Political party chairs talk trust, caucuses

Last month the state chairs of the Colorado Republican, Democratic and Libertarian parties participated in a panel discussion at the South Metro Chamber of Commerce. It was part of “Election ’09” sponsored by Business Leaders for Responsible Government. This is the second part of the story that started in last week’s issue. It picks up at a question and answer session following the presentation of the three political party leaders, Dick Wadhams, chairman of Colorado Republican Party, Pat Waak, chair of the state Democratic Party, and David K. Williams, who heads up the Colorado Libertarian Party.

Question: One of the things I’m struggling with right now is trust. I’ve worked land development. I’ve worked construction all my years, and it’s always been a we-against-them mentality when it came to dealing with the local governments.

I’m concerned about changing the perception of trust that does not exist now between me, at my level, and our governmental officials. I was raised as a farm kid. It’s pretty obvious that I was more on the Republican side of things than on the Democratic side. But I can tell you this: the Republicans have not represented me in the past decade or more. I’m at a loss as to how to convert this frustration. How can you, as chairpersons, rekindle or redevelop our trust?

• Pat Waak: It is a great question. First of all, I don’t think we should undersell our public servants. I think they need to hear from each of us about what we want, what we care about. And then, trust is really built out of relationships. So it’s really hard for me all of a sudden to say, “I want you to do this” to a person who doesn’t even know me and maybe doesn’t share exactly the same concern I do over a particular issue.

Pat Waak of the Colorado Democrats

It takes that little bit of effort to really get to know the legislators. They’re really trying to serve the best interests of their community. So that means you need to find a way to link in to whomever it is that you’re trying to affect, to rebuild that trust.

I come from farmers on both sides of my family who were all Democrats. They didn’t expect the government to bail them out, but they did think there was going to be a safety net. They did get involved in local politics, even my old grandpa, who broke horses for a living. They did get to know people. And I agree with you. I think it’s the most fundamental thing. Because the further away we get from them, the harder it is to trust them.

I used to get complaints from people about Ken Salazar’s votes when he was in the Senate.

So I asked Senator Salazar, “When you vote, can you just put out an e-mail to everybody and say, ‘This is why I voted this way?’”

Because I knew he did it out of a vote of conscience. He was making a decision because he’d really thought it through very carefully.

(Public servants) aren’t always going to do what we want them to do, but the fact of the matter is, they owe us an explanation. And we owe it to them to tell them how we feel. And if we can’t trust them at all, if they won’t listen to us, then vote for somebody else.

• David K. Williams: In my business, you said what you knew you could do, and you didn’t try to elevate the expectations. And you did everything in your power to make sure that your integrity stayed intact… I don’t see that in our political leaders.

• Dick Wadhams: I guess I would have to disagree with you from the standpoint of both political parties. I might disagree with Bill Ritter — a lot, in fact, on just about everything. But I think he’s a man of integrity. I do not think there’s anything inherently evil or bad about him. I think he’s misguided (laughs) on many different issues. But he is a man of integrity and a good person.

And as I think back to somebody like a Bill Owens, who told us exactly why he was running for governor in 1998 and proceeded to do those things in that first term, when I worked for him.

And Wayne Allard… I don’t think there was a surprising vote the entire 12 years Wayne Allard was in the U.S. Senate. You could predict with mathematical exactness how he was going to vote on every issue because he told the people of Colorado, “This is what I stand for.”

I know there are politicians at some level that maybe go back on their campaign promises. But I think Colorado is blessed with a remarkably ethical process and remarkably ethical elected officials. I really do — on both sides.

Now, that doesn’t say they’re always going to make you happy, because these guys cast hundreds, thousands of votes. So I guess I’m willing to give our guys the benefit of the doubt.

I will agree with Pat on something. The theme of today is our remarkably open process in Colorado. Get involved. Elected officials remember who were with them. I will tell you that — as a campaign manager on a bunch of campaigns — I will never forget those who were with us in the beginning. Never forget them. And these were just normal, hardworking Coloradans who helped us early on. And so I would invite you to do that with candidates in the future.

• Williams: William Shakespeare said, “There’s small choice in rotten apples,” and I feel your frustration. That’s why the Libertarian party exists. We basically reject the two-party monopoly, because quite often they overlap on the issues. Those parties tend to look to the government for solutions to whatever problem they think might be out there. And the two-party system is not in the Constitution. It’s not anywhere. It’s just the way things have evolved. It doesn’t have to be that way. John Quincy Adams said, “Any time you vote your conscience, your vote is never wasted.”

I hear so many people say, “Well, you know, I’d vote for so and so, but I want to vote for a winner.” Well, if everybody who said that actually voted … for a Libertarian…, they would be voting for a winner. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So if you’re satisfied with the status quo — and it doesn’t sound like you are — the only way to change it is to vote differently.

Question: How can people like me get involved?

• Wadhams: If one of the candidates for governor or senator turns you on, call them up, and they’re going to get you involved, especially in the Republican party.

Now Pat’s going to have two incumbents running, and for those of you who are Democrats, there’ll be opportunities in the Democratic Party to work on the campaigns. But there’s going to be a special excitement in the Republican Party in 2010, because we’re going to have competition for our nominations.

The precinct caucuses next March are going to be heavily contested. We’re going to do a preference poll for governor and senator at those caucuses, so all the candidates are going to be very focused on those.

If you offer yourself to one of these candidates for governor or senator, they’re going to take you up on it. And they’re going to get you involved. You can get as involved as you want to. But mostly it’s showing up.

• Waak: There’s CILT, the Colorado Institute for Leadership Training, which is a fairly long process that you can sign up for, and you can go online and find that. There are also a lot of other trainings if you’re on the Democratic side.

Camp Wellstone usually comes into the state at various times and does a whole long weekend intensive training. Progressive Majority also does a long intensive training. And if you’re a woman and you want to run for office, the White House Project does outstanding training programs for women who are thinking about running for office.

David Williams of the Colorado Libertarians

• Williams: I just have two things that you also can do. Liberty on the Rocks is a nonpartisan organization that’s center-right based. You can look them up on the Web. And there’s the People’s Press Collective, a center-right type of media aggregator. Lots of different events are listed there.

Question: George Washington, in his closing address said, “Beware of two parties.” One of the things that scares me very much is our reliance on two parties. Obviously, we do have a third party. But how do you see the role of the parties and the importance of the parties and what that does for somebody who maybe is left on some issues and right on others and really can’t find a candidate they’re satisfied with?

• Williams: Thomas Jefferson said, “If I could get into heaven but with a party, I wouldn’t go.” You’re right, George Washington warned about it as well. So I think our position on that would be pretty straightforward. It ain’t medicine. You don’t have to take it.

• Waak: You know, there’s an interesting phenomenon going on right now. I mentioned early on that Organizing for America is sitting in our office right now. It is actually the Obama network that is made up of people who are not in parties — Democrats who don’t want to be involved in the party, some Republicans and unaffiliateds and people who aren’t even registered to vote — who just are willing to go out and canvas and make phone calls around issues.

I have a brother who wants a third party. He doesn’t want the Libertarian party, but he wants a third party that’s way out there. And what I said to him is, “Until we have a system where it’s a fair, even playing field, we’re kind of stuck with the two-party system because that’s where the money and the organization go into.”

It would take you 40 years to build something totally different from the ground up. Not impossible, but that’s kind of where we are. From my standpoint, there are issues where I disagree with some of my elected officials and some of the candidates, but I’m very pragmatic. I try to tell them how I feel. And I have private meetings or phone calls with them on a lot of these issues.

But the fact of the matter is that I believe that the Democratic Party stands for the basic values that I stand for. And, therefore, I’m proud to represent it. My job is to make sure that the right people are running for office — and that if they’re not there for the right reasons, that we’re not promoting them as our candidates.

• Wadhams: I think your question is based on the premise that a political party is a bunch of people who absolutely think alike on everything and march in lockstep together on everything. If you talk to people who have gone though our processes, I think you’ll find that the Republican Party is made up of a lot of different points of view.

Dick Wadhams of the Colorado Republicans

We have economic conservatives, social conservatives, and we have moderates. We have a few liberals. We don’t have a lot of liberals. They don’t have a lot of conservatives in their party. But I will tell you, there are a lot of motivations for people to become Republicans. We do not march in lockstep. I’ve got a bunch of people who think I’m too conservative, and I’ve got a bunch of people in my party who think I’m too liberal. In fact, my opponent for re-election (to the party chairmanship) — whom I recently defeated — said I was too liberal.

I think the premise of your question is a little off. I know what Pat’s talking about when she talks about how she had a bunch of people upset at Ken Salazar. He did deviate from the party line several times. And I bet you did get some phone calls. That underscores that the Democratic Party is not a bunch of lockstep liberals. They’ve got a fairly diverse crowd involved, as well. These (political parties) are living, breathing institutions.

I was gone from Colorado for about four years when I was in South Dakota and Virginia doing a couple of campaigns. And I will tell you, when I came back and got involved in politics again in Colorado, I was amazed at how many new people had all of a sudden come up. All these new people I’d never met before. County chairs and legislators I’d never even heard of.

It just shows you how both parties are constantly evolving. New people come in. People get tired of the process and go out. I think we’re well served by a two-party system because there’s great debate within both parties on the future and on the kind of candidates we put up. And I think if you really got involved in one or the other, you’d find that we are not a bunch of lockstep individuals.

Question: Do you think we’ll see any changes in the next caucuses?

• Waak: Last weekend, the Change Commission met, which is the commission appointed by our new chair, Governor (Timothy) Kaine, (of Virginia) to look at the whole caucus primary process. And also to look at the issue of superdelegates, which became a very hot issue. I know Republicans don’t have them. We do — and because of the close race (for the presidential nomination), there was a lot of debate over them.

I don’t know what that’s going to look like when they finish. And, quite frankly, our state Legislature has to decide whether they want to go along with whatever is dictated from the national parties, as well. To show you how far off the mark we were (in 2008), we anticipated that maybe we would get 30,000 people into caucus.

Then we saw what happened in Iowa, so we upped that to say, “Well, what if we got 40,000 people?” We had no idea that we were going to have such a turnout and, quite frankly, we were not prepared. It was like the rabbit that goes through the boa constrictor, because it went from there to the county parties to the congressional districts, to the state convention.

I think we would try to anticipate better. But it’s not going to be like that in 2010. It just won’t. 2012? We’ll see what happens.

• Wadhams: The action in the caucuses will be a big deal for us as Republicans because we have competitive nomination fights for governor and senator.

There are a couple of concerns I have about the caucuses. First of all, when I walked into the cafeteria of Columbine High School, where my caucuses were held, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was mass chaos. It was the most beautiful noise I’d ever heard because I’ve never seen anything like that. Most times, the caucuses are kind of deadly. (Laughs.) You have a few people sitting around the table when you’re done.

People couldn’t hear each other. It was an amazing evening. And I know the same thing obviously happened on the Democratic side.

I’m a big believer in the caucus process. Pat and I are strong advocates (for) the caucus assembly process. What I worry about is that I got a lot of phone calls from active military and health and law enforcement professionals who were on duty that night and who wanted to vote in the precinct caucus. But you can’t vote absentee in a precinct caucus. That’s just the rules.

I’ve thought long and hard about that. I don’t know what the answer is, but one of my concerns is for people who have to work. I heard from police officers and health professionals and active military, in particular. I really wonder how we can accommodate them without violating the integrity (of the process). Because part of the reason to hold a caucus is to actually have a discussion. To actually get people in a room and have a real discussion about the issues.

It really is a wonderful thing, that neighborhood meeting of Republicans and Democrats who talk about the future of our state and nation. So how do we maintain that while accommodating people who can’t be there? I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m giving a lot of thought to it.

• Williams: We’re not big enough to have caucuses, but if you show up at our state party, your vote will be heard. And the same thing with the national parties. We don’t have to worry about all that huge organizational stuff.

And I’ll just say that if you have to hold your nose to vote for a member of the two-party monopoly, just because you don’t think he’s quite as bad or she’s quite as bad as the other person, you’ve just given up your sacred vote. You’ve just exercised your constitutional or your democratic duty and gave your approval to somebody you don’t approve of. Where’s the victory in that, even if you win?

So if you vote your conscience. I don’t care if you vote for the Green Party, if that’s what your conscience says. You can vote for whomever. If that’s what your conscience says, that’s who you should vote for. If you do that, your vote is not wasted.