Posted by: sweeneyblog | March 4, 2012

The 2012 Bellingham Republican Caucus

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On Saturday, March 3rd, over 300 voters crammed themselves into the Kulshan Middle School Cafeteria to help decide who would be the Republican nominee for President.

Somewhere, a WWU art major is desperately longing for something this ironically awesome.

As I approached the school, a healthy 20 minutes early, the cars had already overflowed the parking lot and spilled out into the surrounding neighborhood.

Candidate Tables

The Whatcom GOP decided this year to place all the Bellingham Precincts into one location, and I heard more than one voter grumble about it. However, there were plenty of signs to point the way, and nobody seemed to get lost. Once the participants had parked, they had to run the gauntlet of candidate tables. I could tell right away which candidates had the most enthusiastic support; the Ron Paul table was a hub of activity (I actually had to move people out of the way to get the picture) and the Rick Santorum supporters were lively and engaging, passing out stickers and glad-handing many a voter.

Once inside the facility, I was quickly issued a press pass and let loose to interview the throng. I want to compliment the Whatcom GOP for allowing me full access to this event. Because of my openly partisan perspective on this blog, I expected some resistance. State-wide, the Rob McKenna campaign has a record of ejecting journalists that come from a different perspective (like The Stranger) and I am glad that the Whatcom GOP was more open-minded. In return, I approached the event with a fair and balanced perspective.

The first thing that struck me was that this place was packed. It was a good 20 minutes before the main event and already it had over 250 people there.  By the official start time, that number had ballooned to just over 350 voters. With so many people colliding (and parking) in one place, the Bellingham Police were asked to keep an eye out on the proceedings, which they did.

Many PCOs were on hand to direct traffic.

It was a packed house.

Attendees were sorted into precincts (a small chunk of territory, usually the size of a neighborhood) where a PCO (Precinct Committee Officer) waited to greet them and get them to sign in. Sitting down in my own Precinct 215, I met Sheila Richardson, the Republican PCO for my area.

Jim Loudon

She is a Romney supporter, although a lonely one. Soon after she got set up, eight more people showed up from 215: six Ron Paul fans and two Santorum supporters. She half-heartedly discussed the matter, “A firebrand isn’t going to get in. Newt and those guys, Romney will appeal to the independent voters.”  This drew a bit of discussion out of the taciturn Jim Loudon, “Look, Ron Paul is the only logical choice, all the rest are the same story; big business. Ron Paul has a grasp of economics that the others don’t. To me, doing away with the Federal reserve makes sense. It is just basics, we can’t solve the problems of debt with more debt.” Turning to Richardson, he pointed out that, “Romney’s biggest supporter is JP Morgan and Chase Bank, they will want to continue business as usual.”

In terms of demographics, I was pleasantly surprised to see a healthy mix of young and old voters, with smatterings of people of color. Unlike many Tea Party events which skew older, whiter and male, this crowd seemed a much more balanced sampling of Bellingham. However, there was a painfully clear trend. Younger voters supported Ron Paul, while older voters supported the other three candidates.

Bill Geyer in Action.

The event got rolling at 10am, with Bill Geyer serving as temporary chair. There was a brief vote to elect a permanent chair of the event, in which Geyer and Ron Paul organizer (and reader of this blog, hi!) Christy Nieto were nominated and Geyer was elected by a solid majority. They quickly verified that they had either a PCO or a volunteer willing to serve as an organizer in every precinct represented at the event. They walked everyone through the process, and outlined the agenda. I was surprised at the almost universal lack of speechifying. I had assumed with so many partisans in one place, there would at least be a little “Take back the White House!” talk, but there wasn’t. There were straightforward explanations, and then everyone divided up into precincts and headed to various nooks to elect their representatives to the County convention.

Follow me, to our precinct caucus!

For those of you who haven’t been to a Republican Precinct caucus before, the process is remarkably straightforward. You show up and sign in at your precinct. When you sign in, you can state your presidential preference (Romney, Paul, Santorum, Gingrich, or undecided). Next, everyone discusses who they want to elect as their precinct’s representative to the County convention. PCOs are automatically delegates, and then usually you get to elect one more person (some of the bigger precincts get to elect two or even three additional people). This process, similar to the electoral college, relies on that representative voting for the person their precinct supported. Usually the prospective delegates give a little speech, or just say who they are supporting. Then there is a vote and the proceedings are documented and returned to the party for counting.

During this period of time, I wandered around, interviewed some supporters of each candidate and observed the proceedings. Scroll down through some of these pictures to get to interviews with various participants.

Orphalee Smith (pictured left) discussing candidates with her precinct. No word on whose name they ended up writing in.

Some Precincts had to meet standing in hallways to get their own space.

Precincts meeting, discussing and debating.

County Republican Chair Luanne Van Werven verifying packets are complete.

Filling in delegate details.

Ron Paul organizer, Christy Nieto keeps a running tally of how many supporters got selected as delegates.

Rick Santorum Supporters: My first, and favorite, Santorum supporter I spoke to was Margo. When asked why she’s supporting Santorum, she proclaimed, “Because he’s a believer. He’s on fire for the Republicans and Jesus Christ. It is sad that people today are in support of eradicating Christianity and flags from our nation.” I asked her who was trying to eradicate Christianity and without missing a beat, her and her seatmate Michelle Stites said, “Obama!” Stites continued, “He apologizes for burning Qur’ans, yet they are killing Christians in the Middle East and he does nothing. He is even pulling the soldiers up on charges!”

At that point, both Margo and Michele quickly got into a discussion about why the IRS was “specifically auditing the Tea Parties,” and “you know what that is actually about, right?” Another Santorum supporter, Frank Ward, cited his outsider approach as a reason for his support. “He’s a fresh face, he’s not part of the old Republican establishment. Establishment doesn’t win. Conservativism wins. I think he has an equally good chance of getting the nomination, Santorum came from nothing to now being in the lead.” When asked if he would support another candidate as the nominee against Barack Obama, he said,  “It does make a difference who we nominate but in the end, I’m anybody but Obama.”

Newt Gingrich Supporters: Jay Kalil is excited about a Gingrich presidency. “He seems to be the most conservative, he’s been there and knows how to get things done. We’ve elected someone who has no experience and you saw how that worked out. Newt has been there. He works within the system.” Another Kalil, Syvella, noted that she didn’t think Santorum or Romney did very well today. “I think it was down to Newt and Ron Paul.” Local political candidate, David Pros, is a Gingrich supporter, again citing his experience at “getting things done.”

Mitt Romney Supporters: I have to admit, I had some trouble locating them. Unlike the other candidates, I didn’t see any Romney buttons or signs and I actually had to go table to table asking if anyone would go on record as a Romney supporter. One Santorum supporter overheard me and joked, “If you find one, let me know and we will toss him out!” This comment solicited big laughs from his table. I did manage to find a few shy Romney supporters, and most of them were already PCO’s (remember, automatic delegates).  Carol Quinn is a Romney supporter because, “Romney brings people together. He has a more moderate approach that will bring over those independent voters. He will win the nomination, and I think he’s going to do great.”

Ron Paul Supporters: They were everywhere, and they were active. Whenever I saw a discussion about candidates between two people, it was always a Ron Paul supporter engaging someone committed to another candidate. David Williams, a Ron Paul supporter, was worried about the system shutting Paul out. “Its stacked for Romney, everyone that is appointed by the party is automatically a delegate and I bet they are all for Romney.” Jon Evans, delegate from Precinct 233, cited Paul’s resume as his strength, “He was elected to twelve different congresses, he wants to go back to strictly the constitution. Plus he has a great moral character, as an US air force vet and an OB-GYN doctor.” Fellow supporter, Glenn Conklin noted that, “When you watch the debates, he’s the only candidate who answers the questions straight on. I don’t think Romney will win against Obama, but Ron Paul will.”

Conducting the final vote.

As the precinct caucuses began to return to the group, I spotted Kathy Kershner returning with her caucus. Kershner is a Republican PCO. I quickly sidled up and asked for a report. “My precinct was evenly split between Paul and Romney supporters.” So which was she?

“Like I’m going to tell you. Nice try, Riley.”

Well, it was worth a shot.

In Precinct 239, PCO Jill Brown was giving her neighbors some very good advice. She was recommending that everyone there go out and start conversations with their neighbors, even if it isn’t about politics. “We are all living in the community, let’s make it better.” She noted the strength of door-to-door organizing and asked for help in the future making it happen.

Jill Brown addresses her Precinct.

Finally, after all the precincts had finished their business, the packets were returned and the chair directed everyone’s attention to Resolutions to the party platform. You can find the Whatcom Republicans’ platform online here. Two resolutions were passed in favor of “Defending Non-Governmental Organizations,” and fighting the threat of “Agenda 21.” Most of the materials seem to be drawn from the research done by The Whatcom Excavator, and focused on by Patti Brooks on KGMI. Shane Roth of Latte Republic did a big long series analyzing this issue, which you can find online here. There were a few resolutions dealing with Congressional pensions, limiting the EPA, support for a balanced budget and a few other red meat issues, but there were two that caught my interest.

There is a war going on within the Republican party over the role of social issues. A small skirmish played out on this resolution offered up for the party platform. “Whereas social issues are used as a wedge issue, and our nation faces grave issues including national debt. Whereas, social issues are not the purview of the public government, the GOP will not interfere with women’s rights or abortion law, and we will not use these as a litmus test for judicial nominees.” This resolution came to a close vote with 11 yeas and about 18 nays. Similarly, there was a resolution calling for a “more reasonable and welcoming perspective towards the Latino community.” This resolution was quickly amended to include a section about “prosecuting any illegal immigrants.” After that, there was a resolution to move the section on “Family” in the Whatcom Republicans platform to a more prominent place. This was passed with a handful of votes before they gavelled the meeting close.

So the final tally showed that Rick Santorum carried the day in Whatcom. When they totaled up all the “party preferences” when people signed in, the results were: Santorum with 713, Paul with 601, Romney with 475, Gingrich with 257 and 110 undecided. It looks like Romney did pretty well state-wide, but locally it was a two-man battle between Santorum and Paul.

I have to admit, I love caucuses. It is pure, Athenian-style democracy, where you sit down with your neighbors and talk about the future of our community. You get to see people face to face, and really dig into the issues. Although I didn’t agree with most of the people there, I was delighted to see so many people getting involved in the public process. It was a well-run event (tip of the hat to the Whatcom Republicans) and it was a pleasure to cover.

Dusty Gulleson and Luanne Van Werven discussing the caucus.



  1. Would I be stereotyping if I conjectured many of the Santorum voters came from Lynden?

  2. Nicely done, Riley. Very balanced and informative. So now we know Kershner is either a Paul or Romney supporter. I suppose that’s good in a ‘glad it’s not Santorum’ kind of way.

    I have to say that I literally laughed out loud when I read about the resolution about Agenda 21. That’s hysterical. Good to know the Left isn’t alone with its devotion to conspiracy theories. How you manage to cover that aspect of the process with a straight face is a testament to your stamina and self-discipline.

  3. Hagrid, you are correct, Lynden voters trend to whomever is the evangelical candidate. In 2008 that was Huckabee, who did better here than in most other parts of the country.

  4. Agenda 21 is a nickname for an actual overall movement for countries and governments to co-operate toward sustainability. Many folks find nothing sinister about that goal, because our planet has more people on it than would be sustainable, and we will eventually run out of the resources we currently use.

    The part of that situation that is seen as sinister, is for the government to tell someone what they can and can’t do on their own property. In some cases, what a private citizen does on his property can impact his neighbors and the community (and therefore many people acting like that can affect the whole world).

    So at what point can we tell someone not to dump chemicals (or cow poop) in the creek that is “on their property”, if those toxins will flow underground and in water to toxify other people’s land and water?

  5. Riley, As to the number that attended, You should have talked to the custodian, as H advised me early that he set up in excess of 400 chairs and seating at the tables (he said every chair in the building). and people were standing 3-5 deep all the way around the seating area. We kept checking in people as long as they came, and ran out of tags even.

    It was the BIGGEST Caucus event ever, and universally everyone was excited and READY for a matter who they supported. I think that even you felt that excitement.

    • I did my best to estimate the crowd, it is tricky with so many people. I would believe that at times the crowd hit the 400 mark. It was a very impressive turnout.

  6. I’m proud of you, Riley. You “done good”!

  7. Riley, we hope to see you at the County Convention on April 21.

  8. I believe the total count for Kulshan was in the 600’s. The party can thank Paul supporters for the higher turnout all across the county. I’ve been told that many churches instructed their parishioners to go and vote for Santorum which is why he had as much support as he did in this county (he did not do as well as Paul statewide). I must say that Paul supporters were treated much better this year than in 2008 which was a nice surprise. BTW, that nomination for chair was a joke!

  9. Riley, nice report. The crowd was nearer 650 as we had 600 name tags available and they were all distributed. As the supply was running out, we cut them in half to serve more people coming in. Typical conservative self-sufficiency response: see a need, fix it :-).

    As to the sign artwork, LOL, Nice catch! Goes to show the GOP can help folks who turn left get to the right answers.

    All kidding aside, this was a great turnout of engaged voters. They sat patiently, deliberated diligently, exercised their 1st Amendment Rights, and left the school in an orderly fashion. We expect a spirited County Convention on April 19.

    Nice job summarizing the event. Thanks.

  10. […] Last Saturday, I attended the Whatcom County Republican convention expecting to see the same sort of public-spirited party rallying that I saw at the Caucuses back in March. […]

  11. […] years, a number of hard right candidates have picked up significant support from Whatcom County. In 2012, the county Republicans sent several Santorum delegates on to the state level, and Rob McKenna’s opponent on the right, Shahram Hadian, received a […]

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