Las Vegas Sun

April 25, 2019

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It takes a certain type to run a caucus

When you need to find 1,754 Nevadans to lead caucus meetings come January, it's a good idea to start with someone who was at the head of the high school marching band, organized freshman orientation at college, and brims with civic enthusiasm when the jury summons arrives.

Meet Ellen Barre Spiegel, a Henderson small-business owner who will help form the grass-roots backbone of the Nevada Democratic presidential caucus.

She's just one of the state's caucus leaders, who will serve as wranglers to keep Democratic voters in order on Jan. 19 when the state selects its preference for the Democratic presidential nominee.

She's 45 but still gets giddy talking about her high school and college experiences, and helping launch the Henderson Democratic Club. That hasn't gone too badly: Two of the Democratic candidates have spoken to its members this year.

So you can see why she believes in the system. Believes in the importance of each and every voter. Believes in a successful Nevada caucus.

Her job: undergo a tedious day of training and, on Jan. 19, stand in front of neighbors, keep order and call in the results. The state has so far identified 1,410 others just like her - they're called temporary chairs - with the hope of bringing order to caucus chaos across Nevada.

It takes a certain passion - or is that political dorkiness? - for someone to give up two hours of a Saturday to caucus. And all the more challenging to find the people to lead them.

"I volunteered because I want the whole community to come out," she said. "You know the coolest things about the caucus? People have to talk to their neighbors."

Her responsibilities will include doing the math to divvy up delegates, keeping a semblance of order during debates - and giving directions to the bathroom. She is part den mother, part political facilitator, part agitator and part peacemaker.

The state Democratic Party has identified caucus leaders for 80 percent of Nevada's precincts.

First among the targets: active Democrats eager to be part of the process. The party looked to advocacy groups and campaigns for referrals. In precincts that still lack leaders, party staff members are cold-calling registered Democrats for help.

Though the party still needs to find more than 300 caucus leaders in seven weeks, organizers say they are not worried.

"In Iowa, of course, they have a tradition and people who want to help," said Jayson Sime, the Democratic Party's caucus director, who worked in Iowa's caucus four years ago. "But there's an excitement here that they're part of something historic. They wear it as a badge of honor."

They include people such as Karen Smith, a 37-year-old waitress at a Strip hotel and an active member of the Culinary Union, who said she was honored to be recruited as a caucus leader.

Warren Flood, a 31-year-old software developer, said he was motivated by Sen. Barack Obama's campaign to help out and wants to show cynics that Nevada can pull this off.

Being politically engaged isn't a prerequisite for precinct leaders, Sime said. They don't even need a command of math to figure out how to assign the delegate votes, because there's a formula.

But comfort with a deck of cards will come in handy.

If two candidates get an equal number of supporters, candidate representatives will draw from a deck of shuffled cards. And the state party is prepared to give shuffling instructions.

Barre Spiegel, who owns a consulting business with her husband, Bill Spiegel, thinks the most important skills for temporary chairs are energy and enthusiasm. Never mind that she hadn't been registered with a party before moving to Nevada.

Growing up in Long Island, N.Y., and living in Santa Monica, Calif., she had always enjoyed talking about politics and being active in organizations (she is head of her homeowners association social committee). But, fiscally conservative and socially more liberal, she could not commit to a political party. As she sat at a Nevada DMV office almost seven years ago, filling out a voter registration form, she decided "it was time to put down a stake."

She went Democrat, then started looking for Democrats in her Green Valley Ranch neighborhood. Good luck, she was told.

With the help of then-Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, the Spiegels formed the Henderson Democratic Club.

For a time their efforts looked desperate. At the caucus four years ago, Barre Spiegel and her husband were the only Democrats to show up from their precinct. But they passed out fliers advertising the club, and the first meeting after that the room filled up.

She's now president of the Henderson Democratic Club. She won't disclose which presidential candidate she supports. She's met New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who separately attended club events, and now she's on the hunt for other candidates to stump at her club.

Health care is the top issue for her. Through her and her husband's company, "we spend more money on insurance than the principal and interest on our mortgage," she said. "But I know not everyone can do that."

So why not dedicate her energy toward a specific candidate instead of the election process?

"It will affect more people and have a longer impact," she said. "If your candidate loses, you'll have to refocus and retool. We're hoping to build something here."