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Off the Record: Caucuses open to those who show up

Some Republican legislators and officials have raised a hue and cry that Muslims are attempting to “infiltrate” the state’s political system by showing up at precinct caucuses.

How nefarious! Attending a public political meeting to speak about their values and issues and to support candidates and issues they like! How dare they?!

How did they ever figure out that if a small, organized group shows up at precinct caucuses, which are usually poorly attended, they can have a big impact on the direction of the party?

Actually, all sarcasm aside, it has been well known for years among political activists that precinct caucuses are vulnerable to relatively small, determined groups.

Precinct caucuses are held at the neighborhood level. They allow everyone who considers themselves part of a political party to gather with like-minded neighbors to discuss issues that are important to them, to express their preference for political candidates to represent their party and to elect delegates to county, district and state conventions to represent their views.

It works great if lots of people show up, but if only a few attend, then a relatively small group, with some direction and organization, can wield more than their usual amount of influence. It has happened many times in the past, in my experience.

I attended my first precinct caucus back in 1972. I went to the DFL caucus for my neighborhood, which included Macalester College, which was at the time a hotbed of liberalism and anti-Vietnam War sentiment.

The old guard party officials convened the caucus, explained how things worked, and opened up the floor for nominations for caucus officials. They expected they would be elected to run things as they had always been. A group of Macalester students, who filled most of the room, quickly nominated their own candidates and elected them. The old guard stood by helplessly as the Mac students pushed through a different set of rules for assigning delegates, proposed and voted on their favorite issues resolutions, and voted to support Eugene McCarthy for president. They had the numbers and the power.

In 1994, Gov. Arne Carlson was running for re-election. A moderate governor, he had turned off the conservative base of the Republican party who thought he was way too liberal. And he was a prickly kind of guy as well. Carlson looked to take a beating in the party endorsement process, thanks to the Religious Right faction which figured to dominate the caucuses and state convention. Indeed, conservative Christians did turn out in droves and controlled the caucuses, throwing their support behind State Rep. Allen Quist. But Carlson skipped the caucuses and the state convention, and challenged Quist in the state primary election. He won that and trounced DFLer John Marty in the November election.

So now Republicans are concerned that Muslims might be using the same tactics that conservative Christians used in the 1990s and beyond to advance their issues and their candidates.

They shouldn’t be. Precinct caucuses may be the first step in the grassroots political process, but they aren’t the last. The influence gained in the caucus won’t necessarily transfer into the general election. Candidates selected through the caucuses and endorsement conventions are often challenged and beaten in the primaries.

If citizens of Minnesota who happen to be Muslims decide they want to be politically involved, they should be welcomed into the system. If they choose to mingle with other Republicans to talk and share their issues and concerns, maybe those other Republicans will learn something and find there is not that much to fear.

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Kevin Sweeney has been the managing editor of The Journal since May 1985. A native of St. Paul, he worked at newspapers in LeSueur and Albert Lea before moving to New Ulm. Contact him at ksweeney@nujournal.com.

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