunteers were still caucusing. I walked back to the phone banks where our lawyer and logistics captain were locked in a heated discussion.

“We have got to get a packet out to 1xx as quickly as possible,” Kate, the lawyer, said.

“I don’t have a car for you,” Christian said.

“I’ve got a car,” I said, walking up behind them.

“Then take this down,” Kate said.

She gave me the name of our precinct captain, Oscar ______ who was supposedly on site, a phone number and an address. Christian, a hulking wise-guy from Flushing, Queens, scrambled to get me directions.

“Make sure you get this packet directly in to Oscar’s hands,” Kate said. “Don’t let anyone else touch it. Watch them do the count if they’ll let you.”

In the matter of 90 minutes the Texas two-step had taken me 360 degrees. Early reports of egregious voting fraud committed by local Obama supporters left the staffers wary of a dirty fight in the state of Texas. Around noon several of our precinct captains began calling with reports that Obama partisans had obtained the caucus packets from the precinct judges. These packets were critical to running the caucus as they contained the voter sign-in sheets used to tally the caucus goers, the minutes and instructions, the worksheets for computing the number of delegates, and the reporting procedures that included the all important green sheet with a secret pin code necessary to dial in the delegate count. By late afternoon we had received complaints in 15 locations in El Paso and the surrounding towns. In a couple of cases the people who had stolen the packets were signing people into the caucus that afternoon as they left the primary. The advantage gained, of course, was that these voters would not need to come back to their precinct for the caucus if they had already signed in.

The Obama campaign had officially pulled out of El Paso a week before the primary and hadn’t conducted the caucus trainings the Clinton camp ran all week. His supporters generally had little knowledge about the caucus process. The one thing they did seem to know was to get their hands on those green sheets.

A couple of these folks will almost certainly be going to jail. One supporter who had asked for and received the packet in the afternoon had removed the green sheet before caucus began. This man then waited until after the caucus and phoned in the results, flipping the delegate count to Obama’s favor. Another supporter had been dumb enough to phone in all the delegates from his precinct in favor for Obama. In a city where Clinton won over 70 percent of the popular vote, and won virtually every caucus, there is one precinct that has reported 100 percent of its delegates for Obama. Not even the Texas legislature could gerrymander that well. That this same fraud, stealing the green sheets, was attempted other several times suggests that someone was telling these people what to do if they got their hands on the packet. I am NOT suggesting that anyone in the Obama campaign had a hand in this. The less appealing side of a grassroots campaign are the neophyte participants turned zealots who lose sight of the spirit of the Democratic process and have little regard for the rule of law.

I didn’t have all the details that afternoon, but I was a part of the fire drill team that contacted every Hillary precinct captain in the county and encouraged them to get to their polling site, contact the judge, and make sure that he or she understood the rules that clearly state the caucus materials are to remain in their hands until 715 or until the last voter at the precinct casts his ballot in the primary.

So I was expecting the worst at the precinct I attended with Maria. Yet the caucus at Austin High School was more lithium convention than the rowdy pep rally we had promised our supporters. There were certainly no shenanigans. The mostly Latino and elderly crowd sat quietly in the school cafeteria, signed the caucus rolls. Maria looked nervous. Nearly 75, she did not speak English and did not trust my Spanish. So I would tell Graciela what was being said at the front of the room and she would translate for Maria.

The caucus goers nominated the election official present to chair the meeting. Then the woman who had passed the sign in sheets was nominated secretary, though tried several times to refuse. The old people took a long time to sign the forms, and those who only spoke Spanish even longer. The print was small and the Spanish speakers were rightly wary sign a document without a proper explanation. Maria and I sat and waited next to Jose and Graciela Sanchez, a 60 something bilingual couple native to El Paso.

“Why do we have to vote twice?” Jose said, looking at me. “We sure have a strange system in Texas.”

“Shut up. You just be glad you have the right to vote,” Graciela said to her husband. “You just be quiet, you Communist.”

But I thought Jose had asked a good question, one I hadn’t heard a good answer for. Why do these people have to vote twice in a day?

I watched the count, more curious for the results than anything, and the chair read off a steady stream of Clintons occasionally interrupted by an Obama.

Then they filled in the formulas (see explanation on Day 3 report). The final result was 77-14 for Clinton, which netted her eight delegates to Obama’s one.

The chair chose delegates and alternates from the caucus goers. Two Obama people quickly volunteered.

“Cohen, that’s a Jewish name,” Graciela said, nodding to the table with the Obama delegate. “Damn Jews.”

Her husband shrugs. Limited sample size, but Clinton seems to be doing well with the McCarthyist, anti-semite vote.

Graciela wanted to be a delegate for Clinton, but so did a good number of the other elderly supporters. She lost three coin flips and ended up an alternate.

I took Maria home. She had been my only passenger of the day. My van netted one extra caucus vote. Though without Maria's signature, Obama would have picked up another delegate in her precinct, So I scored it 127 bucks for one precinct delegate. This is not what I had expected. I had gotten up at sunrise to pick up the van I had promised the campaign for the get out the vote drive. I had asked the coordinator Monday if there was a need for additional transportation, and he was very enthusiastic to have the extra capacity, that yes, there was a great need for a van. When I rolled into the headquarters Tuesday I was told by the same person that I wouldn’t be asked to drive until “the caucus shift”, meaning they didn’t need me to drive anyone to the polls.

So it wasn’t until 830, and the pandemonium at precinct 1xx, that I was jazzed to be speeding down the dark city streets of El Paso. I kept looking down at the map resting on my thighs. It was a ten-mile drive southeast to the elementary school holding the caucus where Oscar was waiting for me to deliver a copy of the minutes and caucus instructions they hadn’t been able to find in the official packet. It seemed impossible I could drive this far south without crossing into Mexico. Then I noticed the fence on my right running parallel to the street. I was 100 yards from the Mexican border. I called Oscar, and told him to meet me outside.

There were only a handful of cars left in the parking lot at Chavez Elementary. Oscar met me and led me into the gym, where a dozen people were sitting in folding chairs and two women stood at a podium with signature sheets and the papers with the caucus formulas. No contention, angry supporters, or battling for the minutes now in Oscars hand. The scene was almost too tranquil. They had called the office as much for a helper as for materials.

Patricia, who had been elected chair of the caucus, had no idea how to fill out the forms or award the delegates. She handed me a list of the signed in caucus goers and asked me if I could compute the formulas and fill out the paperwork.

“No, I can’t do that,” I said. I explained that I was an out of state observer and a volunteer for Hillary Clinton. The only thing I could do was to observe the caucus. Fortunately, the instructions were straightforward once I suggested to her where she start reading. Then to the delegate math. Oscar, Patricia and her quiet friend made a go at the the formula. Fortunately the math was not that complicated, nor in this case necessary. This had not been a contested caucus. Of the 105 people on the caucus sheets, there were only four Obama supporters. Since there were 15 delegates to be awarded in the precinct, it would have taken seven supporters for the Obama group to form a caucus. Since they hadn’t met this threshold, Obama did not have enough support to earn a delegate from the precinct. The only problem reported at this precinct was the case of a Clinton supporter whom the record shown having voted early but was not allowed to caucus by the precinct judge. Her vote would have made it 102-4.

It was painful watching Patricia and Oscar lumber through the formula and the minutes sheet, especially knowing that the returns would be flowing in by now from the primary. I wanted to get to the party surely underway at headquarters. I had a good feeling that if the level of Clinton support in El Paso was reflective of the support in the border towns south and east along the fence that ran behind this school all the way down to Brownsville, Hillary would pull out a victory in Texas.

But this scene at Chavez Elementary was the caucus. Oscar and Patricia fumbling through the Texas Two Step that only a handful of people understood how and no one could explain the why.

I dialed into NPR on the way back up the border. Clinton had won in Ohio and was pulling ahead in the primary tally here in Texas. Time to pull some Clintonista ass.

And as Jose and later my father pointed out, I can one day tell my grandchildren about my bit part in the Texas Two-Step. Click Here to Read More..