Participating in politics doesn’t usually seem all that inviting in Wyoming, with its one congressional representative and part-time citizen Legislature. That’s especially true for Democrats in this state that is as red as it is square. Non-Republicans in Wyoming can be akin to a rare species of toad -- a curiosity that is easily squashed by the heel of a heavy boot when it gets in the way of progress.
But recently, Wyoming Democrats found themselves not a political inconvenience but real contributors to events on the national stage. Our measly 12 delegates meant something to Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama in their bid for the presidency, and that took Wyoming Democrats off the endangered species list, at least temporarily.
I participated in my county’s caucus, along with 1,600 other folks. Of that number, 1,500 were likely first timers. I’d attended a county caucus here once, in 1996. I covered the event as a stringer for the newspaper across the mountain in Cheyenne. There were about 50 people at that caucus, and my 1,000-word story was cut to a news brief -- approximately one word allocated for each Democrat there.
The mood could not be more different this time around. Wyoming’s governor, Dave Fruedenthal, announced in January that he didn’t plan to endorse any Democrat, since none was talking seriously about Western issues. Then in early March, tight races in other states tossed both candidates right into the surprised laps of Cowboy State Democrats.
For the first time, national candidates contacted us. Leading up to the event on March 10, the postal carrier’s burden grew heavier each day and his mailbag sagged lower to the ground. Obama mailers, two to our household, came daily. My phone rang more in a week than it usually does in a month. Obama volunteers, Clinton volunteers, Democratic Party volunteers, all deeply desired to know my leanings, my plans, my concerns, my vote. In the middle of the week before the caucus, the candidates appeared in the flesh and made speeches at rallies, careful to avoid awkward encounters in the towns they visited on the same day.
Everywhere I’d been in the days leading to the caucus -- the store, my job, the bar -- I heard Democrats and Republicans talking together about politics, chatting about “Bill” and “Hillary” and “Barack” as though they were neighbors or folks from work. Just about every conversation ended with, “Well, it can’t possibly get any worse, no matter what happens.”
When caucus day finally came, I waited to register in a long jolly line at the local civic center. There were so many people, I became part of a group that couldn’t get into the main room, though we still could cast a ballot. I spotted a few folks being turned away, disappointed they’d forgotten they weren’t registered Democrats.
Later in the day, another person, sensing the unique nature of the moment, and perhaps that her candidate would not prevail, used her cell phone to photograph her completed ballot before dropping it in the ballot box. Another voter sat quietly in her wheelchair, politely letting the crowd crush ahead, until others noticed her presence and cleared her way to the ballot box.
As I prepared my ballot, I saw for a moment the face of the candidate I selected and the face of the one I did not select. For the first time I saw both not as images on TV or on campaign flyers, but as people who’d been working their tails off for moments like this. I felt good about the candidate I voted for, but for the first time I realized I was saying “no” to the other candidate, who had worked just as hard, had just as much passion, and if possible, would have looked me in the eyes and argued that America, the West, and Wyoming, could be even better if I’d voted differently.
In other states I might have touched a screen or filled in an arrow on a primary ballot and gone on my way. But talking to my neighbors about who’d best represent us, and engaging in that loud messy caucus, showed me the responsibility that we all share for the nation’s future. For that, Sens. Clinton and Obama, I thank you.
Suddenly, my mailbox seems mighty empty, whistling in the wind of a Wyoming spring. Please don’t forget to write.
Julianne Couch is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives and writes in Laramie, Wyoming. The state’s Democratic delegates were apportioned seven for Obama, five for Clinton.