by JACOB H. FRIES & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & grandmother and retiree, Rose Honsa strode into the cafeteria at Roosevelt Elementary. People were crowded around tables. Many were making impassioned speeches. It was loud, chaotic, but electrifying.
It was 2004 and after more than 50 years of being apolitical, Honsa had just walked into her first caucus.
"The place was packed. You couldn't even move your elbows," Honsa recalls. "People would get up on the tables to talk. Democracy really is chaos. That's how it felt. Maybe you could say 'organized chaos,' because there were forms and pens and pencils."
Despite the confusing moments, "it becomes intoxicating," she says.
Four years later, it's high time to get drunk again. On Saturday, Washington voters will go to their precinct caucuses and declare their presidential preferences. State party leaders expect a large and perhaps record turnout, in part because of the caucus' position after Super Tuesday. For once, candidates are actually coming to the Northwest. For once, Washington might just have a say in who becomes the leader of the free world.
"It's an exciting prospect for us," says Kristine Reeves, chair of Spokane County Democrats. "And given the candidates that we have, I think we're going to end up with a very big turnout."
Observers also expect the caucus to draw a lot of young and first-time voters. It's not exactly clear, however, which candidates Eastern Washington will support.
Across the state, Illinois Senator Barack Obama has raised more money - $1.7 million as of last week - than any other candidate and nearly double Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
On the Republican side, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is the top fundraiser in the Northwest, raising $707,697 in Washington, $600,806 in Idaho and $429,612 in Oregon, according to last week's figures. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, who raised $551,300 in Washington, is running second.
But what about in Spokane?
"The feeling is that there will be a lot of Ron Paul turnout there" among Republican caucus-goers, says Curt Fackler, the head of Spokane County Republicans who is hosting a precinct caucus at his house. "I see them being a factor. But really I'm excited about getting new people into the process."
And oh, what a process it is.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & ere's how it works: Caucus goers go to a designated location, be it a school or someone's basement (See CAUCUS FINDER to locate yours). Depending on the size of the precinct, people may break into smaller groups where everyone declares which candidate they support. This is when the fun begins.
People start lobbying for their particular candidate and try to sway those who are still undecided. Eventually, the group selects delegates, who go to the next level, either a legislative district or county convention. The meetings are also an opportunity for party members to discuss their platforms and consider resolutions on issues they care about.
"You go one step inside the door and you will be enthused," recalls Honsa, who left her first caucus as an elected delegate. "It's a Pandora's box of anticipation and excitement."
Both parties like caucuses because they draw new people like Honsa into the party. State Democrats use the process to assign their delegates to the national convention. Republicans, on the other hand, use caucuses to select about half their delegates and the primary to determine the rest. Washington's primary is scheduled for Feb. 19 and ballots mailed to voters show candidates of both parties. But remember Democrats refuse to award any delegates based on the primary's results.
So, why a caucus and a primary?
Legislators created the primary in 1989, but the law can't force the parties to use the results for delegate selection. It's in the hands of each party, and both have refused to use primary results to pick all of their delegates.
This year, there's another wrinkle. To dissuade people from voting in one party's caucus and the other's primary, voters must sign an oath as either a Democrat or a Republican, pledging not to mess around with the other party's nominating process. Unsigned ballots won't count.
The Republican oath goes, "I declare I am a member of the Republican Party and I have not participated and will not participate in the 2008 precinct caucus or convention system of any other party."
The Democratic oath goes, "I declare that I consider myself to be a DEMOCRAT and I will not participate in the nomination process of any other political party for the 2008 Presidential election."
Not surprisingly in a state that doesn't require party registration, some folks are upset. Independent voters have to declare an affiliation if they want their vote to be counted. And the record of your party selection will given to the state parties. It's unclear yet what impact, if any, the obligatory oath will have on turnout or general enthusiasm.
"I think for the most part, diehards won't mind, but it seems to me, with independents emerging as the largest party in the country, a lot of people don't want to declare themselves as either Democrat or Republican," says Judith Gilmore, a community activist and former City Council candidate. "I know there were people who didn't vote in the last primary for local elections [in August] and I know there were people who, as a form of protest, simply did not mark a ballot."
But for all those people moaning about having to take a party's oath, there are plenty of people like Honsa, who have been waiting years for this moment.
"Attending a caucus makes you aware that you are part of a community," she says. "You can go to a fireworks display or a baseball game and be in the mix of things, but you won't know anything about who you're sitting next to. When you go to a caucus, you're rubbing elbows with people you've never met, but you are all tuned into the same thing. ... As long as there are caucuses, elections are a personal thing."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & ast Friday, Honsa -- the same woman who four years ago didn't have any time or stomach for politics -- attended a pre-caucus rally of Democrats in Spokane. She wore her "Uncle Sam" hat, an oversized felt number decked out in red, white and blue. She carried a beer for herself and handed a second bottle to a stranger.
"You seem to be without adequate joy," she said, pressing the beer in the man's hand.
To Honsa, politics is about connecting to people. (Before retiring, she had worked for the phone company, which was all about connecting people.) She moved through the room shaking hands and hugging old friends. And as the night wore on, people grew animated and chatty, high on hope, big ideas and Henry Weinhard's.
At its best, Honsa says again, democracy gets you buzzed.