Barack-a-Thon: Obama's Sweating Throngs Jam Delegate Election

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Obama supporters: "It's getting hot in heeeere..." All photos | Joe Eskenazi

Blood, sweat and tears – but mostly sweat – as 71 would-be S.F. delegates vie for three spots. Yes, we’ll tell you who won.

By Joe Eskenazi

As hundreds of perspiring Barack Obama supporters braved the amusement park-worthy line and filtered into SEIU headquarters’ own Black Hole of Calcutta, more than one organizer of San Francisco’s Obama delegate caucus was heard to exclaim that “this is what democracy looks like.”

Unfortunately, this is also what democracy smelled like. Sunday’s confluence of Arizona-type weather, the stress of a contested election and scads of tightly packed bodies led the caucus floor to be permeated by the pungent mixture of sweat and Old Spice. The temperature in the cramped room was such that one would have expected to see elderly gentlemen in seersucker suits lazily fanning themselves while enjoying sweet tea. In short, it wasn’t just hot, it was Atticus Finch hot.

Who would have thought a caucus to select the Congressional District No. 8 representatives to August’s Democratic National Convention in Denver would become the city’s hot ticket (in every conceivable way)?

A full 90 minutes before doors opened at the Service Employees International Union’s Potrero Hill headquarters, the first voters began lining up, like Star Wars geeks camped out for Phantom Menace tickets. In most years, the role of a delegate requires little more than wearing a boater hat and waving a placard. Not so in 2008. Fear of closet Clintonites led the Obama campaign to scratch a draconian 900 would-be delegates off the California rolls. That decision was reversed on Thursday, April 10, which led to massive delegate races and unprecedented numbers of voters (roughly eight times as many ballots were prepared in San Francisco this year than in 2004).

The notion that the national convention might feature turncoat maneuvers worthy of a professional wrestling match -- “Oh my God! Is that Hillary Clinton’s music?” -- brought out the voters.

Eric “Doc” Smith was the very first man in line. He said he was casting his vote for tenant organizer and lawyer Paul Hogarth because “He’s a total Obama nut – he would never vote for Hillary.”

Up and down the line, candidates trolling for last-minute votes ran into a wall of apprehensiveness -- while most voters showed up to support a friend or co-worker, they were entitled to cast multiple votes for the one male and two female slots. It was these “sloppy seconds” that would-be delegates desperately hoped to win as they handed out water, paraphernalia and even barbecued chicken to overheated voters.

“Why should I vote for her? I don’t know her,” said one voter upon being handed a flier.

“Well, she raised $50,000 for Obama,” replied the volunteer.

“How do I know that? How do I know she won’t vote for Hillary? I’m going to check her Web site.”

(In the end he declined to do so, instead whipping out his iPhone to look up who his favored candidate, Rebecca Prozan, supported for the other slots).

It was at times like these that a reputation for infighting and cantankerousness could do one a world of good – no one doubted Supervisor Chris Daly when he told potential voters he was “ready for a floor fight.” What’s more, his fliers touted him as a “grizzled veteran of internecine political battles” (who triggered those internecine battles was left unsaid).

Incidentally, while Daly has sported some surreal episodes of facial hair in the recent past, he was clean-shaven for Sunday’s election.

“I’m pretty grizzled,” he said, either with deadly seriousness or feigning it remarkably well. “Trust me.”

Oh, we do. And we won’t make any trouble with Daly as he is, after all, ready for a floor fight.

Once inside the voting room, the intensity kicked up a notch. A mass of hands grasping sloppily folded ballots stretched toward the ballot box, manned by volunteers Greg Wright and Randy Stortroen. The box soon filled to the top and a larger box was required (687 votes were cast). Stortroen gently but firmly encouraged those who had cast their votes to get the hell out of the room and make space for the growing masses – “Just stick it in here and don’t stick around for the speeches,” he said, apparently stealing a line from a John C. Holmes flick.

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By the time the speeches were finished (final tally – “Change” was the more popular word than “Hope” by a 4-3 count), perhaps 95 percent of those casting votes had already done so. This is, most certainly, a curious way to do things. But, when you think about it, the whole idea of voting for delegates is curious.

While the Republicans’ top-down method of assigning delegates has been assailed by Democrats as anti-democratic, it does have its selling points. After all, the Republican delegates will certainly do the one thing they need to do – vote for their damn candidate. Even after Sunday’s popular, delightfully cordial and uplifting election, there’s no guarantee that will happen. If Obama’s elected delegates actually do spurn the will of the people and vote for Hillary, then we’ll be faced with the painful situation of more democracy actually making things less democratic.

So, while the day’s winners, according to caucus organizers, were Prozan, London Breed, and Brian Wang (Daly is the alternate), we really don’t know who won. At least not until all the votes are counted in Denver.

Or, maybe we do. Hawking incredibly snazzy $10 Obama t-shirts and $3 buttons outside the event, Roger Caldwell made a killing.

The more boring-looking t-shirts inside the caucus room cost twice as much (though all the money went to Obama’s local offices and the shirts were union-made in the United States; Caldwell’s are crafted in Haiti). A number of would-be Obama delegates went for Caldwell’s cheaper (and, frankly, far more attractive) fare, fund-raising and union labor be damned.

Caldwell didn’t bother to go inside and vote, incidentally. He’s a Hillary supporter.


Note: Clinton's San Francisco delegates, according to the California Democratic Party, will be Laura Stanjian, David Serrano Sewell and Clay Doherty.

Full disclosure: Joe Eskenazi is a friend of Paul Hogarth's and a supporter of Barack Obama.

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