Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Uncommitted Campaign for Iowa Democrats?

Uncommitted Campaign for Iowa Democrats?

A former county party chair in Iowa's most Democratic county is organizing a campaign for uncommitted "Healthcare not Warfare" delegates in next year's first in the nation caucuses.

But another former county chair who caucused against Bill Clinton's renomination in 1996 says the effort is unlikely to see much success.

Jeff Cox, a University of Iowa history professor who chaired the Johnson County Democrats in the early 1980s, is hosting an initial uncommitted campaign meeting on Monday, which is not coincidentally the national Martin Luther King holiday.

"Dr. King argued that it was time for Americans, including loyal Democrats and independents, to oppose the Viet Nam War openly, not only on the grounds that it was destructive, unwinnable, and lacked the support of the American people, but also because it was preventing Americans from dealing with urgent domestic social problems," said Cox, who supported Dennis Kucinich in the 2004 and 2008 caucuses.

Cox hopes to elected uncommitted delegates who will support universal health care and "the withdrawal of all American forces from Afghanistan within the first year of the next President's term in office."

Johnson County, home to Iowa City and the University of Iowa, is well known as the most liberal part of the state. Local Democrats have taken the pejorative "People's Republic of Johnson County" label popularized by long-time Des Moines Register writer David Yepsen and turned it into a badge of pride. The county was the state's number one spot for Barack Obama both in the January 2008 caucuses--52 percent of delegates--and in the November 2008 presidential election, where Obama overwhelmed John McCain 70 percent to 28 percent.

"We welcome participation in the Iowa Democratic Caucus and look forward to a campaign that addresses the issues important to all Americans, including access to health care and ending the war in Afghanistan," said Iowa Democratic Party communications director Sam Roecker.

"Over the past two years President Obama has already championed reform that expands health care access to millions of Americans, while working with our nation's military leaders to bring a responsible end to combat operations in Iraq as we focus on ending the war in Afghanistan," Roecker added. "President Obama and our Democratic leaders continue to be strong advocates for peace and increasing the welfare of the American people."

In 1996, the last cycle in which a Democratic president sought re-election, Johnson County elected a handful of uncommitted and Ralph Nader delegates. The exact number is unclear. "The results were suppressed by the Johnson County Democratic Party until a few days later, when it didn't matter," says Cox, who was among the Nader supporters.

The day after the 1996 caucuses, the Iowa City Press-Citizen (2/13/96) reported results from 46 of the county's then 51 precincts and a unanimous result for President Bill Clinton. Subsequent editions did not follow up.

One of those invisible 1996 delegates was Rod Sullivan. "You can fix things from within, or you can leave," says Sullivan, who went on to chair the Johnson County Democrats from 2000 to 2003. He resigned as chair to successfully run for the county Board of Supervisors, where he still serves.

Sullivan was one of Barack Obama's earliest and most prominent supporters in the run-up to the 2008 caucuses, and says he still plans to support Obama. "I'm both happy and disappointed" in Obama's performance in office, says Sullivan. "I think dissent within the party structure can be healthy."

"It was the only party-sanctioned place to express any dissent, so I did," Sullivan says of the 1996 uncommitted/Nader effort. "Many of us were social workers, there were a few people of color, and some gay rights activists. There was no single theme."

Sullivan has remained active in the nuts and bolts of county party politics since moving from county chair to elected office. Cox has been much less visible at party functions in recent years, focusing instead on direct issue-related work.

Since 1996, the caucus reporting process has been changed. Precincts report results directly to state party headquarters, bypassing the county chairs.

"I don't think that will happen again in 2012, i.e. renomination will not be unanimous in Iowa, assuming the results are reported in a timely manner," says Cox.

"In contrast to 1996, it is also more likely that there will be some debates in the caucuses about the direction of the country under current Democratic leadership," says Cox.

Uncommitted actually won the 1976 caucuses, but that result was considered less important than Jimmy Carter's unexpected second place finish. In 2008, handfuls of uncommitted delegates were elected (1.5 percent in Johnson County. 0.2 percent statewide), but most of those wins resulted from coalitions of second tier candidates in the wheel-and-deal of second choice votes in Iowa's unique process.

Under Iowa Democratic caucus rules, attendees indicate their support by going to different parts of a room and counting off. Thus any Democrat opposing President Obama's nomination will do so in full view of their neighbors, without a secret ballot. Uncommitted supporters will need to attract at least 15 percent of the caucus attendees in a precinct to their corner--literally--in order to elect delegates to the next level, the county convention. This 15 percent rule, called "viability" in caucus-speak, repeats itself at county, congressional district, and state conventions.

Sullivan says it is "extremely doubtful" that uncommitted can reach the 15 percent viability threshold against Obama.

Republicans, in contrast, handle re-election years differently, holding no vote at all in 1984, 1992 and 2004 when Ronald Reagan and the Bushes sought re-election. The lack of a vote in 1992 was significant, as Pat Buchanan was running a high profile challenge to George H.W. Bush in New Hampshire.

Iowa's Republican caucuses are a simple one person one vote straw poll, with no direct relation to the election of delegates.

Next year's caucuses, for both parties, are currently scheduled for Monday, February 6, but in recent years caucus dates have been announced and later changed as other states try to knock Iowa out of its first in the nation slot. Iowa Democrats and Republicans have traditionally cooperated to keep their caucuses on the same date and to protect their treasured first slot.

Details for the locals: The Iowa Healthcare not Warfare Caucus Campaign will hold its initial meeting in Iowa City on Monday, January 17, 4:30 p.m., at the Iowa City Public Library, Room E.

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