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Precinct committee officer elections: 10 contested races for Democrats is not typical

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Neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders have come to Jefferson County to campaign, but their run for the highest elected office in the United States is being credited with inspiring a historic number of candidates to seek the lowest political jobs in Jefferson County: precinct committee officer (PCO).

There are 10 contested PCO races to be decided in the Aug. 2 primary election to represent the Democratic Party.

And that's an anomaly.

There are 39 precincts in Jefferson County and every precinct has a PCO for both the Republican and Democratic parties.

In 2014, there were no races for the PCO seats, which are on the ballot on even-numbered years. In 2012 there were two PCO races for Democratic seats in Jefferson County and one for a Republican PCO seat. In 2010, 2008 and 2006, there were no contested races, according to elections results on the Jefferson County auditor's office website.

In 2006, in fact, there were nine precincts in which no one signed up for PCO seats and the honor of being the grassroots motivators for the Democratic party.

It's not uncommon for party officials to appoint PCOs rather than having them be elected.

No write-in candidates are allowed in PCO races. Uncontested PCO races (19 Democrats, five Republicans) are not on the ballot, and those candidates are deemed elected, according to Betty Johnson, Jefferson County deputy auditor and elections supervisor.

TRICKLE DOWN REVOLUTION

Flash forward to 2016 and the turnout for the March 26 caucus was “stupendous,” as Jefferson County Democrat Chair Bruce Cowan put it that day. A record 3,778 Jefferson County Democrats turned out to caucus, almost twice as many as had participated in 2008.

Interest in the presidential race, particularly Sanders' “political revolution” has been trickling down all the way to the PCO races. It's PCOs who are the grassroots organizers, tasked with leading the charge to mobilize their neighbors to get involved in politics and to vote.

“With the renewed interest in the party that happened during the caucuses and the Sanders campaign, we're looking for a lot of new energy,” Cowan said, noting that every two years, the party recreates itself when those new PCOs are elected. Those PCOs elect leaders such as Cowan.

PCOs also have a say in party platforms, make endorsements for local, state and national races and set the tone for the local party.

“The party always needs new energy, new people,” Cowan said. “The party will evolve. It's built to evolve and change.”

While there are local PCO races where one candidate supported Clinton and another supported Sanders in the caucuses, it's hard to say whether that could lead to a division in the local party down the line or simply more spirited discussions on the issues.

Three of the PCO candidates running – Linda Sutton in Precinct 104, Ryan Mc Allister in Precinct 102 and Jeff Engels in Precinct 709 – are all headed to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia later this month. All are Sanders supporters.

Not all of the PCO candidates have expressed an opinion on the presidential race in their candidate statements, available online at

co.jefferson.wa.us under the auditor's office website, or at

jeffcodemocrats.com, the Jefferson County Democrats' website.

The Leader did not interview all 20 candidates running for office, but did ask candidates in several races for their take on the unusual number of PCO candidates running this year.

URGING SANDERS SUPPORTERS

In Precinct 104, which covers Cape George, active Sanders supporter Linda Sutton filed as has Clinton supporter Martin “Marty” Gilmore.

Sutton was in the thick of the Bernie Sanders campaign and she makes no secret of the fact that she asked people who were supporting Sanders to consider running for PCO.

“A lot of us are extremely concerned with the direction of the Democratic party. There's a large portion of his [Sanders'] supporters who are independents who have left the Democratic party,” said Sutton, who joined the Democratic party back in 1976 and worked as a press coordinator for Jimmy Carter's campaign in California. This year, she's been at the helm of Sanders' web presence on the Olympic Peninsula as administrator of his local Facebook page.

Sutton also makes no secret of the fact that there has been some dissatisfaction with the local Democratic party. She said the party's opposition to a proposed county charter was one issue that caused some people to “feel unheard.”

Cowan, who served as chair of the No County Charter campaign before he became chair of the local party, called the charter proposal a risky move at the time.

Sutton also said Bernie Sanders' campaign for president is “one of the great historic moments of our country,” and she said the best way for people who are Sanders supporters to get his platform implemented is, “You get inside the party and start working on the issues and start educating people on TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] for example.”

She would like to see more grilling of Congressional candidates on issues, including the U.S. Navy's electronic warfare proposal for the Olympic Peninsula. Sutton says Congressman Derek Kilmer comes to Port Townsend and tells the same stories about his daughters every year, but people want to know where he stands on the issues.

Sutton wants to see the party more active and engaged.

“There have been people who have been elected [as PCOs] who do nothing. Others get out and work in the community and register people,” Sutton said. “Do you have any idea how many people don't know there's an election?

“It's exciting. I think Bruce [Cowan] is OK with it being exciting. They used to beg people to run. 'Please, do you want to be appointed,'” Sutton recalls of how the party used to have trouble getting people to run for PCO.

FOR CLINTON

Like Sutton, Gilmore has an extensive background in politics. He remembers campaigning with his parents when he was 10 years old, growing up in Minnesota. He'd rather not say which presidential campaign that was, but it was awhile ago.

Gilmore signed up to be PCO because he, too, was invigorated this political season, but for Clinton, not for Sanders.

“I wanted the position to be filled and I wanted to be able to do outreach,” Gilmore said. The last day of filing week, he recalls checking the county elections website and seeing no one had filed against him. Later in the day, he saw Sutton's name.

While Sutton is looking for like-minded progressives to be PCOs and run the local Democratic party, Gilmore said he doesn't think there should be a continuation of the Clinton-Sanders campaign that is already over. Clinton is the party's presumptive nominee, not Sanders.

“And there's a very scary opponent in November. All of our local stuff pales in comparison to that,” Gilmore said of the likelihood of his champion, Clinton, facing presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump in the Nov. 8 election.

Like Cowan, Gilmore acknowledges the impact that Sanders had on the number of people filing for PCO in Jefferson County.

“His [Sanders'] campaign inspired a lot of people and I hope it continues to have a positive impact,” Gilmore said.

“We have two of the most politically interested people in the county running for PCO and we happen to be in the same precinct,” Gilmore reflected.

As for some people feeling excluded from local party politics, as Sutton said she has heard, Gilmore said all meetings are open and people who aren't registered Democrats are often allowed to speak.

“I know some people came to the county convention and wanted to change things on the spot,” he said. That's not the way things work. He said some meetings are so open that it's distressing for others who want to get work done.

“To his credit, Bruce let them speak. He's trying to be inclusive to people who need to be heard,” Gilmore said. “Some times, people don't want to put the effort in to be heard.”

Gilmore doesn't think voters will necessarily look at who the PCO candidates are voting for in the presidential race to determine their PCO vote. Local issues, he said, is where PCOs have control and he says there's plenty of local issues, from climate change to living wage jobs, that need local attention.

“I would love to keep the energy going. We've been having a lot of new people and meetings and we can certainly accomplish a lot of things locally if we keep this positive energy going,” Gilmore said.

CHIMACUM, PORT HADLOCK

Out in Port Hadlock, in Precinct 303, Wilma Hackman and Heidi Eisenhour are vying for a seat that Eisenhour has held in the past.

Hackman, 71, has been active in the Sanders campaign. Eisenhour, 45, caucused for Clinton.

Hackman calls herself a progressive who is against corporate personhood and for a single-payer healthcare system.

“Last Tuesday I celebrated my 71st birthday at my party: The Jefferson County Democratic Party,” Hackman wrote to the Leader. She noted that there has been disenchantment with the political system in recent years with many PCO positions going unfilled – until this year.

“The Sanders campaign has inspired a lot of this. I feel like we really can do something and we don't have to just accept the status quo,” Hackman said.

Hackman also thinks the rivalry between candidates will help revitalize the party and make the party focus on issues.

“I think it will make people in the party more thoughtful on the issues rather than 'I've always been a Democrat.' I think people will stop to think and hear the arguments and the priorities and get more in depth rather than going along out of habit,” Hackman said.

Eisenhour describes herself as pragmatic. It's a word other Clinton supporters use to describe themselves and separate themselves from Sanders supporters.

Although she said she loves a lot of what Sanders stands for, she's supports Clinton and acknowledges, “I'm pretty fired up about it being a woman. I would love it if she chose someone like Elizabeth Warren [as vice president].”

Eisenhour has lived most of the 45 years of her life in precincts 303 and 305 and says all her neighbors know she's running.

“In the past it's been hard to get people to step up to be on the ballot. But I think the phenomenon of the Bernie Sanders campaign has energized a lot of folks. I think people are turning out as a response to that.”

Eisenhour says she hopes the infusion of enthusiasm will energize the party and that four years from now, that's what will be said of what's happening today.

“Hopefully, it's not a blip. Hopefully, it isn't just because Bernie fired people up for six months,” she said of the enthusiasm she's seeing.

“I'm running because I believe in my community and I'm not going anywhere and I'm planning to stay engaged,” she said.

“We're the last people on the ballot. I feel like the PCO position is about getting out with your neighbors and trying to be a good Democrat.”

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