I’ve just returned from a great week in Brussels. Brussels has famously bad weather (I did not know this), but famously good specialties (waffles, chocolate, and beer—I did know this), so, on balance, the week wasn’t so bad at all.
I spent the last two days of my time in Brussels at the Democrats Abroad European/Middle East Regional Caucus, where, as chair of the Oxford chapter, I got to serve as an elector. We voted for which DNC members to select (possible 2012 superdelegates–the 2008 were selected four years ago!), as well as which delegates to send to Denver. And the whole thing was a clown show in many ways—but a fascinating display of politics.
The political activists abroad are really a committed bunch. My only experience is with the Oxford chapter, which is very young—mostly expat undergrads and graduate students who are here in the UK for the short-term (like me) and maybe want to remain connected to something political while here. At Oxford, though, we have a committed corps of Oxford residents who have lived in the UK for 20, 30 years and still follow every step of Democratic politics, participating in debates, donating money, making phone calls to Pennsylvania and Ohio, and more. These people have lived abroad for 20 years and have no plans to move back for another 20. Yet they care deeply about what’s going on in politics back home. Why? Well, for one, their commitment is admirable—they view themselves as Americans first, even though they live in Belgium or Turkey or Lebanon. Second, living abroad, many of them say that they can tell what a difference U.S. leadership makes—for many, politics mattered MORE once they moved, not less. These are the people who comprise the convention.
So here’s how the rundown of the day’s caucus went.
9:00 AM: The meeting is called to order. Except for it’s not. Almost everybody in the room is running for a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, so they are politicking around the room. And only some of the people in the room actually have votes. The votes are divided by country—the higher the turnout in the country, the more votes the country gets—and the number of eligible electors in the room. The UK had the highest international turnout in the Democrats Abroad primary, with 3113 voters. There were 9 people from the UK in the room eligible to vote (as the chair of a city chapter, I was one of them)—and because the turnout from the UK was so high, I had 24.5 votes to myself. (The Israel representative, with 25, was the only one with higher. Most electors had between 2 and 5 votes. The Ukraine gets 3, Luxembourg gets 5, and so forth). Although the meeting was called to order, it actually didn’t get down to business—politicking continued with handouts for delegate selection for the next hour.
9:14 AM: I think I’m the youngest elector in the room. There are only a few young people here, and they are all running for delegate (I voted in Georgia, not abroad, so I’m not eligible). As a result, the people politicking for votes don’t know that I am an elector. ADVICE #1 IF YOU WANT TO BE A DELEGATE: Get to know everybody. I’m mingling and trying to meet folks, and many people in the room, assuming I don’t have any sway, give me the cold shoulder.
9:23 AM: The chocolate pastries are delicious.
9:37 AM: I’ve collected about twelve handouts of campaign literature from various delegates saying their “experience” and “what they can do at the convention.” Note: A delegate to the convention can actually do very little. It doesn’t matter, really. I’m voting for Obama delegates. What I’m looking for is the following: 1) Someone who, under no circumstances, will waver from Obama. The Clintons are talking about how “pledged delegates”—which we are selecting—aren’t necessarily committed. I’m not taking any chances. 2) Someone who, by going to the convention, can energize the community where they’re coming from. 3) Someone who’s put in the hours with very little credit. It’s an incredible thing to work long hours for a candidate 5,000 miles away. If you can go to Denver and participate, it will keep YOU going.
10:35: We finally ACTUALLY take our seats. We say the pledge of allegiance and sing the National Anthem—oddly striking to me. The National Anthem gets met with rousing applause. My new friend Charles from Jerusalem says to me, “I’ve lived in countries around the world, and they never applaud their national anthem anywhere else.”
10:39: They read off the electors and the breakdown of how many votes everyone gets.
10:43: Each person gets a luxury Belgian chocolate at their seat. A man one table over from me has stockpiled about 20 chocolates from unclaimed seats and is eating them one-by-one.
10:46: Someone opens a motion to debate how long debate about the voting procedures (which are already set in the manual) will be. Sitting through one of these things, you can see how Sam Rayburn, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Russell, Tip O’Neill, and more amassed tremendous power simply through knowing parliamentary procedure. Charles turns to me and says, “it’s gonna be a very long day.”
10:49: The competition between the Obama and Hillary camp is addressed, tacitly. This will be a running theme all day—people are scared to death that the party will be torn apart. “I want to remind everyone here that we have two great candidates and, whatever happens, we are Democrats first,” the chair says. Now, I personally don’t necessarily agree—I won’t support any candidate just because they are a Democrat, and I’ve voted Republican before—but the infighting in the party is actually really, really dumb.
10:57: We hold an election for the DNC member, who is likely to be a superdelegate. Joe Smallhoover just became a very influential man.
10:58: The caucus breaks up into Clinton and Obama election groups to select the delegates. The Clinton supporters leave the room to go upstairs. I make a note: “Wish the Clintons would leave the room.”
11:43: In the last 45 minutes, we have debated how long the time limits of the speeches would be. And how to structure voting to save maximum time. Yes, 45 minutes. Where’s Sam Rayburn when you need him?
11:47: With time limits set, the speeches by delegates are about to begin. A spontaneous “Yes, We Can!” chant breaks out. The Obama group is quite a coalition—young, old, black, white—whereas the Clinton delegation is all old and white. It’s very similar to what the Iowa Caucus looked like.
12:06: A debate over affirmative action—we are required to choose equal numbers of male and female (though, upstairs, the Clinton supporters are trying to change the rules to elect more females), and now we are talking about whether our candidates should be reflective of other minority statuses. Each candidate has been allotted two minutes, and if you are from an underrepresented minority, the room decides, you get ten extra seconds to say which minority group you come from.
12:12: The candidate speeches begin. Throughout the day, we’ll have four kinds of speeches. Here they are, from least effective to most effective:
We get it. George Bush is a bad President. It’s been really hard living abroad for the last seven years. Valid point. But stating the obvious is not a great case for your candidacy!
More convincing. Some very good two-minute speeches were given on behalf of why you support Barack Obama. And Ross’ Qualification #1 is unwavering commitment as a pledged delegate. It’s amazing to see people’s support for Obama—some like his enthusiasm, some like his leadership, some know him personally—and the depth and range of his support is incredible. These are great speeches to hear—but perhaps the wrong venue?
3) “Why I’m experienced”
Now we’re getting somewhere. It’s really incredible the lengths people go to support the party from abroad. Being a delegate is not an entitlement, though—and some speeches act as it is—the best in this group, though, say what they have done and express a genuine appreciation for the chance to go to Denver as the culmination of some sort of work.
4) “Why I should go to Denver”
These were the most compelling. “I’m starting the chapter in Johannesburg, and with an Obama candidacy, we are bound to find the hundreds of thousands of American citizens living in Africa suddenly caring about a candidate and an election that they may not have cared about before. I want to go to Denver to work with the DNC people and find out how to energize and reach these untapped voters.” “I run the London for Obama chapter and have been making thousands of calls throughout the year. I am in touch with the Obama Abroad office once-a-week. We collaborate all the time. I want to go to Denver to work with these people and figure out how we can best serve Obama from London this fall.” Etc. etc. etc. These people make a convincing case for how their election as delegate can best maximize Obama’s electoral chances.
1:16: After the womens’ speeches, we break for lunch. And the caucusing begins. The small countries (Luxembourg, Lebanon, Netherlands, etc.) are worried about getting steamrolled by the big countries (UK, France). They form a caucus and agree to collectively support the same candidates. It’s amazing how identity politics comes in even here. (Apparently, at these things, typically the UK, France, and Germany carry the day.)
1:26: During lunch, I try and figure out the DNC member elections. Since these people are superdelegates, we don’t, of course, want to take any chances. Good news: the people we have are Obama.
2:05: My friend Vinny shows up. Vinny’s in Amsterdam studying on a Fulbright, and I ran into him—literally—in a bar the previous night. He’s in town for a Fulbright conference, and I told him to ditch the conference and come to the caucus. He’s got a knack and passion for politics, and he’s good company to have here. My other new friend Charles and I have developed a back-of-the-classroom rapport, and Vinny has fit right in.
2:14: The mens’ speeches begin. More of the same.
3:36: The speeches end and politicking begins. The small countries are very well-organized. The big countries don’t see it coming. Everyone gets four votes. My four: a young man from Lebanon who is starting a Beirut chapter and is involved in the Middle East (I like his youth, his Obama enthusiasm, and his regional placement for strategic reasons), a guy from Madrid who has been a passionate supporter and mobilized the city; a woman from London who has worked harder than almost any volunteer, at home or abroad, and runs the Obama for London chapter, and a woman from South Africa who is a former Illinois State legislator and is building the Obama strategy.
4:37: The first-round votes are announced. There are probably 40 candidates running, and after the first-round, it’s narrowed to about eight. Now that we can see the lay of the land, people start to trade horses and build coalitions. I join with the small country caucus and, by promising them that I’d vote again for the woman from South Africa and the guy from Lebanon, I get their support of Obama for London. They all get through. This all takes much longer than expected.
6:15: I hand in my second-round votes. As it turns out, I have to go to catch the train back to London. I won’t eventually participate in the final selection of delegates—because we spent so long debating time-limits, the process that was supposed to end by 6 PM today gets dragged into tomorrow—but my candidates are still alive, as of this writing, and, as I said, it doesn’t really matter. The Democrats Abroad are a group of unusually committed and admirable participants who, even though they don’t live in America, care deeply about its future. It has been a hilarious, insightful, and fascinating day.
I take the Eurostar back home. My trip to Brussels was outstanding.
Now, I’m in the airport—again—on the way to Belfast. I’m not leaving the UK this time. The golf team has a series of matches in the next few days at Royal County Down and Portrush—two of the world’s top courses. I promise reports and hopefully pictures, too!