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Caucuses ignited county's political passions

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By Doug Bell

It’s a little too early in this election year to declare democracy the big winner in 2008, but early returns are certainly encouraging.

The stunning turnout by Democrats at Jeffco’s party caucuses Feb. 5 — 10 times the turnout during the last presidential campaign in 2004 — is an indication that long-apathetic voters are beginning to dip their toes in the puddles of populism that have somehow survived the last eight years.

And in many precincts, the puddles overflowed.

Bob West, a Democrat and a 23-year Evergreen resident, ventured out to his caucus on a very chilly evening Feb. 5 and found the parking lots full at Evergreen High School.

“There were cars driving around the parking lot for a half-hour. Nobody could find a parking place. I finally left,” said West, a retired software developer.

West, a supporter of Hillary Clinton, was a bit discouraged that he never made it inside, but his political fervor and his desire for a change in national leadership remain strong.

“Republicans have taken the ranch over the last eight years, and I support Hillary because she’s not going to give away the ranch,” West said.

County Commissioner Kathy Hartman, a Democrat whose 2006 victory stunned many in a county that has traditionally been a Republican stronghold, was understandably elated by the surge of participation by county Democrats.

“It was tremendously exciting,” said Hartman, who attended the caucus at Governor’s Ranch Elementary. “My official position at the caucus was to be the official shouter. We had 100 chairs out, and we still had 150 people without chairs. And we had no public address system.”

Hartman has her own theories on why politics has suddenly taken center stage in the lives of so many Jeffco residents.

“In my opinion, it’s the huge desire to change the direction of our national leadership,” she said. “It’s more than opposition to the war. It’s our national reputation abroad. It’s the economy. Especially in Colorado, I think it’s the environment.

“People who weren’t sure in the past that their vote mattered today are determined that their vote matter.”

Colorado’s crazy caucus system has played a role in past doubts about whether caucus votes do, indeed, matter. Voting for delegates through several levels of political meetings is not as clean or clear as voting directly for a candidate at the polls, and as a result many Coloradans have skipped the caucuses in the past and waited for the August primary.

Presidential primaries in Colorado, especially on the Democratic side, have been known to produce some jaw-dropping surprises. In 1992, despite limited finances and a completely quixotic candidacy, Jerry Brown defeated Bill Clinton here, a result I actually predicted. Of course, I also wrote a few years later that the Avalanche acquiring Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy was the equivalent of “hiring Picasso to paint the barn.”

County Commissioner Kevin McCasky, a Republican who faces re-election this year, was fresh out of athletic analogies. But he did agree that Colorado politics has suddenly become more than a spectator sport.

McCasky attended the caucus at Maple Grove Elementary School, and the turnout for his precinct was about two and a half times normal. Other precincts meeting at the school tripled their turnout.

McCasky said his own race will present some challenges, but that he’s more than ready.

“It’s a big county. It’s a long race. And we had a whole lot of Republicans turn out,” he said. “I’m excited about the election and the opportunity to serve again.

“I’m going to have to work extra hard to get my message out, and we’ve got our strategy in place to do that.”

About all we can reliably say in the wake of Colorado’s 2008 caucuses is that moving the caucuses to Super Tuesday apparently fanned the already-smoldering flames of Coloradans’ political passions. Whether that wave of participation has peaked, or will carry our country, and Jefferson County, to a political revolution, is hard to predict.

Doug Bell is the editor of Evergreen Newspapers.