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On caucuses and standing up for what you believe in



First, the news. Janet Cowell voted for John Edwards. So did Jack Nichols. So did Carter Worthy.

OK, nothing to choose from there.

Edwards won the state's Democratic presidential "caucus" Saturday, which was pretty meaningless except for those who want to see "our Johnny" on the ticket with John Kerry--and given that Kerry's hardly going to pick someone who opposed the war in Iraq when he backed it, why in the world shouldn't he pick our John?

At the Method Road Community Center in Raleigh where I voted, however, the real interest was in the Cowell-Nichols-Worthy race for the nomination to succeed Eric Reeves in the state Senate. This one's giving the progressive folks a headache. Janet, the Raleigh City Council member, is the enviro-candidate, right? And Carter's a commercial real estate broker, which makes her pro-bidness. But then Carter shows up with Nina Szlosberg, the president of the Conservation Council of North Carolina, who's backing her in part because they're allies on the Triangle Transit Authority board. And Jack was the leading environmentalist when he was a Wake County commissioner a decade ago. Jack's also thick with the trial lawyers, and if the teachers endorse somebody...

The Senate's a graveyard for progressives and their ideas, it seems--witness Reeves' departure and that of Durham's Wib Gulley to be the TTA's lawyer. But the grip of the rural Democrats is weakening, Worthy says, as the population shifts steadily to the metro areas. Which opens the door to a Wake County senator who knows the art of the deal. "That's what I do" [as a broker], she says. "I make deals."

Cowell, however, is no ivy-tower liberal. She's got a Wharton MBA, is a venture-capital marketer, and has cast a few practical votes on the council herself, "moving things forward," as she puts it, "consistent with ideals and principles."

Nichols? He's a "consensus-builder." Great.

Since politics is nothing if not personal, a personal note. My wife is helping with a Cowell fund-raiser. One of my best friends is for Nichols. Another is for Worthy. And so on. What about me? I voted for Howard Dean.

I did discover, perhaps, the secret of Kerry's success. The two people I found Saturday who voted for Kerry--former Wake Commissioner Ruth Cook and Brian Shawcroft, an architect--insisted that they backed him from the start, and never wavered, because he was experienced and electable and my man, Dean, wasn't. Cook and Shawcroft, not incidentally, are both "senior citizens."

Later, I saw Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker at a rally for homeless folks downtown in front of City Hall. His daughter, Emily, worked for Edwards in Iowa, where the Dean machine came apart. She found, the mayor said, that Iowa's caucus-goers were "a little older, and a little more conservative" than in other states, which helped Kerry win there and Edwards come in second.

The rally was organized by Alice McGee, the lay minister from Garner whose Church of the Woods reaches out to the encampments of homeless men and women she's found in and around Raleigh. You may have read about her or seen her on TV--she's the one who blew the whistle when Raleigh cops ran off one such encampment and then (she says) destroyed everyone's belongings. That sparked an internal affairs investigation.

McGee said she's "very thankful for the investigation" and not into cop-bashing at all. On the other hand, she said, if somebody'd burned her stuff, "I'm afraid I wouldn't be so sweet about it. ... I'd be down at city hall, because I'm a little bit crazy, you know?"

Hers was a small gathering--about a dozen homeless folks, maybe two dozen others--but it got the media's attention, and besides, now that McGee's got the bit in her teeth, it's clear she won't quit. She's pushing hard for Raleigh and Wake County--which are engaged in a study of how to end homelessness over the next 10 years--to offer some "quick fixes" right now, starting with public-access bathrooms and telephones.

McGee is 60, but she's got the pep of a 20-year old. I mention this because, the next day, I watched Kerry on NBC's Meet the Press, and he was asked about the charges he made, after his military service in Vietnam 30-some years ago, that he and his comrades were guilty of "atrocities" and the nation's leaders of being "war criminals."

"I'm proud that I stood up at a time when it was important," Kerry said. But he said the words he used were "over the top," and he would "not quibble, you know, 35 years later, that I might not have phrased things more artfully."

Is there an artful way to say that destoying a village to save it is--what is it if not an atrocity? But perhaps there is an artful way to stand up for what you believe without ticking anybody off. The fearlessness of youth, the wisdom to disguise it--yup, that's the winning ticket, in politics anyway. EndBlock

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