Missed Flight, 44 Hour Trip, A Close Encounter with the KKK, and the Nevada Caucuses (Dallas Smith from India-Number 1)

January 22, 2008

San Francisco, 12:30am

Blog summary: I missed my flight connection and am spending 12+hours in a San Francisco airport hotel

Travel Woes

It was snowing today in Reno and rainy and foggy in San Francisco. My connecting flight was two hours late arriving in Reno. Then I sat in the plane for over an hour because of air traffic delays in San Francisco. So when I finally arrived four hours later than scheduled, my Lufthansa flight had already departed. To United’s credit, they immediately gave me a hotel voucher. I’ll fly out of SF tomorrow afternoon, which means that I’ll arrive in the middle of the night, i.e. early in the morning of our first concert day. That happens to be roughly the same time as the Swedish guys are arriving. So I might run into them in the Delhi airport. So the journey that was supposed to take around 26 hours will now take around 44 hours.

The Nevada Caucus

(Foreign readers of this blog may find the following discussion challenging)

By special request from a friend, (and since I’m not in India yet) I would like to offer some personal thoughts about the historic political party caucus that took place in Nevada two days ago. By way of background, in this election year various states advanced the dates of their party caucuses or primaries in order to bring more candidate attention to their states. Nevada chose to do this, at the urging of our senior senator, Democrat Harry Reid, by imitating the community model used by Iowa (traditionally the first state to hold its caucus). (The Republican Party chose to hold a more traditional simple primary election.)

The Democratic Party’s procedure required attending registered voters to physically group themselves in different parts of the room, according to the various candidate choices. Based on the total number of attendees, a threshold of 15% was the minimum number of supporters needed to be “viable” in the competition for delegates to the state party convention. In my personal voter precinct caucus, only two of the candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, surpassed the 15% cut-off point. Supporters of other candidates were given the opportunity to join one or the other of the front-runners. (Some of the supporters of losing candidates refused to support anyone else.) By the end, Barack Obama was the winner of my precinct’s caucus. However, on the statewide level, Hillary Clinton was the overall winner.

The process which allowed regular people, i.e. non-members of the political parties, to meet and publicly choose the respective parties winners is intended to open up the political process, to take the choice out of the hands of a small group of party leaders and let a larger part of the public determine the choice. Disorganization was rampant, according to press reports, primarily because voter turnout was much higher than expected. Sure, we had to stand in line for a half hour or so. Then, when everyone had been signed in and verified as registered voters, the young student moderator was obviously inexperienced. He spoke too fast and was hard to understand through the poor sound system. Taking counts of the various groups took a long time. Nonetheless, most people, myself included, felt like they had been part of a grand process. We felt like we were each doing our civic responsibility to be good citizens by taking part in the election process.

There were some complaining letters in the next day’s newspaper. Some people objected to having to be public about their choice. They would have preferred the traditional secret ballot. Others didn’t like to have spend such a long time in the caucus, over two hours. Some thought that the whole process of a caucus as opposed to a traditional primary election was just silly. What these people didn’t consider is that an election administered by the state costs tax money, whereas the caucuses were financed by the two political parties. The general sentiment in Nevada (and in much of the country) is that taxes should be cut whenever and wherever possible. Indeed, the rural Nevada ranchers would prefer to abolish all taxes, dismantle the government, and let each rugged individual defend his ranch with his guns, wild-west style. So probably Nevada will continue to have a caucus for the immediate future, as opposed to a state financed election. The downside of party-financed caucuses is that the big money interests tend to dominate the political scene, to the detriment of lesser financed would-be candidates.

A Personal Story

I have a family story of which I am very proud. My grandfather secured the rights of black citizens to vote in Georgia’s party primaries, in what had previously been an all-white affair. After the civil war and the abolition of slavery, the Democratic party had become the party of white dominance and preservation of segregation of the races. Because of the dominance of the Democratic party, the party primary was tantamount to chosing the winner, since the general election (Democrats versus Republicans) always confirmed the winner of the Democratic primary election. (This sad tradition continued until the 60’s and 70’s, President Lyndon Johnson promoted civil rights legislation, alienating traditional Democrats, followed by President Reagan’s “Southern strategy” of appealing to whites on racial terms under the guise of “state’s rights” and the demonization of “welfare cheats”, i.e. blacks.)

A black minister, Primus King, had attempted to vote in the Democratic primary. Not only was this not allowed. He was physically ejected and roughed up by the police guarding the polling place. King approached by grandfather to represent him in challenging the Democratic Party to allow blacks to participate. Before the Georgia state supreme court, the Democratic Party’s defense was that the party was a private organization, like a club, and thus could freely chose who would be allowed to join the club, i.e. to vote. The court, to its credit, found in favor of Primus King, that the primary election was in fact a public institution and thus should be open to all, including blacks.

The Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in my grandfather’s yard. My family was afraid, but luckily nothing bad beyond that ever happened.

Issues Still Plague Our Political System

Fast forward to Nevada’s recent primary: Nevada’s culinary union endorsed Barack Obama. The union partitioned for precinct votes to be able to take place at the Las Vegas casinos most convenient to participation by union members. Lawyers from Hillary Clinton’s camp went to court to block the designation of casinos as precinct polling places, saying that it unfairly favored Obama, because of the union’s endorsement. The Nevada supreme court allowed the casino caucus sites to stand, ruling against Hillary’s lawyers’ challenge, because, the political parties are “private” organizations allowed to make whatever rules they want.

This public/private tension continues to fester in the American political scene. Another example is the movement to restrict the big moneyed interests from “buying” the elections. However, the opposing argument has so far prevailed, that money for political purposes is simply an expression of “free speech”. Yet another example is the abortion debate: the conflict between the “public” movement to “protect the lives of the unborn” versus the rights of individual females to determine for themselves whether to carry a pregnancy to term or not. “Public” religion versus “private” religion…the separation of church and state. Democracy can be messy. There are no simple answers to all these issues.

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