The Big Tent Folds

Apple Valley, Precinct 5

NOT SO LONG ago there were corn fields where Apple Valley Precinct 5 now exists; three decades ago, the city didn't exist even in name. But today Apple Valley High School is a massive brick-faced complex that bursts at the seams with the baby boom's children. There are close to 400 Republicans here tonight, twiddling their thumbs as the state senator expounds on the virtues of democracy and tells everyone to come visit the state Capitol.

It's the third-best-attended caucus in Apple Valley history, and Precinct 5--on the southeast of town, encompassing both a lake and a trailer park--has the biggest attendance. People are clustered around the tables in the orange-carpeted library, laughing, shaking hands, and peering furtively at strangers. "The other side is pretty organized this time," a guy with a mustache says to Lilly Awsumb. "Did you bring a list?" She nods.

The evening starts with the routine stuff. Delegate candidates stand to introduce themselves; there's a fair number of retirees and homemakers, along with businesspeople and systems managers from 3M. One guy notes that he's between jobs, "and I have résumés here, if anyone's interested." There's a minor argument over whether people should declare whom they support for president "because there are so many new folks here, and we'd like to know who we're voting for." But Bill Hanley, the white-haired veteran who, as Lilly informs me, always gets elected precinct chair, says that's not really how the party likes it.

You couldn't tell, from the politeness that reigns in the room, that there's a battle going on here. The fault lines are under the surface, communicated only in code. One group of people talk about how they've served in state government and the local sewer commission; a lot of them have lived here "since before there was Apple Valley." Another group have move-in dates from the '80s, kids in school, and usually conclude by saying, "I'm a conservative Republican." Both Awsumbs are in that category. But the heavily Christian movement conservatives are outnumbered. When the straw poll comes back--it needs to be counted right away, so it can get on the 10 o'clock news--45 of the 85 votes are for Dole. Buchanan has 16, Forbes 14, Lamar Alexander three, and Richard Lugar one. Six votes are for Alan Keyes, including two from the Awsumbs, who voted for him because they don't like the way he's been treated.

Some people get up and leave right after the straw poll; at one table, the only guy left sitting is a tall, skinny man who works for the Koch refinery. He won't say who he voted for, except that there are old-line Republicans--farmers--in his family and "you just basically don't stray from the way you grew up." But he likes some of the things Buchanan has to say, especially the stuff about strong moral values, and tariffs. "It's a big hole right now, because the party traditionally has been more for big business," he explains haltingly. "I think someone needs to start talking about it, because if you're just for big business it's going to drag everyone down along with it. A lot of my friends are upset about all the downsizing."

There are only four resolutions on the floor, and they blow past in record time. One, against the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (which, the proposer claims, would not allow parents to stop kids from joining gangs or consuming pornography) passes with no nays; another, asking for a reversal of the state Supreme Court decision mandating Medical Assistance for abortions, barely makes it. Ten or 15 years ago, Gordon Awsumb says, people would wrangle for hours over this stuff; now, "everyone is middle-aged" and wants to go home.

As they wait for the delegate tally--everyone else is gone by 9:15--the Awsumbs ponder the presidential crop. Lilly is torn between Keyes, Forbes, and Buchanan; the only thing she knows for sure is that she doesn't want Dole. "Because he's the establishment."

What bothers her about the establishment? "I think the establishment has a vested interest in the size of government, and the intrusiveness of government. And they're not representing the people anymore; they're for the multinational corporations. Just like unions don't represent the rank and file anymore. I think it's true that Americans can't compete with people in Mexico who are making $1 an hour--and it's not right for people in Mexico to be making $1 an hour either. I think someone has to address that." She likes Buchanan for that reason, but worries about the other stuff she's heard about anti-Semitism, racism, immigration. "Why punish the people who are risking their lives and separating from their families? I think they should crack down on the corporations who bring these people in, at less than minimum wage."  

"To me," Lilly muses after a lull, "being conservative is about conserving something. Or getting it back the way it used to be. Especially the federal government--it's like Wal-Mart, these big companies, selling all the same products around the country. For example, I'm against capital punishment, but I don't think we should have a federal law about that. I barely think we should have federal crimes." All of government needs to get a lot smaller, Gordon echoes--right on down to the local level. There's too much meddling in private business, and too many subsidies, like tax-increment financing. "And the military," his wife chimes in. "There's a public-private partnership that needs to be looked at."

Bill Hanley steps up to the microphone. The delegate results are in; the top vote-getters include several people named Becker and Larson, as well as the mayor, the husband of the state representative, and Hanley. Both Awsumbs got stuck in the alternate column. "Establishment, every one of them," Lilly says, walking through the snowy parking lot to the minivan. "They did it again." (Monika Bauerlein)

Minneapolis, Ward 6, Precinct 5

HALF THE REPUBLICANS in the Phillips neighborhood fit handily into the teacher's lounge at Hans Christian Anderson Open school. It's Kurt Podner's job to sort them out by precinct and steer them toward this or that vinyl-topped conference table. Portraits of notable African Americans--the school's Black History Month display--look down on the proceedings. A lefty poster wishes the Air Force had to sell cookies to raise its budget. Missing, the caucus organizers realize as they peruse the rules, is a flag. "It's probably illegal in the public schools," someone quips. Twenty minutes later, Podner digs one up. It's not easy being an inner-city Republican.

A wedding photographer by trade, Podner's used to managing crowds. The deputy chair of the south Minneapolis Senate district, he doesn't wear a name tag, but everyone seems to know him. He's a Reagan Democrat, he tells me, who found God and joined the Republican party in 1981. He once ran unsuccessfully against Rep. Karen Clark and was about to do it again when he had his run-in with a pair of Minneapolis cops. "They came into my house," he speeds, "these feminist cops, and they said, 'we know you,' and they said, 'Oh, you hate women, huh?' and they tried to break my arm. They were in the old boys' club, you know? But they had to prove themselves even more because they're women."

Plenty of Podner's neighbors (if not his fellow Republicans) have had run-ins with the law. Outsiders know this neighborhood from the late-night news: crime scenes lit up with television lights and black bodies spread-eagled on sidewalks. But crime isn't a hot-button issue at this caucus. Mostly there is talk about abortion and a distinct air of stifled desperation. If, as Bob Dole has proclaimed, there is a battle raging for the heart and soul of the Republican party, the foot soldiers in the trenches of Phillips are bloodied and, in some cases, bowed.

"Ten years ago there were 35 people in this caucus," Tom Trites recalls. His precinct, which he convened with nine members present, has the best showing in the room tonight. "They'd come in, they'd vote for their pro-life candidates and their pro-life resolutions, and they'd leave. I tell you, this party," he shrugs. Trites's grizzled beard and lumbering gait give him a backwoods look, but in fact he works in a western suburb as a computer consultant. He traces his Republicanism back to Goldwater, and he's been a party activist all 12 years he's lived in Phillips. But he says he's ready to give up on both: He's moving out to the burbs as soon as the snows melt. When he gets there, he plans to "join the silent majority. That is, I'll sit on my hands."

Trites says there's just no room anymore in the Republican party for people like him: libertarian, and by extension pro-choice. He shrugs off third parties. In fact, he shrugs off parties altogether. "There's really only one party in this country," he explains. "One party with two faces. There's the Mommycrats; they tell you, 'be good and I'll give you a treat.' There's the Daddycrats; they tell you, 'be good or I'll bop you one.'"

Even with just nine voters showing up, the pro-lifers carry the day in Tom's caucus. By the time the delegates are chosen, an hour and a half has passed, during which the caucus has elected a chair, a vice chair, a secretary, a treasurer, not to mention the delegate and the alternate. The highlight is the straw poll: Keyes and Forbes tie up the race with three votes each. Alexander nets just one vote. Buchanan gets two. Dole is shut out.  

In the bathroom shortly after 9 o'clock, a spunky 9-year-old wipes his forehead with a paper towel. Except for a pair of observers from a local high school, his is the first black face I've seen all night. "Are you here for the Republican caucuses?" I ask. "No," he says. "I'm here for the basketball." Then he warms up to me and begins to make small talk. "My best friend's dad has a gun," he says irrelevantly. "And he says he's going to use it."

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