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Archive for October 2008

Electioneering, or free speech?

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Electioneering, or Free Speech?

(For the legal word on what the shirt means in Texas, click here.)

It might be getting ugly out there in the balloting for President. A McCain supporter advised me today What Not to Wear. I showed up to vote in the least obvious Obama shirt that I own (the other says “Vote Nov. 4” in Democratic Blue, with Obama/Biden in yellow type), but the logo on my garment today was unmistakable. Especially to the fellow standing at the exit of the voting line at our local grocery, which doubles as an early Travis County voting location here in Texas. I made a point of talking with everyone who was working the election, judge, clerks, volunteers, all while wearing my shirt.

I thought of it like I was wearing a Spurs t-shirt to a basketball game in San Antonio. But when I pass my fellow citizen, he mutters something toward me that includes the word “shit.” I step a few paces along my way, then realize he must have been addressing me. Sure enough, I turn around and see him glaring at me.

I walk back and ask him, “Excuse me, did you just say something to me?”

“You need to take that shit off,” he says, eyeing my shirt. “It’s illegal.”

“So do you think we should take it up with the election judge?” At this suggestion he grows quiet, but the glower is still on his face. “Because we can do that if you want.”

“It’s illegal,” he repeats to me, as certain as any Fox News huckster shouting down a TV guest. At this point his wife, who he’s been waiting for, walks past the two of us and mutters to him, “C’mon.”

He walks alongside his wife and I call out after him, “God bless you.” Because whatever we disagree on, it seems he needs a blessing today. Election turnout has been heavy, which has rarely been a good sign for Republican supporters in years past. His reply to my “God bless you,” muttered over his shoulder, freezes me a little.

“You don’t know enough about God to say that!” And at that, I repeat my blessing to him, a little louder. But I’m rattled, as if I am a Spurs fan wearing a jersey to Boston Garden for a Celtics game.

Our little exit poll exchange has nothing to do with the outcome here in Texas, and both of us probably know that. I live in the Blue Island (Travis County) of a Very Red State. This is no battleground; we haven’t seen either McCain or Obama since March here. No local TV ads, either, or even robo-calls. McCain wins Texas next month, barring a miracle. But both the McCain fellow and I get to have our say today.

And both of us get to wear our shirts, at least at this polling place. The Republicans are now working in battleground states to keep the shirts off the backs of voters, in violation of the First Amendment. But that’s an Amendment that’s been trampled for so long that even as a journalist, making my living for 25 years off that law, that I tire of defending it. We are already hearing about how McCain will lose this election because of the stock market crash, along with the claims of voter registration fraud via ACORN. There are even worse things being said about Obama — (Muslim, not native American, nonsense and slurs) by well-heeled media pros and rank amateurs, according to this month’s Harper’s magazine.

While my fellow citizen sidled away, his Harley-Davidson dress shirt ruffling off his 50-ish frame, I couldn’t help but think there will be some sore losers out there on Nov. 4. It is not electioneering to wear a t-shirt to the voting booth unless a judge tells you to take it off. There’s no state law that defines this, in Texas or anyplace else, yet.

But it could get ugly out there in the next two weeks. Early voting was up 50 percent on Opening Day yesterday in Travis County, a massive increase. Even the election judge at the grocery was boasting of the heavy turnout. That will mean a 75 percent turnout nationally, if the trend holds across the US.

Go vote, and wear whatever you want. But bring another shirt in the car, just in case the First Amendment is getting “shit” upon at your polling place. You might want to remember that everyone knows their own God well enough to offer a blessing, no matter what kind of shirt you display. As for me, I think the US Constitution is enough law to make everybody dump the foul speech — which will keep us all divided — away from the voting sites.

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Written by ronseybold

October 21, 2008 at 9:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A fine caucus mess, thank you

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The evening offered us a few minutes of playing time on the professional’s election court. In the dark of the Texas March 4 night, we Democrats gathered at the Renaissance Retirement Home to help retire our despair about my country. Our country, with the hope of including everybody and ending this Red-Blue state disease. So all 454 of us milled around the high-end rest home in my neighborhood from 7 PM onward, learning what it’s like to participate in a caucus.

The whole process was already ridiculed in the media. Reporters who are more schooled in politics than I claimed the “Texas Two Step” was tough to comprehend, plus a way to put Obama ahead on delegates in a state where he’d likely lose.

Those two theories turned out to be true. It turned out to be even harder to get a warm place to caucus.

The Renaissance facility, which sprawls over a full three blocks, had been adequate for more minor elections. But in 2008 with two popular Democrats tussling in a very close match, both the building and its manager mocked the needs of politics. Few of us were sure of the process, and I felt an undercurrent of fear that one side, Hillary or Obama, would be harried into an unjust portion of the rest home to caucus. Three different people made announcements in the common area to explain the upcoming steps. None of them spoke loud enough to be heard by those on the edges of the common room. Worse, their messages were contradictory. Nobody sounded overwrought about the confusion.

Within 15 minutes of the caucus start, the manager was sending more than 400 of us out into the parking lot to caucus. The needs of the Fire Marshall trumped the needs of the Two Step democracy. So scores of us went into a cooling Texas night with weather far better than that in Ohio, or even in the northern sections of our own state.

In time, the caucus attendees gathered on the driveway outside the rest home front entrance. Blocking a fire lane, but something the building manager could claim ignorance of. While we waited I got to know some neighbors. Precinct 328 isn’t all that big.

Two sets of plastic tables went up after a shift in voting rules. At first, it was, “you sign in, we elect a precinct chair, and then you express your preference for candidate.” Everybody groaned. So it became, “No, you sign in and express your preference. Then you can leave, and the combined group elects a chairman and secretary.” Nods of asset, amid cell phone calls to the family back to the house. “Honey, can you guys feed yourselves?” Or, “Tell the babysitter I’ll be home an hour later. I know, she’s got a chemistry test in the morning. Sorry.” And then shouted across the crowd from father to mother: “Be sure she practices her guitar,” and “How are you on your homework for tonight?”

All these families signed in first and “voted” for Obama — because we were segregated on one side of he driveway from the Hillary supporters. The votes got totalled and Obama carried the evening by a margin of 2:1.

Now more drama, to elect the precinct chair. Three nominees at first, two from the Obama camp. More on-the-fly decision about how to elect people among 300 or so remaining caucus members. “By acclamation” is decided, and so we shout out our preference when Joe McClain, Obama man, takes the chairman’s post. A suggestion floats: why not make the Hillary candidate the precinct secretary? Another hurrah to get on with the rest of the evening.

And it crosses my mind that Hillary might have to accept a secondary spot on the ticket, much as the caucus member did last night.

Now comes the results of the votes, which determine how many of the 63 precinct delegates are Obama’s and how many are Hillary’s. We must come up with 42 people who will attend the next caucus, on 7 AM on a lovely Saturday late in March. 61 people offer to sacrifice such a Saturday, with 13 more as alternates. We’re supposed to have one alternate for every delegate.

Delegates now must come out of the pool of people who have warm enough jackets to stand in the cold. Although we now only number about 100 or so, nobody at the rest home invites us inside. I suggest as a joke that a set of canopies over the Academy Sports store parking lot will do just as well next time. Maybe better, if we can get a band and roasted corn vendors on the site, too. But 90 minutes into our evening, a few big bags of Doritos and Hershey Kisses come out onto the Obama table. The snacks are at least some substitute for postponed suppers.

People nominate themselves by writing their name, address, phone and e-mail on blank sheets of paper, writing on the backs of one another in some cases. Pens run dry, others get offered. The light has failed — none outside of the narrow entrance to the rest home — and I hold a fellow’s cell phone with its screen turned on, so he can write down his nomination info.

At last, the final division. Who will commit firm to caucusing on the Saturday, and who is an alternate? I am invited to use my stage voice to project to the 70-plus, “If you’re really, really eager to be a candidate, line up on that side of the driveway. If you’re not so sure, line up on the other.” Delegates on the left, alternates on the right.

Finally, we count off on the left, to ensure we have 42 delegates. And I’ve been swept away by the emotion and hope and the faces of the “young, and young at heart,” as Obama says in his speeches. I am in the “really, really” line of delegates, and turn out to call out my number 26 as we count off.

Now I’ve done it, gone and participated in the electoral process, closer than ever. Not since stuffing envelopes for McGovern in 1972 have I dipped this deep into a messy system. And my time out in the dark last night might make as little difference as that envelope stuffing I did more than 35 years ago. I don’t expect much more out of this experience, except another round of stories about that upcoming Saturday. It’s unlikely I go to the statewide convention in June, mostly because I don’t have that day available. It will be enough for me to get to vote on 40 propositions in that long Saturday.

Will it matter much? Not in the end, considering that the media talk this morning is of superdelegates putting Obama or Hillary over the top. Texas was whisker-close, a massive tumble for a Hillary campaign here which had a 20-point lead in the state less than six weeks ago. Travis County went just as heavy for Obama as the 328th precinct. We always vote for the most liberal candidate. Yes, the L-word, that’s the majority of us.

Today I get a message from Obama’s campaign, telling me about The Math. Only 611 unpledged delegates are left up for grabs. One quarter of them go off the clock, so to speak, on April 22. Obama’s folks would like another $25 from me, please. Maybe not just now; there’s November to consider.

But this was the first time in eight presidential elections I found a candidate with enough passion and intelligence and eloquence, and very little baggage, to spark a return to a level of hope. In my home the vote was split between the feminine and masculine candidates, but we will coalesce around the Democratic nominee. I hope that the passion of our caucus mess, stepping into something with that Two-Step, will show the rest of the country’s Democrats, and the undecideds, how to do the same.

More than ever, on this sunny day, I feel like I’ve backed a favorite team which lost a close game. The papers talk of McCain “clinching,” a verb I associate with basketball coverage and playoff races. Whatever it takes to keep people like me returning to the process, I suppose. The negative ads and messages are surely in the works, but on that chilly Texas night I was warmed up by hope of real change.

Written by ronseybold

October 5, 2008 at 12:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized