January 16, 2004
Sampling the Candidates
BUZZFLASH GUEST COMMENTARY
It's obvious to anyone keeping an eye on the Democratic primary season that voters in Iowa and New Hampshire get lots of chances to meet the candidates up close and personal. Many voters interested in the process who live in large metro areas must envy this sort of attention and opportunity.
While living in the New York-Philadelphia corridor, I always found it difficult to fight traffic and weather to go to candidate events in New York or New Jersey. About the only political event I made it to was the 1992 election eve Clinton-Gore event at the Meadowlands Arena in North Jersey. Moving to a small city of 85,000 sitting pretty much on its own in southern New Mexico has transformed me into a "candidate sampler." I can now attest to the fact that "small is beautiful" when it comes to politics. Good weather, no traffic, events that are small enough to really see a candidate in action...what could be better?
Las Cruces is now the second largest city in New Mexico, following Albuquerque, and as such, commands respect. It doesn't hurt that it has a large Hispanic population, many military installations and space facilities nearby, and serves as the "capital" of the vast, sparsely populated southern portion of the state.
My first "sampling" came back in 2002 when Al Gore stopped by to support our local and Congressional candidates during the mid-term elections. I realized quickly that everyone seemed to know one another which contributed to the great sense of unity at the event. With the anger from the 2000 election which still weighing heavy, the rally was electrifying. People swarmed around the dais after Gore's speech and vied for a handshake. It was like the Democratic loyalists in this quiet little city had erupted. (For a full report, see "High Noon At The Holiday Inn With Al Gore.")
The action here for this election cycle has started early since New Mexico Democrats have decided to caucus on February 3, far ahead of the June primary. During the past year, Joe Lieberman has held fundraising house parties and Dick Gephardt has had similar quiet meetings and events. Edwards, Dean, and Clark have all visited the state several times. But in recent months the visibility of some of the campaigns has escalated and there have been more high profile events down here in Las Cruces.
For example, on October 28, 2003 John Edwards touched base in an afternoon stop at the offices of La Clinica de Familia. Edwards spoke outside the front entrance on Main Street and discussed a wide range of issues including tax cuts, gun laws, and immigration, but spent most of his time touting his proposed health plan.
Howard Dean's most recent event in town was held during mid-December. His team pitched a tent in the parking lot of Roberto's, a popular Mexican restaurant. Roberto himself stood on stage with the candidate. Some Dean supporters were chagrined by the choice of location since Roberto is reportedly a big fan of George Bush. On Bush's visit to Las Cruces last year Roberto made sure he was standing right behind him, so pictures of Roberto, along with Bush, were splashed on CNN and across other media outlets.
Other Dean supporters, however, didn't consider this Dean-Roberto-Bush link as a problem because some locals believe Roberto is a bit of a media hog. He is, after all, the guru behind the Whole Enchilada Festival and has made the Guinness Book of World Records as the creator of the world's biggest enchilada; every year he recreates this masterpiece for the cameras in front of stands full of onlookers and gets front page coverage for his business. So his showing up with both Bush and Dean probably shouldn't be all that surprising.
I finally got a chance to get to do some candidate sampling in person just before Christmas when Dennis Kucinich came into town on December 23rd. I didn't attend the rally at the historic Mesilla plaza, but did trek over to the Mountain View Co-op for his noontime speech. Instead of enchiladas, the Kucinich campaign offered up the sort of dishes one can count on at a health food store -- a selection of savory rice dishes and other goodies prepared by volunteers.
100 people were there, many of whom had gone to the earlier rally.
I was surprised to see that mostly middle-aged to older people
had shown up. This may have been due to the fact that the event was
so close to Christmas and New Mexico State University was in recess.
I chatted with a Dean supporter who had originally supported Kucinich
and talked with a few people who liked Dennis, but were uncommitted
and open to Wesley Clark. There were also a few Greens in the audience.
I spotted a local councilman in the crowd and bumped into Alan Hale
of Hale-Bopp comet fame, whom I'd met during the 2002 campaign season.
He told me that he, too, was out sampling candidates and had driven
the two hours from Cloudcroft to check out Kucinich. Many of the attendees
seemed pragmatic about Kucinich's campaign -- while they admired him
and wanted to vote their consciences, they felt that he was probably
liberal for mainstream America and that other candidates would have
a better chance of beating Bush.
On this good news, Kucinich took to the podium and delivered a very low-key talk, starting out with a tribute to co-ops and his own commitment to healthy food and organic farming. He touched on his support for universal health care, as well as for the decrimilization of marijuana and a general amnesty for certain illegal immigrants. But he spent most of his presentation on his idea for his Department of Peace and tied it into the season. He described how we should move beyond fear and how he believes that humanity is poised for an upward swing, but that "some people" want to keep us down. Although he mentioned the Iraq war, he focused mainly on how human beings should become whole and how that can help the world at large. All in all it was very "spiritual" talk and I felt a great admiration for him.
There were several questions from the audience and it was all over in about 45 minutes. I saw Kucinich talking into a video camera by the exit for the local PBS station before he disappeared. As I left the store I spotted a VW bus in the parking lot which was completely covered with an array of bumper stickers going back to the Eugene McCarthy era. I couldn't help getting a wistful feeling of times gone by as I left for home.
Within a few weeks I was sampling another event. This time, however, I didn't see a candidate -- I saw a candidate's wife.
After gearing up for a visit from Wesley Clark on Sunday, January 11, the campaign was notified that he wouldn't be coming because of his focus on NH. It wasn't until Sunday morning that the press ran a story about how Gertrude Clark would be coming in to Las Cruces from Albuquerque to stand-in for her husband. What kind of crowd could turn up under those circumstances?
I took a seat in the second row and watched as people started streaming in. A busload of people from El Paso were among the last in. I noticed that extra seats had been added and people were standing in the back of the room. Counting the seats and the rows, I estimated that nearly 400 people had shown up!
Although the event had originally been billed as a town hall meeting primarily directed to discussing Hispanic issues, it turned into a rally with a broad cross section of Las Cruces residents. A mariachi band provided music and more local color was provided by a female octogenarian who wore a red, white, and blue-sequined outfit and large top hat! Reporters and cameras from our local PBS station and NBC in El Paso were roaming the hall and later that night I saw that she had made the news!
I found that a couple of people had decided on a candidate in the weeks between the Kucinich visit and the Clark event. The local councilman I had seen at the Kucinich talk at the health food store was on the platform and was among several local dignitaries who endorsed Clark. I bumped into Alan Hale again and he also indicated that he had committed to Clark.
After the introductions and endorsements, the campaign's American Son video was shown, followed by a live call from Maria Astrid Clark in Los Angeles. The new mother, a native of Colombia, addressed the crowd in Spanish, then in English and was a huge hit.
After the call Mrs. Clark literally bounded onto the stage. A lanky, angular woman, Mrs. Clark looked taller than I had imagined. She spoke with vigor about Democratic family values involving jobs, education, and healthcare, then spent some time on how the army believed in affirmative action. She told the story of Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, now in Iraq, who was General Clark's XO at one time. She made a special point of assuring veterans that her husband would make sure the government would live up to the promises made to them.
She then commented on the pristine beauty of the Las Cruces area as she flew in over the mountains and how preserving the environment was another top priority of Wes Clark. Remembering the beauty of high desert sunsets she had enjoyed while living at Ft. Irwin in California, she drew much applause when she expressed her hope that she would be able to see another desert sunset as she flew out of Las Cruces after the event.
After her short talk, she came around and shook hands, including mine. Wesley Clark has called his wife his "closest ally" and there's no question that he's lucky to have her. She came in and pinch-hit with passion and a great natural speaking ability and full grasp of the issues. The crowd was enthusiastic and appreciative and it seemed to me that any disappointment at not seeing the General was short-lived. Gertrude Clark has no problem connecting with audiences and is a great asset to the Clark campaign.
With only a week between the New Hampshire primary and the February 3 primaries and caucuses, it will be interesting to see which of the candidates will be heading our way. The Clark campaign has promised us a visit by the General and if he makes it, I'll be there. And, if any of the other candidates find there way to our corner of the Southwest, I'll check them out as well. After all, who can pass up a chance at some easy "free sampling" of someone who just might be the next President of the United States?
A BUZZFLASH GUEST COMMENTARY
Copyright 2004, Gloria R. Lalumia
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