As we age there are inevitably fewer and fewer “firsts.” At some point we have done, at least once, pretty much everything we wanted or needed to do.
But I am proud to say that I just experienced a big one – my first Democratic Party Ward Meeting. Roberto and I decided in these times of “What can we do?” to start at the grass roots and see what this work-in-progress called democracy is all about.
We pulled into the community center parking lot early and were surprised at the number of cars. And inside there was a mob. We greeted friends, got in line to be certified and receive our ballots, and found seats. In a few minutes there was standing room only and the current ward chair addressed the crowd.
“My name is Terry Rivera and I am the chair of Ward 4a. I have been the chair for 54 years…” At this point I was sure I had heard wrong but Roberto confirmed, 54 years. “My father was ward chair and then I took over. I want to welcome everyone but also I can’t believe what I’m seeing – so many people! Usually I have to bring my children and grandchildren to make a quorum of six!” Her expression was a mixture of pleasure and shock, with a trace of apprehension.
This meeting, she explained, was for the purpose of electing the ward chair, vice chair and delegates to the county party convention. Before we could proceed she needed everyone to sign an attendance sheet that was being circulated. At this point a woman behind me shouted, “Why don’t you have the official party list from the county? You are supposed to have the list already. That’s what I read in the rules. Why do we have to sign this paper?” Her tone was aggressive and accusatory. I had assumed that a lot of the newcomers were agitated about the election results, the failure of their party, or some other perceived wrong, and she seemed to fit that mold.
Terry told a tale of bureaucratic woe. The county person had refused to give her the list, saying that she would be at the meeting, and now she hadn’t showed. The angry woman continued haranguing until Roberto turned around and asked her to let the meeting continue.
There were other procedural questions that revealed all our ignorance about how party politics worked. Finally it was time for nominations for ward chair. Terry was nominated for a 55th term and as her helper was writing the name on the flip chart, a voice in the back of the room said “Can I nominate myself?” The answer was yes, followed by applause, and the young woman moved to the front of the room to stand next to the incumbent while the helper added “Jennifer Warren” to the list. Jennifer introduced herself as an educator with experience from preschool through adult education, and expressed passion for the future of the party.
There were no more nominations and the candidates answered questions and offered their experience and positions on various issues. Terry looked nervous. Could her reign come to an end after all her years of holding the party together? She was glad to finally have the participation she had dreamed of, but would this angry bunch oust her in a pique of frustration? She had the experience, but Jennifer had fresh blood and seemed to be an audience favorite. I could feel the wave of discontent: out with the old, in with the new, things did not go well last November and it must have been the fault of the old guard.
After a few minutes, the angry woman behind me stood up. “This is difficult,” her voice was calm, “because Terry has experience and I value experience, but Jennifer has a great background in education and a lot of energy. I honestly don’t know how to decide,” and she sat down amid a murmur of agreement from the group.
In a couple of minutes Jennifer stepped forward and asked that her name be withdrawn. She would prefer to run for vice-chair. Terry was elected chair and Jennifer vice-chair by joyful acclamation. The next task was to elect twenty-two delegates to go to the county convention next month. Twenty-six of us volunteered – an unheard of situation! We could have voted to select the twenty-two, but we had tasted the sweetness of consensus. Two volunteered to withdraw, two became alternates, and we were done! Not a ballot cast.
The group that was so divided in the beginning, as the bitter newcomers took on the party loyalists, had found unity in mutual respect. Terry would have another term, perhaps her last but it would be filled with more volunteers and energy that she could ever have dreamed of. And Jennifer would learn from the master important lessons about perseverance and sustaining a little plot of grassroots in all kinds of political weather.
As for me and Roberto, we’re off to the county convention next month!