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Saturday caucus a raucus affair

Democrats turn out in droves to back their candidates.

Nearly 1,600 Democrats, 50 percent more than even the highest expectations, gathered to caucus at four island locations Saturday.

“The crush in numbers was phenomenal,” said Tom Kilbane, Bainbridge caucus organizer and 23rd District Democrats chair. “I have had several Republicans tell me that they never voted Democrat before in their lives, but are (going to) in this election.

“The most ironic thing is, somebody came to me and said ‘this is my first caucus,’ and I said, ‘me too!’”

With the Washington primary election cancelled, Democrats caucused statewide to choose a presidential nominee.

At stake were precinct-level delegates who would be sent on to upcoming legislative and congressional district caucuses, their numbers at each step being winnowed to those who will decide the nominee at the June 5 Democratic National Convention in Boston, Mass.

On Bainbridge, 22 precincts met with overflow turnouts.

Sen. John Kerry took the top spot in Washington with 48 percent, although he earned just 43 percent of island delegates.

Islanders gave Howard Dean 28 percent of delegates, compared to 30 percent statewide.

Dennis Kucinich supporters outshined their peers statewide, giving him 20 percent of delegates here compared to 8 percent statewide.

At Ordway, turnout for three precincts was so high that one was moved from the cafeteria into a hallway to meet.

Kilbane reported that as a “plan B,” he secured three more rooms at Woodward School. David Harrison, former chair of the 23rd legislative district, who was at Woodward, told Kilbane afterwards, “Thank god you did that, because we used them.”

Precinct 301, one of the island’s largest, was put in the library as an afterthought; 129 people flooded the meeting room built for 120.

At the American Legion Hall, one of three precincts had to move across the street to the Hyla Middle School for lack of space.

The prediction by caucus veterans of a “messy but lively” event was borne out by the scene at precinct 301’s meeting.

By 9:55 a.m., the Bainbridge Library parking lot was starting to fill as others converged on foot. A few minutes after the 10 a.m. start, there was a line out the door.

“It’s pretty fun watching how many are here. The high energy is great,” said Betty Wiese, attending her first caucus. “I mostly want to come show the Republicans that there are a lot of people not behind them.

“I want to vote to be counted, but I’ll support whomever the Democrats pick.”

Participants signed in and indicated which candidate they were voting for. Flyers promoted possible party planks, including support for the recovery of wild salmon in Washington and the Northwest.

A stream of people continued to sign in right up to the 10:30 a.m. cut-off. Lin Kamer-Walker, precinct 301 officer, read through caucus rules and the party platform as audience members offered wordsmithing advice.

“Last time there were about a dozen at the caucus, so this is just fantastic,” Kamer-Walker said. “People here have come prepared, and (we’re) seeing people who have never attended before. It’s nice to see people excited about voting.”

At 10:41 a.m., Kamer-Walker called the room to attention, declaring the turnout of 129 a record for the precinct, to rousing applause from listeners.

She announced the initial tally to a breathless room, waiting to hear which candidates had garnered 19 votes to make the 15 percent threshold to earn at least one of the precinct’s 11 delegates.

The initial tally was Wesley Clark (6), Dean (26), John Edwards (3), Kerry (40), Kucinich (28), Joe Lieberman (0), Al Sharpton (0), and undecided (26).

Kamer-Walker then suggested voters break into groups by candidate, and an unintentionally ominous, “for the Undecideds, what we want to do is ask you to step outside into the hallway,” she said, to great peals of laughter from the audience. “So that we can more readily identify you.”

Neat rows of seats became chaotic clusters of chairs as people moved to their candidates’ corners.

Proponents of Kerry, Dean and Kucinich followed the Undecideds into the hallway in hopes of pulling in more votes. Some also appealed to fellow Undecideds to stay that way and send an undecided delegate on to the legislative district caucus.

“I’m wanting to keep as many of the planks of the Kucinich and Dean camp as active and alive as possible,” said Steve Powell, an undecided voter, “and my impression is that a delegate from this group can remain flexible to help at the next levels up.”

By 11:23 a.m. the Undecideds were one shy of the 19 needed to get a delegate.

Jay Larson, an Undecided, voted for John McCain in 2000, but said he now was voting Democrat, “because I think the Bush administration is one of the most dangerous elected. I’m appalled at the foreign policy decisions and concerned about the way decisions are made behind the scenes.”

A party-like din of voices filled the room. Like-minded supporters spontaneously formed groups, enjoying the camaraderie of talking to people equally passionate about their candidates.

“Democracy in action, caucuses forever!” Dick Dunbar declared. “I’ve gone every time since ’68. It’s always messy, but that’s what’s great, because people talk about things, (and) not just punching a card.”

Suddenly at 11:40 a.m., there was a mad scramble as Undecideds realized they could not get the requisite 19 and returned to the sign-in table to switch their votes to a candidate.

At exactly noon, Kamer-Walker read the final results for the precinct:

Dean (34 votes, three delegates), Kerry (61 votes, five delegates), and Kucinich (36 votes, three delegates).

With delegates allocated, each of the camps then reconvened to vote for delegates and an equal number of alternates to go to the legislative caucus on April 24 in Bremerton by show of hands.

Most caucuses did not wrap up until well after the scheduled noon deadline.

When Kilbane met with the precinct committee officers after 12:30 p.m. at Ordway, he reported them all looking slightly stunned.

“Thanks for your patience and help, and see you in November,” Kilbane said.

Leaving the caucus, Democrat Diane Spengler said, “I was invigorated and hopeful about having a part in the democratic process, because lately I haven’t felt that my government was representing my opinions.

“I felt empowered. I got my voice back in my government.”

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