Nevada Democrats look to Iowa expert for caucus help
Associated Press Writer
LAS VEGAS – When Nevada Democrats needed someone to guide their plans for a new, early presidential caucus, they did the only sensible thing: They poached some talent from Iowa.
Democrats hired Jean Hessburg, the former executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party and the woman who ran Iowa Democrats’ 2004 caucus – a year with record turnout. She’s now responsible for building Nevada’s Jan. 19 caucus, an event that will trail first-in-the-nation Iowa by just five days.
For more than four months, Hessburg, remotely from her home in Des Moines, and veteran Iowa operative, Jayson Sime, have been trying to translate this mythologized, Midwestern political event into Nevada’s political culture.
In a recent interview, Hessburg, 43, described the task as part party development, part civics lesson.
The caucuses – a series of precinct meetings held to divvy up delegates to potential nominees – require the sort of organization and participation more likely to have lasting effects than a election.
“I just love building something that has long-term effects,” said Hessburg. “It’s about strengthening the Nevada Democratic Party, strengthening the network of activists, growing the voter registration – all looking toward the future.”
Evidence of how far Nevada has to go can be seen in the question voters here most ask of Hessburg.
“Why is this so important?” she said. “We get that one a lot.”
It’s not something any self-respecting Iowa voter would ask.
Its caucuses helped catapult an unknown Jimmy Carter to the nomination. And the January event has become an integral part of the presidential race and the state’s self-image.
“Even if people in Iowa don’t participate in the caucus, there is at least an understanding. The interest and the depth of knowledge about the caucus is thick,” said Hessburg, who still grins when she thinks of her first caucus. It was 1984, and she went with Walter Mondale.
“I followed my heart,” she said.
But in Nevada, where parties historically are weak and a mid-February caucus never tipped the balance in a primary, that sort of nostalgia is harder to understand. So, Hessburg and Sime, the caucus director, have plans to indoctrinate Nevada voters.
“Winning the West” is the party’s caucus slogan – as well as the hopeful logic behind the new early slot on the calendar.
Democrats, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pushed hard to get the top-tier candidates to attend two early forums in Nevada- giving voters a taste of the spotlight.
The media and the bedrock of activists are being briefed on the logistics. “Mock-aucuses” will give some of the roughly 2,000 volunteers a trial run through the complicated process, which involves public displays of politics and math.
Each of the state’s 1,874 precincts will meet in roughly 1,000 locations – most public places. Participants will be able to register with the party on the day of the caucus. A formula based on the number of supporters aligned with each candidate will dictate the number of delegates awarded.
The results, the party hopes, will play a key role in determining which candidate is viewed as the front-runner going into the next matchup – currently scheduled to be the New Hampshire primary.
All of this will be done under the nose of hundreds of reporters and, the party hopes, before East Coast newspapers go to press. To that end, Nevada Democrats will employ a computerized reporting system first implemented under Hessburg’s tenure in Iowa.
This image of a caucus as a well-oiled media event isn’t what made Iowa’s a national phenomenon.
But Hessburg is the first to dismiss the myth “of grandma baking cookies and grandpa coming in from milking the cows and calling the meeting to order.”
“That’s just not what happens,” she said.
But it is the image that’s been used to set up the caucus as a test of a candidate’s popular appeal with “real folks.” Like Iowa, Nevada will have to create its own caucus lore, she said.