Fighting for Every Texas Delegate

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Eric Kayne / Houston Chronicle / AP

Members of Precinct 379 vote on a chair to lead their precinct at the convention during the Texas Democratic Senate District 6 Convention, Saturday, March 29, 2008 in Houston, Texas.

In the compressed, fast-moving primary calendar this election year, the Texas contest of March 4 may seem like ancient history. But since the complicated hybrid voting affair in the Lone Star State involved a caucus as well as a primary, the hotly contested counting of delegates for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is still going on, and this past weekend both campaigns did all they could to try to gain the upper hand.

Across Texas, over 100,000 Democrats gathered Saturday at county conventions — the second tier of the complicated three-step caucus process to select 67 delegates to the national convention — joining the 126 delegates chosen in the primary voting that same day. With her 51% win of the popular vote, Hillary Clinton won 65 delegates to Barack Obama's 61 in the actual primary. But late Saturday, his campaign declared it had 99 total delegates to Clinton's 94. Clinton's camp disputes that, and by Monday morning it appeared that Obama's lead had shrunk to three delegates.

From powerful Clinton insiders to the lowliest precinct delegate for Hillary, it was obvious over the weekend that the Clintonites were not going to let Obama tip the scales without a fight. Clinton presidential committee chairman Terry McAuliffe rode frenetically up and down Interstate 35 between Austin and Waco, dropping in on county conventions along the way to spur Hillary's supporters. "She's in this thing for the long haul. The way I look at it, this thing is basically tied," he told the Waco Tribune.

But while top guns like McAuliffe cajoled, spun and whipped up the crowds in Waco and Austin, the outcome was really up to the foot soldiers at the grassroots level. At one precinct outside Austin, nine of them spent the entire day in an exhausting duel with 16 Obama representatives to choose from amongst themselves two delegates to join more than 7,000 others at the Texas state convention in June, where the 67 delegates headed to Democratic National Convention in Denver in August will be finalized.

The 25 delegates hailed from Precinct 110, a suburban, middle- to upper-middle-class neighborhood in northwest Austin, just a stone's throw from Dell Computer and other Austin high-tech companies. In so many ways, the group was a mirror of Austin — a multicultural mix of whites, Asians, African Americans and Hispanics, immigrant and native-born, young men and middle-aged single women, a guy with a ponytail, a woman with a Caribbean accent, an Arab-American precinct chairman, a graphic designer, a teacher-cum-soccer mom, an entrepreneur, a real estate company owner. All of them were participating in their first county convention and, though tired after an almost 12-hour caucus, all went away in awe of the messy deliberative process.

For the 25 delegates the day began in the wee hours — most arrived at the Travis County Exposition Center, a large facility normally used for livestock shows and concerts, shortly after 6 a.m. The traffic that morning was horrendous, and with an estimated 9,000-plus Austin-area delegates eager to line up for their convention credentials, party officials had to extend the sign-in time until almost noon. Worried they would not make the deadline, many delegates decided not to wait in a two-mile traffic jam and simply parked their cars along the side of the road and walked in.

Inside the expo center, the crowds were raucous, and empty pizza boxes, peanut shells and paper cups littered the floor, so the 25 members of Precinct 110 decided to caucus outside in a cavernous, covered delivery area behind the stage. By 1 p.m. Precinct 110 was embroiled in what would be an almost two-hour discussion on how they would conduct their delegate vote. Party rules prohibit secret ballots, and the group had decided to vote by writing their choice for a state convention delegate on a sheet next to the voter's name. But the sheet — drawn up by the precinct chairwoman, an Obama supporter — had listed the 9 Clinton precinct delegates first, followed by the 16 Obama delegates. This would allow the Obama supporters to see how their rivals had voted before they cast any of their choices, the Clinton supporters argued, enabling them to adjust their strategy on the fly if necessary. Rita Stephan, the 35-year-old precinct chairman, a college professor and self-described soccer mom, had used an Excel spreadsheet to generate the list and insisted there was no dark strategy behind the way the names were listed.

But the painstaking debate raged on: Could they write their names and choices on pieces of paper? Should they have a voice vote? Could they cover their name and choice on the list so the next person could not see how they had voted? By 2:30 p.m., one of the volunteer parliamentarians roaming the expo center was called in. "Your vote is to be open at the time it is cast," Christopher Duke, 20, a college political science major, advised the group.

Thirty minutes after wrangling over how ties would be broken, Stephan decided to call for the vote; while all 16 Obama delegates opted to go forward, the 9 Clinton delegates preferring to prolong the debate. It was clear that drawing out the process was a strategic move by the Clintonites, a tactic seen elsewhere around the state that day, as delays caused some delegates to give up and go home. A few delegates were seen leaving the expo center in mid-afternoon, but the 16 Obama backers in Precinct 110 said they would not leave until the results were turned in and recorded.

At the heart of all this strategy was simple math: with a 16-to-9 split there was no way the Obama supporters could sweep all four state convention slots (two delegates and two alternates). Each side nominated several candidates for the state convention slots, then each precinct delegate had one vote. The two top winners would serve as the delegates, with the third- and fourth-place winners named as alternates if either of the delegates could not attend the June state convention. The Clintonites' goal was to nail down one of the two main delegates.

"We had several strategies," said Linda Davis Kyle, a forty-something writer and ardent Hillary supporter. "While they were doing high fives because they had more people, we stayed cool. Plan one was for everyone to vote for the same person." That would sacrifice any chance at getting one of the alternates, but would ensure a delegate for Hillary. On the Obama side, Jay Carter, 32, a former TV reporter turned real estate company owner, said the hope was that the Clinton ranks would split. The Obama team planned to divide their votes — women voting for a women delegate, men voting for a man, If the Clintonites fractured, they reasoned, Obama might have a chance at grabbing two delegates.

The Hillary group's plan worked out, however. The Clinton team held fast, and even though the Obamaphiles had almost two-thirds of the delegation, each side got one delegate, with Obama winning the two alternates. "The math is the math," said Tanya Quinn, 48, a self-employed graphic artist, the winning Clinton delegate and precinct team leader. "I was given my task and we did it. Hillary is all about solutions, and we had the solution."

"I am not crying in my beer," said Carter, "They engaged in a lot of tactics and strategies, but that's what it's all about... The split seems a little bit odd, especially in our precinct, where in the room primary night it was clear Obama had the majority two to one." It is a fight that will be repeated at the three-day June convention in Austin, when the next battle in the Democratic war to win Texas is joined.