Editor's note: As part of our continuing election coverage, we're taking a closer look at amendments and propositions that will be on the Colorado ballot in November. Yesterday, we posted "Why You Should Vote Yes on Prop. 107 and 108, About Primaries and the Caucus," featuring an interview with a proponent of the measures. Today, we highlight a Q&A with a representative of the opposition.
Proposition 107 pertains to the creation of a presidential primary that would replace the current caucus system. Proposition 108 would allow unaffiliated voters to take part in that primary.
John Wren, registered agent for Save the Caucus, opposes both propositions for reasons he outlines below. While proponents say a presidential primary would have no effect on the caucus for Colorado candidates, Wren argues that passage of the measures could well doom the system as a whole.
The following transcription is supplemented by images from Save the Caucus' social media accounts, plus a pro-107 and 108 commercial that Wren interprets in a different way than intended. Also on hand are links and occasional insertions for reasons of fact-checking and clarification.
Westword: Why do you oppose propositions 107 and 108?
John Wren: I think the the caucus is the best way, especially for people new to Colorado and the Colorado political process, to make a real difference in determining who their representatives are. And also who the party leaders are.
The caucus was formed in 1910. Honest John Shafroth was a very popular governor at the time, because he cleaned up a real mess. It was a Tammany Hall situation back then. That was one of the reasons they put in the caucus as part of the progressive reforms. And the powerful forces opposed them then just like they're trying to do now. They tried to stop the caucus before it ever got started. And it's been a continual fight.
In 2002, they tried to kill the caucus with Initiative 29. We tried the presidential primary for a couple of cycles, and it just about killed the caucus. We formed Save the Caucus back then, which was different from Save the Caucus now — but Save the Caucus back then defeated Initiative 29 by a 60-40 margin despite being outspent 1,400 to one. And that's because people in Colorado love the Colorado caucus — people who had participated in it. And they talked to others about it.
The problem is, because of those presidential primaries, the caucus never really got back on its feet — especially this last one on March 1st. It definitely was sabotaged by the two state party leaders. They wanted to go back to the good old days of Tammany Hall-type politics. That's what it looked like to me. The caucus, when it's healthy, puts the rank-and-file in charge of the party leaders. And the party leaders right now, today, don't want that so much. I think that's the root of the problem....
This is emotional for me. I love the caucus. I've seen it when it worked well. I want it to be there for my grand kids, if they ever get an interest in politics. It's the best networking event. You've got 6,000 meetings across the state. It's the chance for people to exercise leadership ability. I think it's where the minnows are born. People got better local representatives because of the caucus. But it's gone downhill and the party leaders are trying to kill it.
Could you describe the differences between Proposition 107 and 108 from your perspective?
Proposition 107 is about the presidential primary, which would replace the caucus as part of the process of selecting delegates to go to the national nominating committee. It replaces that with just walking into the booth and pressing the lever. [The primary would use a mail-in process.] In the caucus, you vote for the delegates. In the primary, you vote for the candidates, and then party leaders will decide who the delegates are.
The caucus system is something that political leaders see as decreasing their own political power, and that's why people in that position feel the way they do. From 1912 to 2002 to this time, there are powerful forces that would like to have us shut up, send in our taxes and vote in a way that's easier to control.
Books like Animal Farm and 1984 talk about wanting to make people part of the machine. And in the caucus, people aren't just part of the machine. People don't have to participate in it, but when they do, they'll see it's more like a jury trial than the primary election itself. The top candidates are selected by the people, so that we get the very best candidates on the ballot. We're seeing an example of what happens when you don't do that this year.
Proposition 108 is about open primaries. Right now, if you're not registered as a Republican or a Democrat, you can't vote directly. However, you can do two things. One is you can participate in campaigns, and if you're unaffiliated, you can change at any time to be a Republican or a Democrat if you want to participate.
The last day of the election, if you want to vote on the very last day, you can change from unaffiliated to Republican or Democrat. You can do it online if you don't want people to know you did it on the day you go in to vote; you can do it secretly if you want. But you can do it on the day you go in to vote, or you can do it at one of the election stations, and they can change it for you. And then, if you want to, you can change it back.
It's not that much of an imposition. It takes less than a minute, total combined time. I know because I've done it. I voted this year. I'd been unaffiliated for quite some time, and I changed to affiliate. I've been a Republican, I've been a Democrat. But you've got these party leaders who keep stifling the conversation. So we need to save the caucus now.
Proponents say the current system forces people to be something they're not if they want to participate — that they're really unaffiliated, but they have to pretend to be a Democrat or a Republican in order to take part. Why is that theory off-base from your perspective?
Have you seen the ad they're running on TV? Kids playing on the playground and you've got the R's and the D's and then the U's? That smacks to me of a kid from sort of a rich family, and he doesn't want to participate in any particular group, but he wants to do whatever they do and be accepted as being as much a part of the group as they are.
You can't have it both ways. You can either participate as a Republican and use that as a megaphone to get your voice across or you become a Democrat and do that, or you become unaffiliated. If you're not affiliated and you're not participating fully, how can you possibly have enough information to make good decisions? That's why delegates go. Delegates at the nominating assembly, they make the final decision based on full information. And they do it face to face. There's something about being face to face with people that can't be replaced.
TV is no substitute. If you don't get people at these nominating assemblies and they're in the same room with them, you can't fully measure what kind of representative this person is going to be. And you also can mount opposition, especially in these local campaigns, where I've repeatedly seen people come on and become successful candidates.
One of the things almost nobody knows, and this is along the lines of the open primary, is that the proposition gives permission to scrap the entire caucus system [for Colorado candidates]. If the party leaders want to say, "We want to go back to the good old days before 1910 and Tammany Hall politics," it gives them the right to do that. Now why isn't that a headline? But the Denver Post endorsed the primary without hearing our side of the argument. We tried to sit down with them for six months and they couldn't make time for us. That's outrageous.
Why is the caucus superior to a primary system when it's at its best?
Caucuses are like jazz music. Sometimes when people hear jazz music, they think, "I never want to hear jazz music again!" But there's bad jazz and there's good jazz, and caucuses are like that. There are 6,000 meetings held every two years, and if you didn't like it last time, come back again. And you can also come back with friends and take it over. It's a way to have a revolution at the local level.
Here's why it's different. If you go and it's well run, you don't vote on a candidate. You discuss candidates and then you vote directly on delegates. Everybody from the neighborhood has a chance to show up.
This past caucus in March is described by the proponents as chaotic. Is it your argument that these problems can be fixed rather than the entire system being scrapped?
Yes. There's nothing wrong with the system. "Why don't we get rid of the Constitution because the Constitution isn't working the way it should?": You don't hear anybody saying that. But getting rid of the caucus is pretty much the same thing as far as the people in Colorado are concerned, and in other places. What you see in the presidential race right now is the result of everyone switching to a presidential primary from the caucus.
The caucus is a messy process. It's the worst system in the world except for all the rest. It brings people together. Every two years, you have a statewide civic lesson. But the political leaders don't like it. You have the two party leaders, [Republican] Steve House and [Democrat] Rick Palacio. They were on TV the weekend before this year's caucus saying we ought to get rid of the caucus. And I went to a couple of district meetings, and you had these district leaders, too, saying, "We've got to get rid of the caucus." It's like saying, "You guys are fools for coming here tonight. We've got to get rid of this." The party leaders are saying that, and then the precinct people are hearing that, and they don't get prepared, they don't get adequate training. And so it was a mess. It was a nightmare this year. Anybody who went this year, I can't blame them for feeling it's a problem. If you didn't go to good one, you can't really appreciate it.
People have lost their lives so this process would be in place. They wouldn't allow this kind of process in places where the leadership tells the people what to do. Of course, that's why the leadership here that wants to tell people what to do, they're all for getting rid of the caucus.
Proponents say that many more people would be able to participate in a primary versus a caucus. Why isn't that a good thing?
There is a certain goodness to that. You want as many people to participate as possible. And I'm not in any way trying to shut people out. If anybody hasn't registered and they just want to show up, you can. You get everyone to come together. You get a little bit of a flavor of it in Iowa, but ours is a better system. Colorado has some unique features that make it even better. But people come together to discuss issues and elect delegates. They're in control of the party leadership and they're in control of who's going to represent them. Compare that with watching ads.
Do you believe that party leaders favor the primary because under the caucus system, the people have more power than they do?
Absolutely. In the caucus assembly situation, if a party leader goes there, it's very frequent that competition comes up right there. I'll tell you one example that happened this year in District 64. In the Republican caucus, Kimmi Lewis won. She's brand new, and she beat the incumbent, Timothy Dore. He was one of the sponsors of the bill that would have killed the caucus just like these propositions are trying to do [the Primary Participation Act]. I told him that was going to hurt him, and sure enough, he got beat. Kimmi Lewis was nominated at the assembly, and he lost. She beat an incumbent.
Incumbents look at that and think, "We need to get rid of that thing. Why take that chance?" And a primary sounds good, because more people do it. But it's a big lie to say it's better for the average, ordinary person. The best chance the average, ordinary person has of serving in elected public office or helping a good person they know get elected is this caucus system we have right now.
The proponents are much better funded than your organization. How do you propose to combat that advantage?
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
This is a good experiment in the power of social media. And what we're betting is that communication through social media can defeat them. But that's only going to happen if people care enough about the issue to hit the "share" button. If people will share about this on social media, we believe it's going to stop people and get them to think about it. And when they do, we think they'll value a process that, if it goes away, we may never be able to get it back.
People are going to have to step up. There's a lot of information at CoCaucus.org, and I hope people will read it. And if they do, they'll look at these commercials where you have adults acting like children, and I think people will say, "These guys are crazy."