COLUMN: A Tuesday night civic tradition

This is my Sunday column for the Feb. 5, 2012 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. UPDATE: Well, heck, I don’t know how it happened but there was an error in the day of the week in the first graph. It’s obviously Tuesday, as the headline indicates.

A Tuesday night civic tradition
By Aaron J. Brown

In Minnesota’s precinct caucuses, which are coming up this Thursday Tuesday evening, power is shared between two vital groups: 1) people who go to almost everything scheduled at the township hall, and 2) people who are really angry about something. Sometimes these are the same people, sometimes not. Sometimes people even bring treats, a feature rarely seen in a dictatorship.

With an even year upon us we now gird ourselves for another modern election, an emotionally taxing exercise in telemarketing, propaganda and partisan self-sorting. It’d be easy to ignore if this weren’t how we actually govern ourselves in this country. Believe it or not a hundred years ago the whole mess was actually considerably more crooked than now. Votes were traded for alcohol and road contracts; bosses bullied their workers into voting their way. It’s only our delicate modern sensibilities, throbbing electronic interconnectedness, and the presence of nuclear weapons in the federal arsenal that convey the sense of doom hovering over today’s elections.

So we gather in a hall this Tuesday night at 7 p.m. for a tradition that goes back generations: the Minnesota Precinct Caucuses. And while it might be tempting to ignore, this is actually a stage in the nonstop campaigning where a regular citizen can have a big influence, arguably as important as the general election in November.

For Republicans, the big story is the presidential race. Mitt Romney has had momentum in the race and is widely regarded as the frontrunner. However, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his fiery conservatism have scored numerous blows on the former Massachusetts governor. Gingrich lead Romney by a considerable amount in the only published poll of likely Minnesota GOP caucus-goers a couple weeks ago, but the race is very fluid.

For his part Romney won Minnesota by a large margin in 2008, trouncing the eventual nominee John McCain. The libertarian-conservative U.S. Rep. Ron Paul and socially conservative former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum are also vying for delegates in Minnesota and have committed groups of supporters hoping for an upset.

For members of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, a vestige of our state’s unique political history, the presidential race is a little less exciting than 2008. President Obama is expected to perform well against his opponent “Uncommitted.” However that is no reason for DFLers to ignore the caucuses, as an important local race will be highlighted on Tuesday.

The DFL party is holding a nonbinding but still important straw poll for Congress on precinct caucus night. U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-MN8) shocked the political establishment by defeating House Transportation Chair and Chisholm political scion Jim Oberstar in 2010. Now three DFLers seek to challenge him in his first bid for re-election.

Former Duluth city councilor and Ely native Jeff Anderson, former Crosby-area Congressman Rick Nolan and former St. Cloud-area State Sen. Tarryl Clark are each hoping for support in the straw poll. While the result won’t eliminate any of them, it will be an important statement of support as the party endorsement process plays out. If the three don’t agree to abide by the party endorsement, an August primary will prove the ultimate arbiter. Nevertheless, the precinct caucus is the first chance for voters to offer an opinion and elect delegates to serve in the process. Votes will be even more influential at this early stage.

You can find your precinct caucus site at the Secretary of State’s website ( The DFL and Republican parties are holding live caucuses at sites all over the area. The Independence Party is holding online caucuses.

Regardless of your party politics, or your lack thereof, now is an important time to get involved and speak your piece. Parties are polarized and often ineffective precisely because so many independents have given up on them. In a process dominated by money, corporations and interest groups, Minnesota still offers a point of access for the least of its citizens to participate in a process that influences candidates before they’re on the ballot. If you can, consider attending your caucus to represent your family and future on Tuesday night.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and community college instructor from the Iron Range. He is the author of the blog and host of the Great Northern Radio Show on 91.7 KAXE.

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