Chaos Rules at Laredo Caucus
By Eli Saslow
10:30 p.m. LAREDO, Tex. -- Good news! The caucus process is finally running here. Actually, amend that: The caucus process is finally slogging, slipping, bumbling -- but making some slight progress.
The hearty voters who waited through a two-hour delay at United High School have now entered the once-impenetrable school cafeteria. About 120 voters are inside now, and officials are just beginning to take attendance. Meanwhile, about 20 toddlers are running wild around the room, careening into tables and railings in a scene that is sure to turn ugly soon. So the night's final complaint, courtesy of a voter inside? "Couldn't we at least start caucusing at McDonald's, or some place with a Play Land?"
From the looks of it, the Clinton camp outnumbers the Obama side by a ratio of about 5-to-1 here. Officials are telling voters to brace for another few hours here, which sounded like my cue to leave. It's another good night not to be a caucus voter.
10:03 p.m. LAREDO, Tex. -- The scene here at Precinct 345 continues to devolve, as our crowd of would-be caucusgoers still has not been allowed to enter the United High School cafeteria. One man, a volunteer organizer, has now brought a microphone and a portable Behringer speaker from home in an effort to address the crowd. He's been drowned out, though, by loud chants of "WE WANT TO VOTE!" and "WE'RE GETTING CHEATED!"
Hardly an endorsement here for the good ol' caucus process.
Really, though, you've got to feel sorry for the Clinton and Obama campaign organizers who spent hundreds of hours last week trying to convince voters to spend their evening at one of these things. Because right now, frustrated voters are leaving by the dozen. A crowd that once numbered about 200 has shrunk in half, and others are threatening to leave. The man over the loudspeaker is describing the problem as a paperwork delay, but it looks like simple disorganization.
Roberto Hereda, an Obama supporter who spent 90 minutes waiting outside the cafeteria while holding his 4-year-old daughter, put it like this: "It's too much incompetence. Nobody knows what they're doing. I came here to vote, and now I'm getting cheated. I can't stand here all night, so I'm going home."
9:08 p.m. LAREDO, Tex. -- We're beginning to see here in Laredo why it's not always wise to combine beer and politics. The happy tailgaters we met an hour ago in the parking lot of United High School have become a disgruntled bunch loudly cursing everything from Laredo politics to the caucus system in general.
Because of what polling officials here are calling an "unexpectedly high voter turnout" -- come on! are we still not expecting this? -- the 7:30 p.m. CST caucus has yet to begin. About 75 people are still waiting in line to cast their votes inside the United High School cafeteria, and our prospective caucusgoers aren't allowed inside until this process ends. For now, about 200 people are standing outside in the wind and leaning against the cafeteria windows, monitoring the slow progress inside.
This has led to another problem: a collection of beer cans dropped around the exterior of the cafeteria, which officially remains an "alcohol-and-tobacco-free zone."
8:20 p.m. LAREDO, Tex. -- In an attempt to lure voters into this city's biggest caucus, the Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns have brought an all-out carnival to the main entrance of United High School on the north side of town tonight. An eight-piece mariachi band plays tributes to Clinton. An Obama supporter offers free tacos out of a cooler. Dozens of eager tailgaters sit in the back of pickup trucks and drink Coronas as they count down to the 7:30 p.m. CST caucus start.
They know how to turn every public event into a street festival here in South Texas. What remains to be seen, though, is whether or not they know how to caucus.
Both campaigns held intensive educational meetings during the last week in an attempt to demystify the caucus process, but here in Laredo that's a difficult task. Traditionally, fewer than 10 percent of the city's registered voters show up to cast a primary ballot in the first place. They're even less inclined to come back to their precincts a second time after dinner -- even if a mariachi band and free tacos await.
"I'm still not sure people know how to do this," said Sonia Melendez, a Clinton campaign spokeswoman in Laredo. "Like a week ago, nobody here knew what a caucus was. A few days ago, maybe they had heard of it. Tonight, we still can't be sure how well people understand."
Chances are comprehension will not be aided by the tailgate party here, where beers are being passed around and consumed liberally (this reporter, despite temptation, continues to refuse all liquid gifts from either campaign).
Joaquin Fernandez, a guitar player in the mariachi band, says he usually plays wedding and house parties, and this pre-caucus is as spirited as any gig he's played. He's wearing a blue suede suit and cowboy boots, sweating through an eight-song set.
Fernandez is hoping to be done with the gig by 7:30, though.
"I want to go try to go caucus," he said, "if I can figure out how."
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