Inside the Brooklyn caucus

Dodd supporter Philip Ryan is wooed to Edwards’ caucus by Dave and Mary Jo Collum.
The Brooklyn Paper / Gersh Kuntzman

BROOKLYN, IOWA — Philip Ryan honestly didn’t know what to do.

A strong supporter of Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd, Ryan suddenly found himself at a table with another Dodd man, Dennis Keefe — leaving the candidate with too few supporters to go forward and leaving the two men deciding with whom they should cast their lot.

And then, the deluge.

Many media outlets describe what happens at the Iowa caucuses as “horsetrading,” as if supporters of non-viable candidates like Ryan are offered up favors or jobs in the cabinet if they come over to the Hillary Clinton or John Edwards table.

But there’s no horsetrading, just the quiet (and not so quiet) art of persuasion.

With Ryan on the fence, Bev Rens, a strong supporter of Barack Obama rushed to the Dodd table and laid out the case for the Illinois senator, describing him as the only candidate who can clean up Washington and bring real change.

Ryan nodded supportively.

Then Maggie Adams, who was so festooned with Hillary Clinton stickers, buttons and apparel that she looked like an inside-the-Beltway Christmas tree, came over and reminded Ryan that only the Clinton team had brought snacks. She also made the case that Clinton’s experience made her the best choice.

At which point John Edwards supporters started singing.

Yes, Edwards’s table started cajoling Ryan with song, sweet nothings in his ear — and pages from the candidate’s 60-page policy book. Mary Jo and Dave Collum were especially persuasive, practically massaging Ryan’s heavy-load-bearing shoulders.

And that’s how John Edwards got Philip Ryan’s vote.

“I think he’s an honest man,” Ryan said.

Edwards was less lucky with Todd Linden, a supporter of Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, and with Dodd-backer Keefe. Linden ended up with Obama, citing his fresh approach. He also cited a need for a strong whiskey. Keefe ended up with Clinton — citing her experience, even though he said he was “annoyed by her personality.”

The Iowa caucuses are a source of great fascination, suspicion and downright ridicule for much of the nation — yet having been in the caucus room and witnessed all the action first hand, I came away a changed Democrat and democrat.

I had to come all the way from Brooklyn, New York to Brooklyn, Iowa to be proud to be an American.

What I saw on Thursday night was the most basic form of American democracy in action. In small towns all across Iowa, people in numbers fewer than a brownstone block back in New York gathered in school gymnasiums and community centers to do something that all of us should probably do a bit more often: look their neighbors in the eye and talk to them about the issues that matter to them and the men or women they think will actually make a difference.

All too often, voting is not just a chore, but a bloodless one, allowing us the ability to not care for an entire four years, then walk into a private booth and pull whatever lever we want, whether we’re educated on the candidates’ positions or not.

But Iowans are the crash test dummies of American politics. For almost a year, they’re inundated with information, phone calls, propaganda, door knocks and speeches.

They’re doing it for us, you know.

Rather than tune out, Iowans actually listen to this stuff. They actually think about the issues. When Bill Clinton came to Brooklyn the other night, no one was impressed by his former status as the President of the United States. Few applauded or laughed at his jokes.

But everyone actually listened.

That said, you can’t help but leave a caucus — especially a tiny one like the 174-person Democratic caucus here in Brooklyn, where everyone really did know everyone else’s name — without feeling that this is no way to pick a president.

After all, Vanessa Roudavush ended up in tears!

A younger voter who initially backed Richardson but then found herself being inundated by supporters of all three dominant candidates, she looked over Edwards’ briefing book. Then she gazed over at her friends at the Obama table. Then she glanced at Clinton’s cookie tray.

Then she started crying.

An Edwards supporter put his arm around her, but it seemed cursory. Then Maggie Adams — the Hillary Christmas tree — came over and gave her a bigger hug. And suddenly, Roudavush was in the Clinton camp.

“I don’t know why I’m here,” she said. “Hillary’s a woman, I guess. I don’t know. The experience.”

I asked her if she at least liked the feeling of being so wanted, if only for two minutes.

“No, it made me very nervous,” she said.

Finally, with no one else up for grabs, the tables were counted, the cookies eaten, the tears dried, and everyone went home.

An exciting day for a reporter. A great day for America.

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