Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Political Adventure: Wherein the Author Learns about Local Party Politics and Eats Donuts

I woke at 8 a.m., which mixed my brain up for a few moments, as it was under the impression that it was a Saturday. As everybody knows, alarms don’t go off on Saturdays. No, sir. For the nine-to-five, forty-hours-a-week Joes and Joans - those who still go out late and drink hard, but whose bodies can no longer bounce back without 10 hours of sleep and a multivitamin - Saturday morning serves primarily as a brief buffer between party o’clock and brunch.
After shutting off the Barenaked Ladies/static of my radio alarm, I shook out my cobwebs and remembered I’d done this to myself on purpose. I’d promised myself I’d try new things, hadn’t I? I’d just moved to a new neighborhood in Boston, and was now registered in a new Ward. Today was caucus day for Ward 20, and I’d decided to go, to meet some of my neighbors, and if possible, to be elected a delegate for the 2012 Democratic State Convention in Springfield.
Given my location in Roslindale, I’d been under the impression that I was in Ward 19. That would’ve been better, as Ward 19’s caucus was later in the morning and about a mile and a half closer to where I was standing in my boxers. Alas, from the state that brought you gerrymandering, I’d have to go to West Roxbury.
The Ward 20 caucus was scheduled at 9 a.m. at a place called the West Roxbury Pub. It was a bit early to be in a bar, and in fact, it was statistically early to be at a caucus. Of Boston’s 22 wards, only two others had their caucuses at 9 a.m., both of which are in South Boston.
The time of this caucus, to me, seemed designed to discourage young people from becoming involved. The reputation of West Roxbury (and South Boston), deserved or not, as an insular community that doesn’t welcome outsiders didn’t allay my suspicions.
I put on some pants, I tied a tie, and I went out the door at about 8:15. I was peddling my way to West Roxbury, and though it wasn’t far, I didn’t know exactly where I was going. I also needed some coffee.
By 8:30, I was on Centre St. in West Roxbury, locking up in front of an almost comically Irish-style bar, fully equipped with a shamrock-laden green and white sign in Celtic font and virtually no windows. Union guys were standing at the door asking for signatures to get incumbents on the ballot, allowing most of them to run unopposed.
I was surprised as I walked by that they didn’t ask me to sign them. With a half hour to kill, I walked up Centre looking for sustenance. I found it in a little donut shop called Anna’s.

Food interlude

Anna’s Donuts is on pretty much every “best donuts in New England” list that exists. I’d read about it about a dozen times, and always considered going before ruling it out as “too far.” West Roxbury, though less than two miles from Roslindale Square, seems like a different city, whereas Centre St. in Jamaica Plain, which is equal distance, feels like an easy walk to me.
Anna’s has a beautiful sign. The whole exterior of the place looks like a story your grandmother told you about when everything you like tasted different and better. Inside was a bit dimmer, but still had a decor reminiscent of the 1960s to somebody who knows absolutely nothing about the 1960s (read: me).
The donuts were moist and delicious. For those who are used to the sad, thin sugar shell that coats the average Dunkin Donut, this cake-y pastry will bury your future ability to consume such mass produced confections for all time. Their coffee tasted like diner coffee.
End food interlude
On my way back to the West Roxbury Pub, I took in the small town atmosphere of West Roxbury’s main drag. Full of small banks and insurance companies, repairmen and booksellers, it reminded me of the downtown I grew up with in a lot of ways, while simultaneously evoking the Platonic image of New England’s main drag in my mind. “This,” thought pseudo-nostalgic I, “must be the kind of street my grandfather used to walk down on his way to get a tonic with his buddies.”
Arriving at the Pub, the union signature gatherers must have realized I was a voter when I turned toward the entrance. They grabbed me and asked for my Hancock, which I was happy to give. As I signed forms for politicians I didn’t care much for (everyone should be allowed to be on the ballot, right?), I was nudged by local politicos and other caucus goers, who were elbowing their way into the pub’s function room.
Passing the threshold from semi-dreary grey daylight to the inside of the West Roxbury Pub brought with it a number of surprises, none of which should have actually been surprising. First was the sheer number of people. There had to be a hundred people crammed into this little function room. At the sign-in desk, I was questioned by a trio of pleasant, preened ladies who needed to know my precinct. I didn’t know what it was, and they were kind enough to look it up for me. While waiting, I was pushed and pressed back and forth by the deluge of democrats coming through the door. Finally, I was given the precinct number and instructed by a friendly middle-aged woman in a red suit who seemed to know what was going on that I was to sign in, take a ballot for female delegates, and move along.
I made my way through the room and took in more of the second unsurprising surprise: I had just walked into an Edwin O’Connor novel. The room was darker than the lights in it should have allowed, with dark wood-panel walls that went almost to the ceiling. In the gap between wood and ceiling was heavily patterned wallpaper that I know I’d seen in my earliest days before my great-grandmother died. The room was full of round tables, all filled with middle- and old-aged citizens, with the very occasional late 20- or 30-somethings. The back walls had long tables pressed up against them where men who work harder one Fridays than I have in my whole life leaned up against them.
Folks kept coming in as the big hand passed 12 on the clock, while city councilors (I counted four) circulated around the room, shaking hands and working magic. I made my way to the far back corner, where I found a place to stand between the end of a long table and the back exit. Admittedly, I wasn’t introducing myself to people. Being in the guts of Boston’s fabled Democratic party machine was overwhelming me, and I was admittedly distracted by a combination of the cultural value of the room, an almost total lack of any but white people, and little bets I was making with myself about who would start smoking first before everyone pulled out their packs of Pall Malls and began the process of tobacco-curing the entire delegation.
At about 9:15 a.m., the caucus began with a rather weak-voiced man attempting to get the room’s attention. After the crowd caught on, he thanked everyone for coming, and made the opening speech equivalent of small-talk, further reinforcing the general impression that almost everyone else in the room knew each other.
As an outsider, this didn’t make me uncomfortable. On the contrary, It was kind of refreshing to see members of a community as comfortable with each other as these people were. Most of these folks, I surmised, had done a dozen of these caucuses before. This was routine. Maybe they were even as unenthusiastic about being at a bar at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning with no mimosas in sight as I was when I woke up, but civic duty compelled them.
After a minor verbal melee between the registration table and the man at the front of the room about whether men or women were being elected first, it was settled that it was in fact women, which prompted the obligatory “do what the wives tell us” joke. The man then proceeded to list of names of strangers, all of which were promptly “seconded” by another man in the crowd. After the list was done being read, the man said a variation of “okay, then unless there’s an objection, we have enough women for our delegation. Let’s move on.”
Here, things took a more interesting, and more democratic turn.
A woman stood up and exclaimed her frustration. At first glance, she was the archetype of an annoying, bleeding heart liberal. Middle-aged and, though married to a man, declaring herself a “voice for the gay community,” her bright colored clothes – which may or may not have had hints of algae green or purple here and there – stuck out in a crowd of well-worn wardrobes.
Sure, there were a lot of clich├ęs about this woman. She came off as a bit presumptuous, demanding and abrasive. She was also completely right. She opened her protest by asking “what just happened?” This was a fair question that I was frankly too scared to ask. She then explained that she had come to be a delegate, she didn’t understand how the other people were nominated, and wanted to know how she could be. The man with the weak voice explained in a tone that sounded almost annoyed that she could nominate herself or someone else could do it. She nominated herself and her husband seconded her.
Other folks entered the nominating process. At the end, there was one more woman nominated than there were spots on the delegation. This forced an election.
The machine showed itself here in a pretty big way. Someone in the crowd asked if people were going to make speeches. The man with the weak voice explained that it was not policy, but tradition in the 20th ward to forego speeches. After a bit of booing, a vote on whether we’d forego speeches was called. The folks in the room who’d been in the room before all voted in favor of it. About 15 people voted against.
The man said it was pretty clearly voted that we’d forego speeches. This caused some grumbling in the crowd. A man next to me, rugged and middle-aged with a beard, jeans and a sweatshirt, asked me “do you really want to hear all these speeches? We’ll be here all day!” I said I did because I didn’t know who these people were. To my surprise, he said, “ya. I guess you’re right. Well get your hand up higher then, make sure he sees ya.” He put up his hand, too.
Eventually, it was decided that the nominees would all introduce themselves. The voice of the gay community requested that they also say who they were supporting, but the man with the weak voice said they were not required to do that.
Almost all of the women who were nominated before the conversation about how to get nominated happened either just raised their hands when their names were called or said that they’d support the eventual democratic nominees. It made me reluctant to vote for them, as I was worried that some of them were Scott Brown democrats, and as a socialist-leaning liberal (fun fact!), my only concerns about Elizabeth Warren are that she isn’t liberal enough. The newcomers were across the board for Warren.
At some point, while people were working on filling out their ballots, the nice woman in the red blazer at the registration table declared she’d be willing to be an alternate, and thus the election was solved before ballots were cast.
Next came the men. Again a list was read, again the names were seconded. This time, the “seconded” came from many in the room. At the end, the man with the weak voice asked if anyone else would like to be nominated. How many seats were left? He didn’t say. I came to this thing to be part of something in the community, so I said, “I’d like to nominate myself, if that’s alright.”
The man with the weak voice asked me to repeat myself. Apparently my voice was just as weak. I did it.
“Seconded,” yelled somebody. I thanked him.
“Anyone else want to nominate?” Asked the man with a voice similar to mine. Nobody spoke up. He then declared that we had exactly enough male delegates, and didn’t need a vote.
It surprised me that there weren’t enough delegates before I nominated myself, and that the man didn’t say anything about it. It may not have been the intention, but it came across that the party men at this caucus were willing to send a shorthanded delegation to the Democratic State Convention rather than open the floor up to people who weren’t keeping count. Additionally, it seemed strange that we were sending delegates from my neighborhood who weren’t required to tell me anything about themselves.
Even more surprising to me was that I was allowed to go as a representative of the 20th Ward, despite the fact that I knew not one person in the room. Was Ward 20 all right with my politics? Do those politics reflect the ward fairly? Were they all right with my supporting Occupy Boston last year with my words, deeds, and money? I’d have happily told them those things, but nobody asked me.
Following my nomination, a number of people congratulated me. I spoke briefly with some of the other delegates, all of whom seemed to welcome me to the fold, at least at first glance. The newcomers were particularly friendly. The husband of the gay rights woman told me they’d lived there for years but never come to one of these things before. Another man told me he’d just moved there and had never seen anything like this.
I agreed with him. I’d been to a caucus, and in fact been elected a delegate, six years prior and a few miles up the road in Jamaica Plain. It was transparent, open, very democratic, and incredibly long. The last of those, I suspect, is what my new ward was trying to avoid, but their willingness to forego the process to expedite it was a shock to the system of all the outsiders in the room. In the end though, the machine Democrats opened the door wide open and welcomed us rookies with open arms. It was almost like we were being tested, and whether or not we passed, we were going to Springfield.
Experience rankings: 1-5
New Experience: 3.5
I'd been to caucuses before, but never in this ward. It was totally different from what I was used to, but I did have something to compare it to.
Can Others Do It: 3
Anyone can go to a caucus, but you are restricted to the political calendar.
Enjoyable: 3.5
Caucuses are interesting, if not fun. Seeing how your neighbors govern and want to be governed in a first person scenario is valuable, and even if some of it shocks or offends you, it's the only way to find out whether you are comfortable with your local officials.

6 comments:

  1. Interesting report. Looks like you got yourself into a club with mysterious traditions...like the Elks maybe? Who knows? Keep us informed.

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  2. How did you hear about the caucus? I've lived in West Roxbury for a year and didn't hear about it--although I'll admit that I don't follow local politics all that closely.

    Anna's glazed donuts are amazing, and I'm pretty sure the sign has been there since the actual 1960s.

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  3. @Daisy - I was informed that caucuses were coming from friends. I looked mine up at http://www.massdems.org. If you're of the republican persuasion, Ward 20 has a pretty active party, too. You can find more about them at http://www.massgop.com. Bluemassgroup.com and Redmassgroup.com are also good sources for political happenings in the state.

    Thanks for reading! Hope you come back!

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  4. Thank you for this great post.

    I'm happy to know three things about you and Ward 20.

    1. you think Elizabeth Warren may not be liberal enough. I agree! She's got great values about what middle class families need but I don't know if she's ready to push the envelope on civil rights like Ted was.

    2. you support Occupy which means that you think values are important in a discussion about gov't priorities, not just market forces

    3. that Ward 20 caucus is run like a 16 minute Mass. Check.

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  5. Glad you enjoyed it, O'Reilly. I'll be writing a lot more about the area, so feel free to follow!

    ReplyDelete
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