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Las Cruces Voters Are Eager for Caucus

By Rene Romo
Journal Southern Bureau
    LAS CRUCES— Democrats here can thank President Bush for one thing: Energizing the political left.
    Heading into New Mexico's Feb. 3 Democratic presidential caucus, Democrats in the state's second-largest city say many party members, previously passive, have become more engaged in politics in general, and the caucus in particular.
    "In the past, we were feeling more hopeless, but we can't afford to feel hopeless anymore," said Marie Hoshimi-Wilkes as she ate breakfast Friday at a Mesilla coffee shop with her husband, Bill Wilkes. "I think things are clearer now."
    In the past, the couple said, they sat on the political sidelines. But the Bush administration and the war in Iraq led them to join a local peace activist organization and to hold a fund-raiser to support a left-leaning publication.
    The two Las Cruces Democrats have since aided Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich's campaign by going door-to-door, passing out literature.
    "A lot of people want Kucinich, but they think he's not electable, so they're going with (former Vermont Gov. Howard) Dean," Hoshimi-Wilkes said. "I say, 'Vote your conscience,' but we'll go with any Democrat (in the general election)."
    Daniel Chavez, Western states campaign director for Dean, currently based in Las Cruces, said he expects participation in the Feb. 3 caucus to be good, in large part because of the importance of jobs, health care and education to the Hispanic community. He charged that the U.S. war effort in Iraq is putting the pinch on each of those concerns back home.
    "This is a unique opportunity for the people of Las Cruces to speak with their vote," Chavez said.
    An edge in
    Fifty-one percent of the 2000 presidential vote in Doña Ana County went to Al Gore over George W. Bush. There are some strong conservative and independent elements in the county, but Democrats continue to have a 53 percent to 30 percent edge over Republicans, with 14 percent registering under "no party" and another 2 percent under "other."
    Even before the Iraq war was launched in March 2003, many Democrats in this town, home to New Mexico State University, had joined an anti-war group called PeaceAware. The group has conducted weekly protests in front of the federal courthouse downtown, even after the end of major combat operations in Iraq.
    As a result of prodding from local peace activists and the student government, KRUX-FM, the student-run radio station at NMSU, in July began carrying Pacifica Radio's "Democracy Now," a liberal news radio program.
    And in May, the left-leaning bimonthly Grassroots Press was launched, largely with volunteer help, by longtime journalist Stephen Klinger out of frustration with mainstream media coverage of the war and other issues.
    "I've lived in this city for 20 years, and I had no idea there were hundreds of people who felt as I did," Klinger said. "But when the war started and 200 people marched (in protest) from Young Park to Lohman Avenue, and then I started going to meetings and vigils, the movement just kind of coalesced."
    A flood of candidates
    Democratic presidential candidates have sensed the energy. When the candidates have visited southern New Mexico, they have come to Las Cruces.
    Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut attended a private fund-raiser in September, and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina held a "town hall" meeting in late October.
    Dean, then riding a wave of momentum, attracted about 500 boisterous Democrats to a rally in mid-December, followed one week later by Kucinich, who gave two impassioned speeches to several hundred people in Mesilla and Las Cruces. The wife of retired Gen. Wesley Clark also made an appearance in Las Cruces earlier this month.
    College student Breanon Cole, the 23-year-old communications director for the College Democrats club at NMSU, said she supports Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. But like many other Democrats here, she added: "Basically, I'm for anyone who I think can beat Bush."
    Despite the many signs of new political energy here, not all Democrats appear highly informed about New Mexico's first-ever presidential caucus— which will be run by the Democratic Party itself, rather than the state and county governments— nor do all plan to participate.
    Caucus confusion
    Projections for statewide participation in the Feb. 3 Democratic caucus go only as high as 10 percent of the state's approximately 482,000 registered Democrats.
    One 22-year-old Democrat at The Bean coffee shop said she was only "vaguely" aware of the upcoming caucuses. And 52-year-old Ralph MacDonald, who approves of the president's performance, said he would not have the time to vote.
    Dean volunteer Shirley Armstrong said she has met a number of voters who were "confused" about the mechanics of the caucus. Many others, Armstrong said, did not know they had to vote at one of seven party-run sites around Doña Ana County rather than at the usual county-run polling sites.
    "But this is the first, and it takes a while to get the bugs out," Armstrong said.
    Some political workers have grumbled that the handful of party-run voting sites in the county will force some Democrats to make long drives to the polls.
    Chaparral residents will have to drive about 30 minutes to vote in Las Cruces, while others in rural Hatch will have to drive about 20 minutes to the town of Doña Ana.
    But for many Democrats, it seems that simmering anger with the Bush administration will propel them to the polls, regardless of distance.
    Armstrong, a longtime Democrat, said the Bush administration and Republican gains in Congress two years ago spurred her to become more active politically. Since then, she has hosted organizing meetings for Dean.
    "The day after the mid-term elections (in 2002), I didn't get out of bed until noon, and my husband didn't get out of bed until after that," Armstrong said. "We were so depressed."
    "There's a lot more energy and it's because it's the first time we've had a caucus early in New Mexico," said Steven Key, business agent for the Mountain West Regional Council of Carpenters Local 1245, host to a caucus site. Primary issues for union members are job losses and rising health care costs, Key said.
    "This year, it's a golden opportunity for New Mexico to have a say in who the nominee will be," Key said.