Despite snow, caucusgoers in Linn and Johnson County get their say

Even in off year, activists see opportunities

First his car got stuck. Then Joseph Brisben, 77, with the help of a cane, navigated toward an entry at City High, only to encounter locked doors.

Undeterred, the Iowa City man eventually made it to the Democratic Precinct 17 caucus and became one of thousands of voters around the state who braved bad weather to participate in the beginnings of a process that could play a role in picking nominees — especially in the crowded Democratic field for governor — for this year’s elections.

In the school’s cafeteria, Brisben joined a lively group of about 76 people. He initially tried to get a delegate for gubernatorial candidate and former Iowa City Mayor Ross Wilburn, who now lives in Ames.

But seeing that a Wilburn group was not viable, he realigned with a group trying to get delegates for Nate Boulton.

“It’s important we get Democrats elected and show some spirit,” he said. “This is the people’s Republic of Iowa City.”

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Across the state, about 6,500 delegates were being elected Monday night to county conventions.

Precinct caucuses were not required to arrange those who attended into preference groups for candidates, but could if the caucus leaders called for it.

Midterm caucuses do not have the allure of presidential caucuses, but they afford an opportunity for individuals to get involved in the basic level of politics. And this year, particularly on the Democratic side, they could make a difference.

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If none of the seven Democratic candidates for governor gets 35 percent of the vote in June’s primary, the nominee will be picked at the state convention.

That process is less likely to come in to play on the Republican side, where there are three gubernatorial hopefuls.

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At Washington High in Cedar Rapids, about 20 people showed up for the GOP caucuses and about 150 for Democratic ones.

State Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, called on members of his party to “retake the entire state” — which came under complete Republican control in 2016.

“With a renewed sense of citizenship, we can reach out to every Iowan, we can make them know we care about them, we can listen, we can educate, and that’s how we’re going to have the biggest, grass roots Democratic comeback in the history of this state,” said Hogg, who is up for re-election this year.

With their Republican counterparts holding offices across the board, Cedar Rapids Democrats at the event called for their party to unify in 2018 and beyond.

The “stakes are too high,” said Susan Salter, 71, who was elected as a county-level delegate, for Democrats to risk the division sowed in the party during the 2016 election.

“When you’re in danger, you have to all get together. I think we’re in danger of having our democracy destroyed and having our state ruined. Because of that, that’s going to bring us all together,” she said.

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A small turnout didn’t take away from the importance of a Republican caucus for Bill Dahlsten.

Dahlsten, who said he’s been to every caucus since 1972, helped lead the GOP caucus at Washington High. He blamed the turnout on bad weather and the fact that Republicans have few highly-competitive races coming up.

“It’s lower than most non-presidential years,” Dahlsten, 63, said. “I’d say the weather halved this tonight. Another thing is, we’ve got a president and Kim Reynolds — put your money on that being the governor.”

Even with lower attendance and no fanfare from a presidential contest, Dahlsten said Monday’s caucuses were about party building. Candidates come and go, but the parties remain.

“Let me put it you this way: I don’t think anybody I voted for in 1972 is still alive — the party is still around,” he said, noting former Gov. Robert Ray as an exception.

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Neighbors of Mallory Hellman, 32, a supporter of Democrat Cathy Glasson for governor, wouldn’t let her forget Monday was caucus night. She in turn urged others to participate.

Glasson supporters formed the largest preference groups in the three Democratic precincts at City High.

In all, 76 people braved the snow to caucus in the cafeteria. When the numbers were tallied, Glasson earned four delegates, Boulton two and Fred Hubbell and undecideds one each.

Delegates, however, are not bound to stick with the same candidate.

Hellman was picked as a delegate.

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“Especially after the last election, I realized the importance of making a change on the local level,” she said. “It is where we can make a difference and you want to see how that process operates beyond Iowa City.”

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Gov. Kim Reynolds said Monday’s caucuses were a chance for her to sit down with friends and neighbors to talk about issues that are important to the future of Iowa.

“This is where it all starts, in small rooms and in high schools and all across the state of Iowa,” she told reporters.

“I’m proud of the direction that this state is heading. I’m excited to continue to build on the progress that we’ve seen,” the governor said.

One of her GOP challengers, former Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, appeared at Washington High and called that into question.

“I don’t like where the state is going right now with this budget deficit. They borrowed $110 million last year, another $13 million to avoid a special session,” Corbett said. He told the small crowd that he would bring ‘tough discussions’ to Iowa Republicans as they prepare to vote.

Rod Boshart of The Gazette and Ed Tibbetts of the Quad-City Times contributed to this report.

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