The Palmer High School auditorium is still filling, but Tom and Lee Gray are settled in their seats by around 9:30 a.m. They smile with hints of relief, guilt and excitement as they polish off the remnants of two frosted doughnuts.
They had showed up early Saturday for the El Paso County Democratic Party's assembly and convention, but by 7:15 a.m., the line already wrapped much of the school. Party volunteers didn't start checking people in until about 7:45. (Registration wasn't supposed to start until 8, officials point out, but the campaigns told supporters to get there early). The Grays, chilled and hungry, didn't make it inside until closer to 9.
"The organization for this event just wasn't there," Lee Gray says.
She smiles, though, to suggest things aren't that bad. They got coffee and bagels from Barack Obama supporters outside. Inside, Tom Gray has shed his coat and its Obama sticker to scout the Hillary Clinton camp's spread of treats.
The delays and the doughnuts shrink to side notes as Lee Gray surveys the gathering crowd. She talks in a hushed tone about the energy she remembers from John F. Kennedy's 1960 campaign, when she and Tom were college students in Hawaii.
"It's been a long time coming that the Democrats had something to get together about," Gray says. "[Obama] just makes you feel like the U.S. can be good again."
Big names, numbers
For the Grays and other Democratic diehards, county political gatherings are familiar, if sometimes dull. On this occasion, they seem surprised that the energy from the state's Feb. 5 caucuses is still pulsing, perhaps gathering strength.
Their questions are mainly about what comes next: Will the party still be energized after a presidential nominee is picked? Will legions of new volunteers help make the Democratic Party a viable force in historically conservative El Paso County?
Newcomers, making up the majority of the crowd, have their own questions, about procedure and practicalities. They puzzle over the duties of numerous committees, each with its own elected chair and secretary. They read through the 189 platform resolutions they need to vote on today. Is this really how democracy works? Who knew?
John Morris, chair of the county's Democrats, announces close to 10 a.m. that the "end is in sight" for seating the county's delegates.
Later, he draws hearty applause when he says one of the men's restrooms at Palmer has been re-assigned for women. But it's not until 12:30 that he announces the process of seating delegates and finding alternates for no-shows has finished.
Each of El Paso County's 387 precincts selected between two and 10 delegates to the county assembly. The final delegate count after years when 500 delegates would have been a great turnout is 1,722.
The big-name speeches start before many Democrats have gotten their credential tags. U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, on his way to other events in the city, is among the first to take the stage, stoking the crowd with jabs at Republicans and a call for affordable health care.
U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, making his first bid for statewide office as Sen. Wayne Allard's seat comes open, waits along a wall as a Clinton supporter makes her remarks. Like Salazar, he's trying to hit several Democratic events on a day when many counties are having assemblies. He says he's never been to the El Paso County assembly, and he appears both surprised and pleased as he looks at the crowd.
"This is pretty cool," he says.
Taking the stage, Udall says the country needs a green energy revolution. He calls for a "new kind of leadership" and commends the crowd for participating in the process.
State elected officials Rep. Michael Merrifield and Sen. John Morse follow.
Tamar Taylor, who has come to the assembly as an alternate delegate for her precinct, holds her credential tags as Hal Bidlack, a retired Air Force officer planning to challenge Rep. Doug Lamborn for his 5th District congressional seat, speaks about his plans if elected. Though she started the day as an alternate, Taylor hopes to be chosen as one of 390 delegates to the state Democratic convention May 16-18 in Colorado Springs. Like many in the room, she's intent on becoming a national convention delegate.
"I want to go all the way," she says.
What they've waited for
A blonde woman sings the national anthem, and delegates, uninvited, join her. A thunderous "O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?" elicits shivers for some.
One purpose of the assembly is to select candidates for local offices. After lunch the delegates divide up by House district to hear from and choose prospective candidates. The group for House District 14, a seat now held by Republican Kent Lambert, relocates from a small classroom to accommodate a crowd of 134 people. In the lunchroom, beside $2 pizza slices growing cold on paper plates, they pick Chyrese Exline, a candidate last fall for School District 11, as their candidate.
For the first time anyone can remember, John Morris later remarks, the party picks candidates for every local House, Senate and county commission district.
Fourteen people give short speeches about why they should serve on a committee to review and refine the party's platform, and then there's an auditorium-wide vote to pick eight. Passion's evident as a few volunteers walk around the room, counting.
"We want a recount," a woman cries out at one point.
Some share an opposing view with their neighbors: "We're going to be here all night."
Morris adjourns the party assembly and opens the convention, devoted to national business, at about 4:30 p.m. The first agenda item is the count of ballots for a presidential preference poll: 1,072 vote for Obama, 471 for Clinton, with other ballots undecided or unreadable.
The vote translates into 272 state-level delegates for Obama and 119 for Clinton, with Obama's total later revised downward by one. Booming applause and cheers for both candidates register only slight weariness from the day's activities.
After electing delegates to more committees and leadership posts, the hundreds still remaining split into Clinton and Obama camps to pick delegates to the state convention. There's also an effort to help choose delegates for upcoming meetings to determine candidates for multi-county and statewide offices.
At 6:15 p.m., the debate is still ongoing. One woman, stern-faced, gathers her things and leaves.
Deborah McIntosh, another delegate serving for the first time, says she's amazed this process takes place every four years. Remembering how the day began, she laughs dismissively when asked if she is also tempted to walk out before the end.
"I've already frozen [outside] for it," she says.
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