The 'People's Caucus' To Protest Iowa Voting

Occupy Wall Street-style protesters in Des Moines, Iowa, are making plans to camp out at the headquarters of presidential candidates and disrupt campaign events leading up to the Iowa caucuses. They say they're dissatisfied with the response of candidates from both parties to their concerns, so they're organizing their own caucus-style event two days after Christmas.

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In Iowa, where the first nominating contest in the presidential race takes place, January 3rd, Occupy Wall Street-style activists are still trying to influence the debate. They're inviting demonstrators from around the country to come to Iowa for several days of protest this week, to occupy the caucus.

Sarah McCammon of Iowa public radio reports.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: This close to the caucuses, there's a lot of organizing going on. Most of it's directed at January 3rd. But organizers with Occupy Des Moines are focusing on a different day.

STEPHEN TOOTHMAN: OK, first day is Tuesday. We're going to have teach-ins all day...

MCCAMMON: On a brisk winter evening, about two dozen people sit in folding chairs in a cozy living room, many tapping away at laptops. Organizer Stephen Toothman ticks through the agenda for what the group is calling the People's Caucus on Tuesday evening.

TOOTHMAN: We're going to do the big soapbox thing that we talked about, where people can get up for, I believe, they were going to talk for about two minutes. And then we're going to split into our presidential Dis-Preference Groups.

MCCAMMON: Dis-Preference Groups – yes, you heard that right. Unlike a normal caucus, where you vote for the candidate you like, Occupiers says they'll pick candidates they're not so enthralled with. And they're expecting at least 15 Occupy groups from coast to coast to join them and protest at those campaign headquarters and events.

Danielle Ryan is a college student from Des Moines. She says the caucuses used to be about on-the-ground campaigning but she believes the process has been taken over by corporate interests.

DANIELLE RYAN: We want to kind of to take that back and bring it to the people and highlight that the candidates that, you know, the parties are providing for us do not represent the needs of the country - the needs of the 99 percent.

MCCAMMON: The prospect of some of those 99 percent coming to Iowa worries some political leaders like state GOP Chairman Matt Strawn. The caucuses are run by the political parties, so Strawn says they've consulted with law enforcement and beefed up their cyber-security ahead of the voting.

MATT STRAWN: There's some degree of irony with a group that says they want to disrupt what is probably the most grassroots process in national politics, and that's the Iowa Caucus; the fact that the caucuses are an election where any Iowan has an opportunity to look a presidential candidate in the eye and ask him a question about the direction of this country.

MCCAMMON: Strawn notes that Occupy protesters have heckled Newt Gingrich at recent events in Des Moines and Iowa City, a style he describes as the calling card of the Occupy Movement.

ED FALLON: We are emphatically committed to making sure the caucuses themselves on January 3rd are not disrupted.

MCCAMMON: Ed Fallon is a former Democratic state lawmaker. He says he'll participate in the people's caucus and the official one.

FALLON: I think it's a good opportunity to raise issues and support a candidate you might believe in. And if you don't have a candidate on the ballot you can always go uncommitted. And I think there will be a lot of people- at least on the Democratic side - going uncommitted.

MCCAMMON: Voters showing up as uncommitted - a formal signal of their dissatisfaction with their party's offerings - could be an embarrassment to Democrats working to build momentum for President Obama. The campaign didn't respond to requests for comment.

Political observers say the biggest challenge may be for Occupy organizers to amass enough numbers to get the attention of the media and the candidates. After all, it's Iowa in December.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah McCammon, in Des Moines.

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