On the off chance you didn’t notice, we had us one of those fancy election things here in Iowa last January. Gotta make some choices. But we can’t just step into the handy voting booth and flip a lever or fill in a couple of ovals. No, we caucus. I decided to participate anyway.
First let’s go over some background. In the last two presidential caucuses, I went to the Democratic version, even though I was an elected Republican officeholder (Orleans Township Clerk) at the time. The difference this year was that we went from a meeting of two rural townships to one with four townships, one of which contains the booming metropolis of Ridgeway, population 308. Instead of 12 to 15 of us gathering in the back room of the bar in Kendallville, population 20- or 30-ish, we met at the Ridgeway Community Center. This was a huge crowd. We ended up with 101 people in attendance. My immediate fear when I pulled up to the crowded parking lot was that my dad and I probably wouldn’t be able to swing two entire townships to our candidate of choice and away from the more popular one this time like we had done in two previous contests.
There’s this whole “viability” thing in the Democratic caucus contest. Each candidate has to have 15% of the total vote in order to remain viable. If you have 100 people present and only 13 support your guy, your guy is toast. If you can convince two others to join you, though, your guy goes from toast to upper crust. When there are only 18 people in the whole room, you and, let’s say, a cooperative relative can suddenly swing one mind to your side and suddenly your guy, who was a loser when you walked in, is more realistic. Lemmings that voters are, it won’t take much of a pressure situation to get multiples coming your way. Next thing you know, you have six people join you, and your guy has suddenly moved into landslide territory.
I got out of my rather-red-state car and headed for the front door of the community center. Parked right in front of the door of the community center, with its lights on and the engine running, was an absolute piece of junk car. It was something on the order of a Chevy Caprice Classic from the early 1980s. It was multiple colors, but its collar was obviously blue. Surprisingly, there were no ID stickers on it from any country clubs or gated communities. The occupant of the car was honking the horn as I walked into the building. The line for registration was long, and I ended up not moving very far very quickly. The guy in the car kept honking his horn. No one in the building did anything as a result. This would be a long night if we had to listen to the constant blare of a car horn. Seeing as how the occupant looked kind of old, from what I could tell as I had walked by him on my way in, I thought perhaps he was delivering someone who thought this was a mark-your-ballot-and-leave kind of a deal.
Leadership guy that I am, I went outside to see if the driver needed something. He opened his door and I asked if he was looking for someone inside. His voice, his appearance, his car interior, and everything about his entire existence did not shout “SUCCESS!” to me. We don’t have a huge homeless population here in rural Winneshiek County, but once this guy opened his car door, I thought I might be looking at that population in its entirety. If nothing else, perhaps my conversation with him would get his hand off the horn.
Let’s call him Ed. Special Ed. That’s not his name, and that’s not an indication of his abilities. Quite the contrary, he seemed to be fairly sharp mentally, but there was just something very different about him. I almost didn’t go outside, but then I remembered the phrase my sisters would keep reciting to me if they had been there at the time. “You are a NUT MAGNET!”
Special Ed said he did need some help, as a matter of fact. Ed was on oxygen. He pointed at the portable tank on wheels in the front seat next to him. I asked Ed if he wanted me to help him get into the building. “Sure! Can you bring my oxygen around for me?” he asked.
I went to the passenger side of the car while Ed climbed out of the driver’s side. He had already moved himself into the front entrance as I walked up with his oxygen tank. We got inside and Ed acted like his car could stay where it was all night long. Never mind that it was still running. Granted, this is Ridgeway, and you can probably leave your car running for a couple hours and have it still be there when you come back, but gas was $3 a gallon at the time and Ed didn’t look to me like he had a piece of the Getty Oil estate.
I came over to Ed, who had taken a seat at one of the registration tables, and asked him if he wanted me to park his car for him.
“Sure, go ahead,” Ed told me. He had no problem turning his car over to a complete stranger. Really, though, what was his downside in this equation?
I hopped in the Partridge Family Sedan and headed for the parking lot. We have this one particular truck that is a classic piece-of-junk farm truck: dents, terrible paint, oil leaks, missing mirrors, a door that won’t open, rust, you name it. That truck is very close to being an upgrade from Ed’s car, though. Ed’s car gets points for a better smell, but not by much.
I came back to the building and handed Ed his keys. He gave me the life story of the car. This would be a theme to the evening, I would find out later.
We got the registration stuff handled. Then it was time to find a seat. The room holds about 150 to 200 people comfortably, but tables were set up in some pretty obvious fashion to segregate people by their choice of candidates. Each area of the room had a big sign for the main candidates. Hillary, Obama and Edwards all had big signs. Richardson had a small sign in a corner. I looked around and didn’t see any Biden signs. I also didn’t see any circles filled in under Biden when I wrote my name down on the sign-in sheet. Fifteen percent was looking more and more like a fairy tale.
Finally, someone who looked responsible and in charge walked by. I asked her where the Biden supporters were. She went over to the registration table, looked at the multiple pages of the sign-in sheet and returned to me. “You’re it.”
WHAT?!?!?!!! Just me? All these polls showed a surge by Biden. He was actually showing up in rural areas. He was looking great on the public affairs shows. They even mentioned him as a potential sleeper of a surprise with a top-tier finish. To borrow a phrase from a candidate in 2000, the guy had, dare I say, Joe-mentum!!!!
Well, maybe all the undeclared supporters would join me. Sure, there didn’t appear to be an area for the undecideds, but maybe they were blending in at the moment and would join me eventually when the opportunity to switch came up. Maybe, just maybe, I could get Special Ed to come to my corner. At the moment, I didn’t even see him, but there was a corner of the room on the other side of the kitchen I couldn’t see from my corner. (That’s how Joe-mentum works, incidentally. When you least expect it, Joe-mentum hops out at you from around the corner and takes you totally by surprise.)
When the meeting began, it was a bit disorganized. We were told that each candidate had an area for supporters, and that we would break into those groups soon. First, though, was the whole mathematical stuff to cover. Various responsible people had done the math and calculated that we had 101 people in attendance. To be viable, each candidate needed 15 people. We were now free to move to our respective areas. Fortunately for me, while the counting was taking place, one of my favorite uncles came over to talk with me. Uncle Bill asked me who I was backing. I told him Biden was my guy. He said that’s who he was there for, too.
Alright, baby, Joe-mentum is on track and gaining speed! Just 13 more people and we’ll make this happen!
The Richardson sign had attracted a couple of people. None of them struck me as the aggressive lobbying types. Then a fairly attractive young thing walked by me and headed to the corner. She had a yellow sheet of paper in her hand and a roll of tape. She taped the paper to the wall. It read, “Dodd.” She was an army of one.
Bill and I were still our own little island. Right off hand, I wasn’t sure which one of us would end up being Gilligan. There was a pretty hefty piece of empty space between us and Ginger in the corner, under her Dodd “poster.” A quick head count made me realize that Richardson had only added a couple of people. Next thing you know, a woman walked over to Bill and me and asked if we were the Biden crowd. Joe-mentum, baby! Feel the groundswell!!!
Unfortunately, Ginger picked up another supporter. We still had a one-voter lead on her, though. Richardson had overtaken us by a wide margin. He now had six people. Nowhere was there a banner for “Undecided.”
I heard a hiss. I think it was the hydrogen coming out of the Joe-mentum dirigible. The fields of Lakehurst were coming up fast. Oh, the humanity! At least we were sharing the gondola with Ginger, her pal and the Richardson crowd.
There was more discussion and more counting. (“Check your numbers to make sure you have everyone counted correctly for your group.” Yep, we did the math and we had three each time, with and without the abacus.) Then the unviables were finally told to get real and go to a viable camp. Knowing that the sum total of all three of our obscure factions didn’t total 15%, all of us threw up our hands and headed to our second-, third- or fourth-choice destinations with our folding chairs in hand.
The majority of my unviable compatriots headed to the Edwards camp, where they won with 41%. They were greeted by cheers and a standing ovation. One or two went to Hillary, who finished third with about 28%. Two or three of us headed for Obama, to place second with 31%. We also received some cheers.
I saw an opportunity when I came around the corner and surprised my now-fellow supporters. (Remember, Joe-mentum loves sneaking up on you!) Special Ed was seated at the end of one Obama table with no one near him. I parked my chair next to Ed. This could only get better.
During the rest of the event, there would be times for discussion about a variety of issues. Ed and I didn’t really cover politics during these moments. Chatty cuss/nut magnet that I am, I wanted to make this all about Ed. Something told me that hitching my wagon to Ed may be a good thing for me. Sure enough, when it came time to nominate people for various convention and committee positions, the focus seemed to avoid Ed and me in our wide-open hideaway. It was as though we were wearing responsibility camouflage.
I’m not exactly Mr. Staunch Conservative, but I was shocked at how little compassion any of the Democrats in the room had for Ed. No one helped him when he showed up. Didn’t answer his horn alert, didn’t even open a door for him, didn’t include him in any way. Something told me Ed was worth my time, though.
Ed mentioned a variety of things, many of which were great stories, but I won’t get into them. Let’s just say that no one takes advantage of Ed in any dealings when it comes to real estate, construction/remodeling, health care or anything else. If you want to get sued, reported to your licensing bureau, or just have life be difficult, get on the wrong side of Ed.
I asked Ed if he had ever been in the armed forces and he said yes and gave me the exact dates of when he had served. Then I asked where he had served and in which branch of the armed forces. That’s when it got interesting.
“I wasn’t in the service, so to speak. I worked for . . . the government. Not the service . . . the government. You know what I mean?”
I think so. Which particular department? Like, the Secret Service, or the Defense Department, or which one?
“Welllllll, it was . . . the government. You know? The government.”
We were in code, but I wasn’t entirely sure why, although I had a hunch. Ed confirmed it after I agreed with him without really saying anything.
“You ever heard of Black Ops?”
“I can’t say what I did. You know what I mean? I did things. I did projects. You know?”
Ed then proceeded to recite a list of countries around the globe where he did projects. None of them were friendly places, unless you were a pinko commie sympathizer. The one that he was particularly proud of was Cuba.
“It was a big project in Cuba. Biiiiiiiiiiigggggg project. We almost . . . . “
Ed stopped in mid-sentence.
“I can’t tell you anything else.”
With that, the meeting was pretty much over and we were free to disperse. For a few minutes there, I had almost forgotten about the purpose of the evening. Ed handed me the keys and I went out to retrieve his chariot. I even did him the favor of wiping off more than the porthole he had cleared from his windshield.
I got Ed and his oxygen tank loaded into his car and sent him on his way. The whole time, I kept wondering what the odds were that this would happen to me. (Oh, yeah. I’m a nut magnet. The odds are about 99% this would happen only to me.) The evening was supposed to be about picking a leader for our country, but I had ended up doing a small favor for someone who was ultimately far more entertaining. What I couldn’t figure out was whether the person I had just helped was an elderly James Bond/Sopranos type whose Federal Witness Relocation Program outcome landed him in Ridgeway, or maybe just an Abe Simpson (Homer’s dad) type having some fun with me.
If I mysteriously disappear, you’ll know it wasn’t Abe. Please see to it that the coroner’s certificate says: “Cause of Death: Acute Covert Joe-mentum.”
Guy No. 2