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Spin Control: Coverage of caucuses is pointless

If no one else has yet proposed this, might I suggest the news media stop paying attention to the results of the Iowa precinct caucuses … or any precinct caucuses, for that matter.

That includes Washington. No offense, all you good party loyalists who are preparing for the big March 3 event.

As a party-building exercise, caucuses are a useful tool. Anyone who is willing to leave the comfort of their home; drive or be driven to a school, church or community center; sit around for about an hour with family, neighbors and total strangers while someone reads arcane rules for awarding delegates; then speak or listen to others speak about the virtues of a particular candidate isn’t just a glutton for political punishment. He or she is a real find for a political party.

In a state like Washington, where voters don’t register by party, the local Democrats and Republicans don’t have a better way of telling who’s who.

Sign up for a caucus and you can bet that in the next week you’ll get a call from a precinct officer, a letter from an aspiring candidate and an email seeking a donation from that party’s member of Congress. The real trick is to get that member of Congress to stop begging you for money five or 10 years down the road.

If they want to keep one foot in the 19th century, the parties should definitely keep their caucus system. But news out of Iowa last week shows that we should not pay much attention to the so-called results on caucus night.

Based on incomplete – and as it turns out erroneous – results, the news media reported Mitt Romney won the Iowa caucuses – by eight votes. But as Romney got to say on caucus night, and the next few days in New Hampshire, a win’s a win. Except in his case it wasn’t. Tallies more than two weeks later show Rick Santorum actually won the race, although the exact margin remains uncertain. Imagine: The Republican Party, which is the paragon of virtues when it comes to properly registering voters and counting their votes, can’t really say who won the first real contest of its presidential nomination.

Except that caucuses aren’t really a contest. They’re the beginning of a process that involves more meetings and voting and winnowing. Every four years, the national media, aided by businesses and politicians in Iowa who want a quadrennial economic boost for their state, forget that.

Wise up, folks. You’re being had.

The caucuses will miss Jan Polek

Writing about caucuses brings to mind Jan Polek, who passed away earlier this month.

Whenever I would rail about caucuses being a pain to cover – which happened about every two years – Polek would gently remind me that they are a great steppingstone into the system for many political novices.

She first went in 1984, and two years later she was running for the Legislature. A Democrat in the solidly Republican 6th, she might’ve won, too, if incumbent Dick Bond hadn’t retired that year and been replaced by John Moyer, a local OB-GYN. In a race that turned on the women’s vote, Moyer had a slight edge, having delivered thousands of babies in Spokane. He won by 83 votes.

Polek was slightly ahead on election night, and I was the reporter who delivered the bad news after poll site votes were counted and the cheering supporters had gone home: She wouldn’t survive the GOP surge in the absentees, which was always good for about 3 percent in that district. She took it with good grace, later sending a snapshot of me pointing to a precinct printout as the bearer of bad tidings.

When I would scoff about the prospects of anyone doing more than sitting around for an hour or so then being roped into attending yet another meeting, she reminded me that she made the journey from caucus-goer to national convention delegate in 1988 for Michael Dukakis.

In Atlanta that year, she spoke passionately about being on the floor to cast her vote for Dukakis, and of giving up a seat for an alternate pledged to Jesse Jackson when Jesse addressed the crowd. For her, that’s what politics were all about: passion and compassion.

Polek was a rare person in Spokane politics, an unabashed liberal who didn’t shy from the term. She never won elected office, but for a quarter- century she provided a boost for many women to get involved in politics.

The precinct caucuses, and the rest of the political process, will be poorer this year for her absence.

Spin Control, a weekly column by Olympia reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items, reader comments and videos at http://www.spokesman.com/blogs/ spincontrol.

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