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The other caucuses

For the Monitor
Last modified: 2/1/2016 10:12:55 AM
In the back of a crowded union hall, Sara Stuart paced, rereading a draft of her speech, straightening her blinking blue headband and smoothing her “Talk Bernie to Me” T-shirt.

Stuart, of Concord, was among dozens of people who turned out Saturday in hopes of winning a chance to represent New Hampshire at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this summer. These gatherings are called caucuses, but unlike what’s happening today in Iowa, they’re designed to choose potential delegates, not presidential nominees.

Each of the three major Democratic candidates hosted two caucuses – one per congressional district – as part of a quadrennial process that’s part town meeting, part pep rally. The men and women competing to serve as delegates used words, costumes and even snacks to stump for votes. Some had been involved in politics for decades, but plenty of others were brand new.

“It’s designed to maximize the opportunities for grassroots people to be selected,” said state party Chairman Ray Buckley, who, at this point in the election cycle, spends a fair amount of time providing primers on the role of delegates.

Delegate allocation is one of the more esoteric aspects of presidential politics. Both parties distribute delegates based on the results of the primary, but the steps for picking exactly who joins the delegation differs between Democrats and Republicans.

For the GOP, it’s largely a matter of paperwork. New Hampshire is allowed to send 23 delegates to the Republican National Convention. Three spots are reserved for local members of the Republican National Committee. The remaining 20 are picked by the campaigns, with each candidate submitting a list of names when he or she files to run for office.

The Democrats, meanwhile, use public caucuses like the ones held Saturday to choose half of their 32 delegates. Later this year, those people will choose an additional eight delegates. The remaining eight spots are filled by local party leaders. Each state’s delegation must also be equal parts male and female and exhibit diversity in terms of race, sexual orientation and other factors.

“The process is complicated because it’s created to be fair and open,” Buckley said.

On Saturday, all three of the 2nd Congressional District’s caucuses took place in Concord. Hillary Clinton’s, held at Christa McAuliffe School, was the largest with roughly 175 participants. Bernie Sanders supporters met at the IBEW hall on the Heights, where organizers counted roughly 110 people. Martin O’Malley’s campaign, meanwhile, assembled just over a dozen supporters at the Democratic Party’s downtown headquarters.

The mood at all three locations was jovial as potential delegates arrived with written remarks, homemade signs, bags of cookies, contingents of supporters and, in a few cases, flashy costumes. Deborah Pignatelli of Nashua skipped the costume but brought her family, grandkids included, to support her successful bid to serve as a Clinton delegate.

Pignatelli has been involved in politics for decades, but this is only the second time she’s run to be a delegate. (The first was in 1988 for Dick Gephardt.) She won’t know until after the primary if she gets to attend the convention, but she hopes to have the chance to support Clinton in person.

“I want to be there with my voices and my vote, to help her break this highest glass ceiling for all of us women,” she said as caucus-goers headed out to canvass parts of downtown Concord. “It doesn’t hurt that she’s the best qualified.”

Stuart was equally excited about the prospect of supporting Sanders.

“He just has something,” she said. “He understands. He’s been the one voice for us about the big money machine out there.”

She gave an energetic speech and her blinking blue headband was a hit, but she didn’t earn enough votes to be considered as a delegate.

A handful of prospective delegates couldn’t attend the caucuses in person, so they sent proxies instead. That’s how Jay Chittidi ended up driving to Concord from his college in upstate New York to stump for his sister, Maitri. She’s studying abroad in Scotland, but didn’t want to let the Atlantic Ocean get in the way of her dream to become a Clinton delegate.

Chittidi, of Nashua, was active in Democratic politics even as a high school student and, after watching the 2012 convention on TV, wanted to get more involved.

“I told myself that I would try to be there for the next convention in 2016,” she wrote an email. “And even back then I knew that I was supporting Clinton as the next president.” 

Their plan worked, with Chittidi earning enough votes to land on the list of potential Clinton delegates.

The O’Malley caucus was the smallest, but potential delegates there were just as passionate about their candidate. They were also optimistic about his chances to sway voters in the final days of the primary.

“I believe in him,” said O’Malley delegate Colleen Willis of Keene. “I’ve met a lot of people who respect him. Everything happens at the last minute.”


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