Caucuses expected to draw big crowds



South Whidbey Record

Ed Bennett has a spotless voting record that stretches back 58 years.

But the Freeland man has never been to a political caucus.

This weekend, he’ll go to his first. And for Washington voters — and the candidates for president — the state’s caucuses on Saturday mark the first time Washington will have a direct impact on the two people who will top the ticket come November.

“I am seventy-something. I’ve never missed a vote in my entire life,” Bennett said.

For him, the Democratic caucus at South Whidbey High School will be a new experience.

“This one has piqued my interest a lot,” Bennett said. “I discovered with a little research that voting in the primary does not determine the delegate selection. Nothing is established by the primary vote.”

“I had never realized that before. I believe many don’t know,” he added.

Officials in both political parties said this year’s presidential race has created an interest unseen in earlier years. A record turnout is expected as many voters want to make their voices heard.

“I am not really happy with the direction we’ve been going,” Bennett said. “I moved from Republican to Democrat leanings and we’re looking at two very qualified candidates.”

Caucuses are democracy in action, said Hal Seligson, a Democrat precinct officer for Langley.

“It’s just wonderful,” Seligson said. “More people are involved in democracy with a small d. Of course, we hope they vote for Democrats with a big D in November,” he said.

As a first-time caucus participant, Seligson said he is looking forward to heading his precinct’s caucus discussion table.

“I am really excited about the whole idea of possibly directly selecting the next president. As they say, politics is not a spectator sport,” he said.

Decisions, decisions

Whidbey Island voters are ready to haggle over their candidate of choice.

“Saturday is the day I’ve waited for my entire life. It’s not just because Hillary is a woman and I am a woman,” said Mary Sandford, who has been drumming up support for New York Sen. Hillary Clinton on the South End.

Sandford has observed Clinton’s career since the 1970s and she is ready to convince other voters today.

“I’ll try to talk to people as much as I can about the Hillary I know. The Hillary I know is a woman who cares so much about all people in this country.

“The Hillary I know is not the Hillary the mass media likes to vilify,” she added.

Sandford said she values Clinton for her work ethic and knowledge of the political system.

“The Hillary I know is caring and compassionate, yet tough. She knows how to work the system,” Sandford said. “It’s time America has a president that works as hard as we do.”

Sandford and other South End supporters traveled to the mainland Thursday to hear Clinton speak to more than 5,000 people on Seattle’s waterfront.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama also held events in Seattle and Republican frontrunner John McCain visited Washington as well.

Diane Jhueck has been leading efforts on behalf of the Obama campaign.

“For me, Obama is a statesman instead of a politician,” Jhueck said.

She won’t take an aggressive approach to convince others of Obama’s qualities, however. Jhueck said she will answer questions and hopes people will find their personal reasons why Obama is right for president.

His momentum has grown on Whidbey Island, Jhueck said. Since she has begun drumming up support, at least 42 other South Enders have joined her and are actively campaigning for Obama.

“I am just enjoying this whole thing,” Jhueck said.

“I used to be a very political person when I was younger. This, no matter which candidate wins, will be a historical moment,” she added.

Romney is out

The news that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney suspended his presidential campaign shook up the contest for the Republican nomination Thursday, a contest that was largely dominated by the question of how conservative the party’s candidate should be.

With Romney out of the picture, some conservatives lost a favorite.

Bill Carruthers, a Republican precinct worker from Deer Lake, was surprised at Romney’s decision.

“I thought he had a chance to make a difference,” Carruthers said. “I still don’t think McCain has it all wrapped up yet.”

Carruthers said he hopes lots of people show for his party’s caucus today at Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland.

“Four years ago, there wasn’t much of a turnout, maybe one or two from each precinct; it was pretty quiet because we knew who the nominee would be,” he said.

Kathy Jones, chair of Island County’s Republican Central Committee, also seemed disappointed about Romney’s decision.

“I would think a viable candidate would want to wait until the convention to withdraw,” Jones said.

“He loses the chance to influence the convention and the party’s platform. But I appreciate the personal sacrifice Romney has made to help the Republicans win in November,” Jones added.

South Whidbey Republican Ray Gabelein was hoping the nominating process would continue through the convention.

“I wanted to hear more about what the candidates had to say on the issues,” Gabelein said. “The more discussion and debate, the better it is for voters.”

Mary Jane Aurdal plans to be at the Republican caucus in Freeland. She recalled the feeling four years ago when Pres. Bush was seeking a second term.

“The caucus then was considerably simpler,” she said. “We already knew we were dedicated to re-electing George Bush.”

High turnout expected

With so much at stake, organizers have worked overtime to get ready for the five caucuses on Whidbey Island. Two more caucuses for Island County will be held on Camano Island.

Duane Fulgham, caucus coordinator for the South End Democrats, said his team expects more than 1,000 people at South Whidbey High School.

South End Democrats set a record when 813 people attended the 2004 caucus.

“We’re ready,” Fulgham said. “Since the nomination was not resolved on Super Tuesday, we have a feeling there will be a lot of people.”

The party has prepared materials for more than 1,000 people.

“But we could be really surprised,” Fulgham said.

Beverly Potter, the Democratic caucus coordinator in Oak Harbor, said the Democrats expect a large turnout in the usual Republican stronghold that is North Whidbey.

Organizers expect a record 300 people.

“Sounds to me like it will be a little crowded,” Potter said.

“Oak Harbor has grown so much since the last caucus with new development. Everybody is interested with so much media attention. People are concerned about the world as a whole,” she said. “It’s not just Whidbey and Oak Harbor anymore. It’s immigration, the economy, the war.”

The caucus starts at 1 p.m. at the South Whidbey High School in Langley, as well as locations in Oak Harbor and Coupeville.

Jones is getting ready for her party’s caucus beginning at 1 p.m. in the auditorium at Oak Harbor Christian School, 675 East Whidbey Ave.

Interest is high

Island County Republicans will be meeting to elect delegates to the county convention on March 22 and to discuss platform issues.

The excitement level for this year’s caucus, at least before the news about Romney came in, is high.

“I’m getting lots of calls and e-mails from people interested in the process both from party regulars and first-time voters,” Jones said. “I don’t know how the Romney announcement will affect the turnout yet.”

“I’ve also been getting calls from parents asking if they can bring their high school-age children. That’s very encouraging.”

Jones said young people are welcome as observers.

The interest by Democratic voters is huge.

Fulgham said he has been topping 20 to 25 calls per day since Super Tuesday. Party chairman Marshall Goldberg said he has been getting at least one call per hour for the past week, mostly newcomers to the world of caucusing.

“Probably because the race has boiled down to two candidates on the Democrats’ side and nothing has been decided,” Goldberg said. “Now people think Washington’s results make a difference.”

Several other states including Louisiana and Nebraska are holding Democratic contests on Saturday. But Washington — with its 97 Democratic delegates, including 80 who will be selected through the caucuses and state convention — has nearly twice as much at stake as those two states combined.

“The South End should be humming the most,” Goldberg said. “That’s where all the Democrats are.”

Outcome open

Fulgham said he has no idea if South Whidbey will sway to one particular candidate.

“I haven’t seen any data,” he said. “The Clinton folks are well-organized on Whidbey Island, but the appeal of Obama is strong.”

“There is a fair amount of passion on both the Obama and Clinton camp,” Fulgham added. “But I expect the South End folks to conduct themselves properly. I think it will be an orderly affair,” he added.

Jones, too, expects a busy but friendly event.

Jones noted the Democrats are holding their caucus across the street at North Whidbey Middle School in Oak Harbor but doesn’t expect any political fireworks between the two camps.

“Some of my best friends are Democrats,” Jones joked.

Democracy in action

The caucus process is simple for all voters: When registered voters arrive at their caucus they must sign in and declare their party affiliation and agree not to participate in anyone else’s caucus.

They will also declare the candidate they support.

Fulgham explained that voters will have a chance to speak on behalf of their preferred candidate and people can then change their minds about their selection. Discussion is encouraged.

Jones said the Republicans expect a lively debate.

“We hope they’ll sit down and discuss with their neighbors the party platform including important issues such as the war, economy, taxes, immigration, education, the environment and so forth,” Jones said.

Participants are also encouraged to write up resolutions they want to see included in the platform.

The GOP won’t officially support a single candidate until the national convention. They will be electing delegates to the GOP county convention.

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