A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Thursday, September 17, 2015

TOF Among the Politicos

TOF throws his hat
in the ring
A long time ago, in a country far, far away, there were "primary elections." These were also known as "beauty contests," polls taken among party members for the purpose of flagging potential candidates for the party's nomination. In most instances, the results of the primary did not bind the party bosses or the assembly-and-convention delegates to choose a particular nominee. It was well known that primaries favored the well-known, popular, and good-looking at the expense of the more obscure. competent, and plain-featured. So the politicos met in their proverbially smoke-filled rooms and tried to pick a nominee that would carry their party to victory in the general election.
It was sort of like the Nebula Award in SF. Many years ago, TOF's novella, "Eifelheim," received the third-highest number of recommendations from SFWA members, and did so in two months between its appearance and the close of nominations. Yet, it did not make the Ballot. TOF does not complain: the story generated a lot of recommendations because it was perceived as a novel idea (and it did make the Hugo ballot, which was more like a People's Choice Award in them thar days) but it was basically a talking-head kind of thing, with little in the way of action or evocative prose. Even TOF did not think it deserved an award. 
This vetting by the party had two important effects. First, they helped ensure that the eventual nominee would not be such a fool that he would embarrass the party through incompetence on the stump or in office. And second, they provided a buffer between the candidate and the special interests that competed for his favors. That is, the Party served as a kind of broker, balancing the cries of the various interests into a perhaps metastable alliance.

Starting especially in the late 1950s, this began to give way to a new system. When JFK ran for the nomination of the Democratic Party, he did not have the favor of the party bigwigs, who tended toward Estes Kefauver, Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, and others. So he ran in all the primaries, where his aristocratic good looks and accomplished speaking style gave him a leg up. And he (or rather, his father) then played up his showing in the polls to make the point that he could win in the general election. State governments began to play along with the gag by passing laws that required delegates to be apportioned according to the primary results. In some states, California being the 300-pound gorilla, they required all the delegates to vote for the winner of the primary. Since primary voters had little notion of who these candidates were except what they had seen on television, the new system tended to favor those with well-known names or a lot of media exposure, such as incumbents. It thus magnified the role of the media, as well, and tore down the brokerage that shielded candidates from the winds of campaign money -- so much so, that in later years money donated to the Party became referred to as "soft" money and was held to be somehow disreputable. "Hard" money was given directly to the famous-name, media-dazzling candidates.

When TOF entered politics in Colorado, things were nearing the tipping point. Colorado had a system of precinct caucuses followed by County Assemblies, District Conventions, and the State Assembly and Convention, all of which placed names on a primary ballot for ratification or final selection by the rank-and-file. The Incomparable Marge was sent as a delegate in the First District (which was Pat Schroeder's) because Party rules required a Byzantine allocation of delegates according to sex and race as well as such minor attributes as candidate favored, and the Marge counted as American Indian for nose-counting purposes.

Some while later, having moved to Jefferson County, we discovered that we could become precinct committee persons by the simple expedient of raising our hands in the caucus. That put us on the ballot where we could be fer shure elected by the voters of that precinct. We received certificates reading Congratulations! You forgot to duck!

Committee people were supposed to host the caucus for their precinct, either in their own homes or at a venue they arranged. They would take a vote and, depending on the top office being decided, apportion their delegates to County accordingly. Most precincts got to send three delegates and three alternates to the next level. So for example, one year about half our people favored Gary Hart for president, a couple of union people were for Mondale, and the rest were uncommitted, so we sent two Hart delegates, one Mondale delegate, and included the uncommitted among the alternates. Sometimes, we split a delegate so we sent him with instructions to cast half a vote for one and half for another. The committee people were also supposed to walk the precinct, knock on doors, hand out literature, get out the vote on election day, offer rides to shut-ins and all that stuff.

Later, TOF was made a District Captain by the County Party. This wonderful position made TOF responsible for four to six precincts with the responsibility of seeing that each received their voter lists, promotional materials, and held their caucuses. Sometimes, a slot was vacant, so the District Captain had to arrange for the caucus.  One year, we held two caucuses in our house, and a third showed up at our door, the committee people for their precinct having finked out.

Later still, he was exalted to the role of House District Leader, from which lofty pinnacle he oversaw the activities of four District Captains and their precinct committee people. The boundaries corresponded to the district for the State Assembly seat. One day, walking around by Larimer Square in Denver, TOF and the Incomparable Marge encountered the governor and his wife out for a stroll. He greeted us by name and stopped for a chat. Later, at a party at the governor's mansion, TOF discussed with him the book The Nine Nations of North America. TOF also had the opportunity to attend get togethers at Sen. Hart's place. And once at a banquet was seated next to a Missouri congressman named Dick Gephardt. There may have been an Arkansas governor there as well.
Thus, it is simple to get to hobnob with movers and shakers. All you have to do is show up and volunteer. Well, that's all you used to have to do. Things may have changed since then. And everything is now media-driven and advertising. The only mover and shaker TOF now knows is a Denver City Councilman named Kevin Flynn.
The County Assembly certified nominees for the primary ballot for county offices like sheriff. If more than one candidate passed the threshold of support, both went on the ballot for the voters to choose. But in the Jefferson County Democratic Party it was hard enough to find volunteers to run for office, let alone competition in the run. Republicans had the same problem in Denver County. One year we had two candidates running for sheriff, but only one racked up enough votes at County to make the ballot. Before the week was out, the loser's wife showed up on the campaign for the Republican candidate. We had figured all along that he was a plant for the other party trying to copper their bets.

The County Assembly also chose delegates for the State Convention and Assembly and for the District Convention. (Assemblies chose State candidates; Conventions chose Federal candidates. Because Congressional districts did not coincide with county boundaries, they were held "off to the side," as it were.) The District Convention certified candidates for the Congressional district, which for the Second District at the time meant Tim Wirth. The State Assembly certified candidates for governor and senator (Dick Lamm and Gary Hart, resp., when TOF was active) and other state-wide offices. The State Convention certified candidates for President to send to the National Convention.
One year at the State Convention, Jimmy Carter controlled to rules committee for the Party and declared that no delegate who voted for him in precinct could ever be allowed to change his mind at State. Nothing could be more calculated to get Coloradans' backs up. Carter never did "get" the West. There was a great uprising at State, pushed in part by resentment at the autocratic Carter rules and in part by Teddy Kennedy's partisans. When the Convention divided into caucuses, about a third stuck with Carter (who was, after all, the incumbent) another third went for Kennedy and the remainder stood for uncommitted. TOF caucused with the uncommitted, which was chaired by Mo Siegel, the CEO of Celestial Seasonings Tea in Boulder. TOF was not elected as a delegate to National, thus sparing the country an electoral crisis. 
At an earlier point, he had been asked by the then-House District Leader to run for the State Senate. It was a great honor. It would have been a greater honor if the Party had been able to finance it, but as TOF would have had to cough up several thousand dollars he did not have he had to decline. Beside, it was a sacrifice pawn candidacy up against (IIRC) Sam Zakhem, a Lebanese immigrant who famously left the senate floor to take a leak but jammed a letter opening into his voting button so that he would be registered as voting "NO" on any votes held in his absence. He figured in any act of the legislature, voting no was the default option. This appealed to the Coloradan sense of humor. So the Party was not about to throw good money after bad.

One consequence of the rising importance of the primaries was the emergence of the Campaign as a rival to the Party. As in Alien, the Campaigns, originally nurtured within the body of the Party, grew and consumed it from within. When TOF was HDL, he had trouble one year securing people to work the neighborhoods because most had already been co-opted by one Campaign or another. Further, voters grew annoyed at the number of people who came to their door flogging different candidates. The Lamm Campaign, the Hart Campaign, and the Wirth Campaign had parallel and duplicate structures to the Party, with their own precinct people, district leaders and so on. The primary system more or less forced this; but it also meant that campaign donations would go directly to the Candidate rather than to the Party. (It also meant that the candidate was exposed directly to the pressure of pressure groups instead of the pressure being mitigated by the trade-offs of the Party.) It also meant that unglamorous candidates -- sheriff, assemblyman, state senator, etc. -- were shortchanged. People on the Lamm Campaign were not going to hand out literature for the sheriff's race, after all. (This further contributed to the breakdown of the Party.)

This was not unremarked, and Tim Wirth spent some time after one of the Congressional District Conventions decrying the situation, even though he was a beneficiary.

So the next election cycle, TOF made sure all his precinct committee people were signed up for each of the Campaigns, and when they went door to door they handed out literature for all the candidates and not just one.

Today, people have the weird notion that primary elections are like first-round votes and the general election is like a run-off. Or like the championship after the playoffs. There are elections like that, usually billed as "non-partisan," and everyone pretends to believe it. That was how the Denver council election was held. But the primaries are not the same kind of thing. They are party elections, intended to choose the candidate that the Party will put forward in November. Thus, we get absurd demands for things like "open" primaries in order to allow Republicans to vote in Democrat elections, and vice versa. Likewise, people who could not be bothered to choose a party demand the "right" to choose that party's candidate. Does anyone think that opening the gates like that will result in candidates that best exemplify the ideas of the Party? Or would Democrats, with no contest on their own slate, swarm the Republican primary in order to select the most embarrassing candidate for their opponent? Or vice versa, for the problem is structural, not partisan.

Then TOF moved to New Jersey, and that was a whole 'nother kettle of fish.

Phooey, TOF forgot his Donald Trump comments. Maybe next time.


  1. Interesting. I never got beyond the student council in high school.

    I can't remember how it all works out, but Tim Wirth is related to Nancy Wirth (brother? Brother-in-law?), whose mother, Faith Meem, wife of famous architect John Gaw Meem, lived in a beautiful stone house in Santa Fe during my time in Santa Fe attending St. John's College. The College is a stone's throw (if one has an arm like Nolan Ryan in his prime) from the Meem house (J G Meem donated the land upon which the College is built). It was in the living room of that house that I proposed to my dear wife. Said wife was living with the aged Mrs. Meem at the time, to cook a few meals and keep her company, more or less. It's quite likely I've met Tim Wirth at some point, but memory fails.

    Second, I've gotten into arguments over the election process with acquaintances, mostly when it is proposed that such and such a candidate will clean said process up. I point out merely that any candidate who gets elected has successfully worked exactly the rules as they now exist, and that the rules as they now exist strongly favor his reelection. A sort of political natural selection says that such elected officials, once in office, will only work to make the rules *more* likely to favor incumbents and keep out reformers. Experience seems to validate this view.

    1. Nevertheless there have been reformers who get power by a bad method and then set about making reforms that make their own rise impossible to repeat. (Mostly people who seized power by force, admittedly, and want to make damn sure nobody else does it to them.)

      It is actually possible for someone to realize that something they benefited from was bad, and abolish it simply for the sake of abstract principle.

      Indeed, I would say that the idea that it's "hypocritical" to want to reform something one has oneself benefited from is an even bigger impetus against reform than the aforementioned "natural selection".

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