It had been snowing for two days, the heavy, wet, March kind, and I was tired of being cooped up, so even though there was no national election, and there certainly was nothing as exciting as the last Democratic caucus in Haines (the only other one I've ever been to, anywhere, when about hundred of us nominated President Obama), I attended the annual business meeting of local Democrats at the library on a Wednesday night.
Barbara Lewis, a Tlingit elder, Alaska Native Sisterhood officer, and a real go-getter as far as all things Democrat, had asked me to come, and I didn't want to disappoint her. (Or incur her wrath. Barbara can be a bit intimidating.)
She ran the meeting dressed in a Tlingit-designed red and black vest and matching blouse and slacks. Her health is fragile, so she used a portable oxygen tank. Barbara is stickler for Robert's Rules of Order, so the tone of the meeting was formal. When she was nominated to be the local precinct chair she called her own name once, and then again, and then there was a long pause while the rest of looked at each other and wondered what to do.
Fisherman and carpenter Tim June jumped in and called for the question, but Barbara reprimanded him, "Robert's Rules requires that you say the nominee three times."
Tim gently apologized. Barbara called her own name one more time, and then we voted unanimously for her. Tim was elected Vice-Chair. There was a small debate about all of the other officers, and retired attorney Deb Vogt suggested making Tim the secretary and treasurer as well, since we wouldn't be all that busy.
It wasn't a big crowd. There were fourteen of us, and three more would come in later. Still, we were the best-represented precinct in the legislative district. As soon as the local business was concluded, we adjourned and re-convened the district caucus, adding a handful of folks from Cordova, Skagway, Gustavus, and Hoonah via speakerphone.
Deb volunteered to chair that portion of the meeting. Just because we all knew each other, and just because we were in the small conference room of the library, did not mean she didn't take her leadership seriously.
She began with a small speech. "I used to think that party affiliation didn't matter, that it was more important to vote for the best person. Then I met Hugh Malone," she said. She was married to the former lawmaker and state revenue commissioner until he was hit by a freak wave when they were on vacation in Italy and died. That was ten years ago. Her voice caught for a second, remembering that, before she read an excerpt from Mario Cuomo's 1984 address to a national Democratic convention:
The Republicans believe that the wagon train will not make it to the frontier unless some of the old, some of the young, some of the weak are left behind by the side of the trail. The strong, they tell us, will inherit the land. We Democrats believe in something else. We Democrats believe that we can make it all the way with the whole family intact, and we have more than once.
Deb said that at her husband's funeral a friend had eulogized him as a "‘real Democrat,'" and noted that "‘a real Democrat believes that everyone counts, but not too much.'"
We were kind of quiet for a moment, when over the phone a familiar voice said, "Thank you, Deborah." It was Ethan Berkowitz, one of the men hoping to be the Democratic candidate for governor. He had joined the conference call with the other communities and another party gubernatorial hopeful, Bob Poe. Ethan said he was actually at the convention when Governor Cuomo gave his now famous remarks. He said, "I was Peter Jennings' chauffer, but that's another story."
I would have liked to hear it. Instead, he gave a short campaign plug, and then candidate Poe said a few words, and then we dismissed them to do the business of our coastal District.
As we had on the local level, we agreed that two officers would be plenty, and chose Deb Vogt (she is also a former Haines Assembly member and assistant state attorney general), and twenty-year-old Brooke Jasky-Zuber from Skagway, (she said she was active in high school politics and worked with the Sustainable Skagway group), and named sixteen delegates to the state convention. Anyone who wanted to (and a couple who didn't) were chosen to be delegates. Just about everyone else was an alternate.
By 8:30, with all due respect to Barbara and Deb, we were at our limit of formal party politics. We are used to being a lot looser about these matters, and so we adjourned the meeting and got down to the real reason most of us came to the caucus. We put the "party" back in "Democratic Party," (well, as much partying as Democrats do in a library on a snowy weeknight in March), thanks to a home-baked carrot cake, from a healthy recipe, in honor of the passage of the comprehensive national health care bill. My friend Ann made it, and as she sliced it and passed out plates said, "I just couldn't stand for there not to be a local celebration." Then we posed for a photo. Maybe it will be in a history book someday.
Heather Lende is the author of "If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name: News From Small-Town Alaska." To contact Heather or read her new blog, "The News From Small-Town Alaska," visit www.heatherlende.com.