The Civic Caucus
8301 Creekside Circle #920,
Bloomington, MN 55437
February 17, 2012
Notes of the Discussion
Verne Johnson (chair), David Broden, Janis Clay (phone), Pat Davies, Paul
Gilje, Jim Hetland, Sallie Kemper, Tim McDonald.
Summary of discussion:
The chair of
Minnesota's Independence Party discusses the limitations of the political
caucus process in a polarized political environment and opportunities to
improve the capacity of caucuses to serve as effective bodies of
discussion and debate for a broader spectrum of citizens.
A. Introduction of speaker
Jenkins was born and brought up in western Wisconsin. He graduated with a
degree in Speech Communications from the University of Wisconsin Eau
Claire. Employed in technology sales and consulting since 1987, Jenkins
worked for T-Mobile in Minnesota from 1997 to 2002. He now runs his own
training and consulting firm specializing in wireless telecom solutions.
In 2004, Jenkins became an active member of the Independence Party of
Minnesota (IP). He has served on several state committees and as an
officer at the legislative, congressional and state levels. He was the
2010 IP candidate for Minnesota State Senate and since February of 2011
has been the state IP chair.
THE PROBLEM: A public perception that
precinct caucuses are not open to general participation.
According to the Minnesota Secretary of State,
"precinct caucuses are meetings organized by Minnesota's political parties
to begin the process of selecting candidates ... and policy positions to
shape the party platform. Caucuses are held in locations across Minnesota,
are open to the public, and participation is encouraged."
Caucuses have had a recent history of extreme
ideology, Jenkins stated, and of sometimes administering a "purity test at
the door." He believes there has been a tendency in the past 15 years
toward filtering people at the door of caucus meetings, either literally
or figuratively, to assure that attendees have a uniform set of political
beliefs that are not at odds with those of most party leaders.
About 66,000 persons, or two percent of the
state's registered voters, participated in Minnesota precinct caucuses on
Feb. 7, 2012. Parties conducted precinct caucuses to begin the process of
selecting candidates for the 2012 state election, to select delegates for
party conventions, to consider positions for party platforms, and to
conduct non-binding straw polls for the 2012 Presidential election.
Have a more open, inviting precinct caucus process.
Jenkins thinks that a precinct caucus should be
a gathering where an array of ideas are expressed, welcomed and debated,
and agendas reflective of the diversity of opinions are ultimately agreed
THE STRATEGY:Increase participation and debate of issues through new approaches to
the caucus process.
There is no legal requirement for political
parties to hold caucuses, Jenkins pointed out. Rather, the holding of a
caucus is a prerogative of the parties. State law has guidelines as to
when caucuses meet, but parties use the caucus for their own purposes, to
decide which candidates to support and which public policy decisions to
include in the party's platform. A significant role of the caucus is to
elect local delegates to the conventions. How that election of delegates
is done is left up to the party constitutions and bylaws.
Parties can try new strategies for increasing
As a smaller political party the Independence
Party thinks it can operate "below the radar" and try new things without
much publicity, negative or positive, Jenkins said. However, he prefers to
take a different tact, trying new things directly in the public eye. Such
was the case in the party's use of technology this year to allow caucus
participants to participate in a caucus meeting through webcam. Jenkins
said it appears they are the first party to do a live, online caucus
anywhere in the country.
As all political parties, the Independence Party
does have certain identifiable general policy positions Jenkins said. Most
IP members tend to be "fiscally responsible and socially tolerant." While
state has people that support the left and people that support the right,
"you almost never see a left fielder backing a right fielder," he said.
"Saint Paul needs a center fielder." And he believes the IP takes on that
"center fielder" position in state politics.
He described his party's role in non-election
years as building public support and seeking out volunteers who do not
feel a strong allegiance to another party.He describes the IP's election
year task as "helping citizens to vote for the best candidate." He went on
to stress that "each person's vote doesn't belong to a party, but to
themselves." His challenge as party leader is to get the best candidate on
the Independence Party ticket. Only then will party support follow.
Make the precinct caucus a place of open debate.
In the past there were times when the parties
would debate issues in great depth. Recently, caucus proceedings have had
less open debate and more an appearance of controlled, perfunctory
If done well, however, the caucus can serve as a
party-building tool, attracting people and ideas. The IP platform doesn't
start out covering all of the issues that people are interested in;
instead the party sponsors forums with guest panels including public and
private officials and invites people to participate in the discussion. If
someone believes strongly about an issue the individual can submit a
resolution. Eventually, after much debate and discussion that issue may be
included in the party platform.
"Where a lot of our growth comes is with the
people who are put off when given a form at the door of the other party
caucuses that says 'I plan to vote for this party'."
By contrast he said there is no sign-up to
attend the Independence Party caucus. In order to become a delegate and
represent the party later in the convention process, a participant must
agree to support 75% of the party platform.
One problem with the caucus process may be that
it has come to be viewed more as a straw poll than a discussion of issues,
Increase involvement in the precinct caucus
Jenkins described a need to get more people
involved in the caucus process in order to moderate the tenor of the
proceedings and yet still contribute to a vigorous debate. Part of this
involves overcoming the perception that the caucus process is closed to
To overcome the perception Jenkins proposed
so people see the caucuses as an opportunity
to participate. That's not the message the public gets presently, he
Encourage outside organizations to advocate
for greater caucus
attendance. Nonpartisan organizations could and should advocate for more
widespread caucus participation, he noted; they can promote caucuses as
an important entry point into the democratic political system.
both to get more people involved in the caucus
and, as an outreach mechanism, to build party identification. The
physical locations of the IP caucuses do not begin to cover the entire
geography of the state. In addition, some people are simply not
comfortable in a public space or may not be able to be physically
present at the prescribed location. Technology allows people to
participate when their participation would be impossible otherwise or
when a crowded public setting is simply too overwhelming. It allows
people to contribute without having to either drive long distances or be
shoulder-to-shoulder with large numbers of people.
- People are told time and time again
that their vote is their voice in public policy, Jenkins said in closing.
He believes that's just not true. "Your vote is a choice, not your
voice. However, the caucus can be an opportunity to make your voice
heard in the public policy debate." He wants people to have more than
simply a choice among candidates; he wants them to be able to voice their
opinions about what public policy positions those candidates and their
parties should stand for. The caucuses, he believes, can change to
accomplish more of that direct participation.
The chair thanked Mr. Jenkins for the
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Core participants
include persons of varying political persuasions, reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
Verne C. Johnson, chair; David Broden, Marianne Curry,
Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland, Marina Lyon,
Joe Mansky, John Mooty, Jim Olson,
and Wayne Popham