My night caucusing in Cedar Rapids, Iowa

January 4, 2012

I think I must have gone to the somnambulist caucus. It was at Grant Wood Elementary School in Cedar Rapids, precinct #42. Another precinct was meeting up in the cafeteria somewhere, but we were down in a brightly lit little gym that also served as a theater. In the right hand front corner, a huge hand crank waited for somebody to pull up the basketball backboard to get a full view of the stage.

That wasn’t necessary on caucus night here, though. Wearing a red sweater, local realtor Ken Koch (pronounced “Cook”) shuffled to the microphone at the podium in front of the stage at exactly 7 p.m. and, after identifying himself as just a volunteer, said that as soon as everyone was signed in, they’d begin. 

The crowd was young and old, families and couples, singles, a handful of toddlers and an all-male cluster of Ron Paul supporters. There was nary a person of color, except me (and I pass, so ... ) and barely a murmur in the room. The caucus was fairly full but far from packed. My father-in-law and I strolled in a 6:55 and easily found two seats together in the third row.

At 7:10, Koch was back, going over the order of business, which required that the caucus elect a chairman and secretary. “My wife and I went to training for chairman and secretary,” he allowed a little sheepishly, then asked if anyone else was interested in the job. There wasn’t even a ripple. “All right, well, we don’t have to follow all the rules,” Koch said, grinning, and with a chorus of ays to affirm him, he formalized the job he was already doing. There were no nays.

Next, the the Lincoln Bag was passed around, a little bit of fundraising for the Linn County GOP. “Just like in church,” Koch said after getting a pair of volunteers, Wendell and Mary -- Koch seemed to know everyone by first name -- to go row by row with envelopes. 

“Ten percent of your income,” kidded Mary. And somebody behind me whispered, “Must be a Romney supporter.”

Then Koch called for volunteers to pass out the ballots for the presidential race, little squares about the size of a Post-It.

“There are ten candidates on the ballot, one from California,” Koch said. “I don’t know that we’ll see speakers for all of ‘em.” Speakers had only three minutes for their presentation.

Then Koch called out for someone to speak for Michelle Bachman. Silence.

“Herman Cain?” More silence.

“Newt Gingrich?” Koch waited an extra beat. Continued silence.

“Jon Huntsman?” Nada.

“Ron Paul,” Koch finally said, almost relieved to hand the microphone over to a very stiff and pale young man wearing a red Ron Paul t-shirt.

Reading from prepared remarks, he highlighted Paul’s qualities.”He’s never flip flopped,” he said, utterly affectless. “He supports the right to bear arms.” He mentioned the Federal reserve, the debt, and underscored Paul’s strong fundraising from military vets. “He’ll eliminate five departments without cutting Social Security, Defense or Veteran’s Affairs.”

When he was done, he lumbered back to his seat, as expressionless as when he walked up, accompanied by polite applause for about half the distance. 

By then, Koch was calling on the next candidate’s speaker.

“Rick Perry?”

A fleet-footed man, short in stature, wearing an “I’m caucusing for Perry” t-shirt over a dress shirt came to the podium and quickly listed Perry’s credentials: He’ll cut taxes, he’s for the 2nd Amendment, he has a bold tax reform plan, he’ll secure the borders. “He’s signed more pro-life legislation than anyone else,” he said. He thanked the caucusers for listening then raced back to his seat,. Again, polite applause trailed him. (After the caucus ended, Koch complimented the man on giving his speech without cue cards.)

“Mitt Romney?” Koch called.

An older gentleman, a tall man who looked an awful lot like Ichabod Crane, got up from his third row seat and ambled to the podium. He had no notes either but it showed in his case. After several false starts, he got to his point.

“As Republicans, we want a true conservative. But sometimes perfection is the enemy of good enough,” he said. “We have to stop Obama and the spread of socialism. Romney’s good enough to get the independent vote.” There was, again, polite applause.

“Rick Santorum?” Koch called out before the Romney supporter had sat back down. 

I thought, maybe this is a Santorum precinct and that’s why the applause has been so tepid and even for each of the speakers. I looked around for the Santorum supporter, but though Koch seemed to give this last candidate an extra beat, the room remained deadly silent.

Koch called for the counting of the ballots, which took place in the back while he killed time at the podium. He asked for a volunteer to work with the Linn County Republican Party Central Committee. But no one responded.

“The convention is great fun. Yes, there are arguments about party planks but it’s such a good time,” he said, trying to convince someone to step up. “You walk out of there feeling really good about being a Republican.”

Finally, someone in back volunteered. Then Koch tried to recruit junior delegates. But no one was interested. And then he tried to drum up interest for delegates to the district and state party conventions, but both those calls went unanswered too.

After checking in on the vote counting, he said the moment had come to suggest planks for the party platform. “But we’re not going to sit here until 11 or 12 arguing about planks,” he asserted. “So you just write them down and we’ll pass them on to the district level, where they’ll deal with that.”

Ichabod Crane raised his hand. “I can say it in a few words,” Ichabod said.

“No, no, you can’t say it but you can write it,” Koch said, then quickly moved for someone to get the man paper and pencil. All in all, he collected four proposed planks, none share with the caucus. 

Then he called for volunteers to the platform committee. After practically pleading, a young man in the back volunteered.

“The organizational committee?” Silence.

“The credentials committee?” More silence.

“The rules committee -- uh, no, only executives of the Republican Party can serve on that one.”

And still the votes weren’t tallied. 

“You know, one of the great things about being an Iowan is meeting the candidates,” Koch waxed. “We met almost every candidate. If you agree with them or not, they’re all fine people. One of the reasons we’re here tonight is to be first in the nation. It’s a great opportunity for Iowa.”

The caucusers sat impassively.

Then, finally, the vote total: “Bachman, 1; Cain, 0; Gingrich, 16; Huntsman, 3; Paul, 46,; Perry, 9; Romney, 74; Santorum, 19.”

And with that the meeting was adjourned. It was 7:45; the whole thing had taken 35 minutes.

 

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