Alaska felt the Bern this weekend. Vermont Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders swept the Democratic primary Saturday, taking in 81 percent of votes from caucuses across the state. Upper Lynn Canal Democrats mirrored that trend. They overwhelmingly supported Sanders over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The Chilkat Center in Haines was packed Saturday morning, full of people eager have a say in who becomes the next Democratic nominee for president. Merrill Lowden said she likes both candidates.
“I’m close to undecided, so if I’m that close I’m gonna go for the woman. I’m sick of the goddamn men!” Lowden said.
Most of the caucus-goers, like Charlotte Ciszek and Mario Benassi, had their minds firmly made up.
“I think Bernie’s in it for all of us in the country, not just the rich people,” Ciszek said.
“I think he’s the last chance for true democracy in our nation,” Benassi said.
The unexpectedly high turnout of about 170 people prompted caucus organizers to move everyone from the Chilkat Center lobby to the auditorium.
“In my wildest dreams, I thought maybe we might have 100 [show up],” organizer Melissa Aronson said.
Haines had to teleconference the caucus with the other communities that make up House District 33 – downtown Juneau, Skagway and Gustavus. The high turnout and bad phone signal slowed things down and caused confusion.
While they waited, caucus-goers watched prepared videos from each candidate.
From Sanders: “With your help, we are poised to pull off one of the great political upsets in the history of our country.”
From Clinton: “I’m fighting for all Americans, not just some. For the struggling, the striving, and the successful.”
From little-known candidate Rocky De La Fuente: “I want to create a new class of hard-working public servants. A class that can deliver on their promises.”
In the first vote count, 15 people supported Clinton. So many raised their hands for Sanders that Aronson asked them to count off. There were 147 total.
From there, the undecided voters picked either Sanders or Clinton. The final count was 150 for Sanders, 19 for Clinton.
Skagway had a similar surge of support for Sanders. He garnered 105 votes, while Clinton took just four. Jeanne Tyson organized the caucus there.
“It started out with 104 for Sanders, four for Clinton and one uncommitted and then the uncommitted went over to Sanders,” Tyson said.
She says the teleconferencing aspect was confusing in Skagway as well.
“For a lot of the time I was uncertain as to what was going on in Juneau because it was hard to hear.”
The teleconference confusion reached its peak when Aronson thought Clinton needed just one vote to reach the 15 percent minimum threshold required for a candidate to get delegates in a district. Aronson voted for Clinton in order to wrap up the caucus.
“Don’t do it! No! No!” shouted Sanders supporters.
But Juneau caucus organizer Nancy Courtney said Clinton would’ve met the threshold without that one vote. Of the more than 1,000 caucus-goers in District 33, 17 percent supported Clinton and 83 percent supported Sanders. District 33 will send 21 delegates for Sanders and four delegates for Clinton to the State Convention in Anchorage in May.
After the at-times-emotional caucus, organizer Debt Vogt said this:
“I think it went remarkably well for such a silly process. I think it’s long since time that we change the process.”
Vogt says the last caucus, in 2008, was similarly chaotic. She says a preferential poll, where voters fill out a ballot and leave, would work much better than the old-fashioned caucus.