Waterloo satellite caucusgoers small in number, long on clout

Caucus chair Rob Weiss, far right, commences a satellite caucus at the United Auto Workers Local 838 union hall in Waterloo Monday afternoon as an NBC News crew records the proceedings. (Photo by Patrick Kinney for Iowa Capital Dispatch)

WATERLOO, Iowa — A sparsely attended early afternoon Democratic satellite caucus at one of Iowa’s largest union halls Monday demonstrated that every vote counts — especially when there’s not that many votes to count.

The satellite caucus, held at United Auto Workers Local 838, was initially anticipated by some there to draw a couple hundred people unable to attend an evening caucus, including many second-shift John Deere workers and others. One-tenth that number attended. Thirty-one people signed up in advance to attend; just 20 showed up. It was one of many conducted for Iowans around the state, nationally and internationally.

Those in attendance were small in number but proportionately mighty in impact — as a national NBC News crew followed their every move. Under party rules and calculations, they were able to pick four delegate equivalents to the Democratic state convention. Had just one more person attended, they would have been able to pick five.

With that little attendance, a group of just three candidates would have met the minimum 15 percent threshold for viability. The largest single group of those in attendance, nine in all, were for independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Just three people showed up for businessman Tom Steyer, and they held firm and were able to select one of the four delegate equivalents.

There was a smattering of support for various other candidates — former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and most of their supporters ultimately coalesced around Klobuchar, while one Buttigieg supporter went to Sanders. No one showed in support of former Vice President Joe Biden or several other announced candidates.

When the dust settled, the Sanders supporters were awarded two delegate equivalents, Klobuchar one and Steyer one.

Many of those in attendance, at least one of whom came from southern Polk County about 2-1/2 hours away, agreed the satellite caucuses were a good idea, but perhaps could have been better publicized with more advance notice, given an  advance registration required.

Offering the option of a satellite caucus is important regardless of number, said Rob Weiss of Waterloo, caucus chair.

“I feel like it’s important that everything gets handled to the best of its ability, so people feel their voices are being heard,” he said.

Kennan Seda, who lives in Traer about 25 miles from Waterloo, is active in Democratic politics and has served on platform committees. He said the afternoon caucus was convenient and near his work, but he was interested in specifically going to a satellite caucus.

“I wanted to participate because I wanted to see what things could be changed the next time,” he said. “We’re going to have caucuses one way or the other,” noting he first caucused for Jimmy Carter in 1976 when in high school, when a caucus was held at his family home.  He believed Iowa will retain its first-in-the-nation position because of low-cost media expenses and the ability to easily travel across the state.

He supported Patrick as “the only African American still in the race,” but ultimately realigned behind Klobuchar, his second choice. “I think she is far more electable than Elizabeth Warren,” he said.

An NBC News crew records Amy Kloubuchar supporter Maggie Burke, right, and Elizabeth Warren backer Samantha Blatt discussing the merits of their candidates during a satellite caucus in Waterloo on Feb. 3, 2020. (Photo by Pat Kinney for Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Sisters Jan Pratt and Maggie Burke of Waterloo came to satellite caucus because it was a convenient time of day. “You need to have it convenient for everybody,” Pratt said. “Night shift people can’t always get to them. it needs to be available to everyone … I don’t know how well it was publicized that this was an option. I think they could have had a lot more people. I really like it. Seven o’clock is pretty late sometimes.”

It was Burke’s first caucus, and she took advantage of the light attendance. “I thought it might be less overwhelming,” she said.

Pratt’s first choice was Buttigieg; Burke was for Klobuchar. Burke eventually talked her sister over to her side when groups re-aligned.

The caucus attracted at least one participant who had voted Republican in the past. “This is the first year I have ever voted Democratic. I assume I will be voting Democratic. I really believe we’re blessed in this country so that we can be a blessing, and that we’re meant to give glory to God. And I don’t believe we have a president who’s doing that,” said Maureen Hanson, a Steyer supporter. “There are a lot of good candidates running, and that’s a good problem to have.”

Anita Olson-Kiene of southern Polk County came the furthest to participate. She is the city clerk of Macksburg in Madison County, south of Winterset, and had to be back in time for a 7 p.m. City Council meeting. She initially supported Buttigieg, but ultimately joined the supporters for Sanders, whom she backed in 2016.

Iowa State Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, watching the proceedings, said it was good for the party to offer the satellite caucus as an option. “Obviously, I’d like to see more people,” he said.