Waiting to register

People wait to register during the DFL caucus Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, at Willow Creek Middle School in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

It was Tuesday night, and Rachel Zhang, a Mayo High School student, was doing an atypical thing for a 17-year-old the day before her 18th birthday: She was attending her first DFL Party precinct caucus at Willow Creek Middle School in Rochester.

Zhang was aiming high, hoping to become a national delegate for the Democratic National Convention in July in Milwaukee.

Zhang said two concerns motivated her to participate in the state's unique political ritual: the need to address climate change and to create a fairer Minnesota for people of all backgrounds and races, which she referred to as "equity."

Rachel Zhang and Emma Goss

Mayo High School seniors Rachel Zhang, left, and Emma Goss register during the DFL caucus Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, at Willow Creek Middle School in Rochester. "I don't know that much about politics but I want to learn and I want to be an active citizen in my community," Goss said. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

"There needs to be a youth presence, especially with caucusing. It's dominated by a certain demographic, and it's not youth or minorities," Zhang said. "I want to be there not just to represent my peers, but Minnesota as a whole."

Tuesday night's caucuses, the parties' biennial gathering, allow participants to introduce and vote on platform resolutions and pick delegates for future conventions. People sat in small groups in classrooms and discussed politics. 

DFL activists gathered at three locations Tuesday night — Willow Creek, and John Marshall and Century high schools. But unlike previous caucuses, there was no drama surrounding a presidential straw poll, which is usually the headline of such events.

This year, Minnesota will select their preferred presidential nominee through a primary rather than a caucus, so turnout was lower Tuesday night. Even so, a long line formed in the Willow Creek lunchroom during registration.  

"We'll have to wait and see, but my guess is that we won't have as high a turnout," said precinct convener Janet Krueger. "I do like the community conversations, but I'm a political junkie, and not everyone is."

Representatives from Rochester's various ethnic and racial groups appeared to be well-represented at the caucus.

Caucus attendees

Attendees introduce themselves during the DFL caucus Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, at Willow Creek Middle School in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Said Hajiali, 48, a Somali-American Rochester resident, was attending his first caucus. He said he was encouraged to attend by a friend and was trained to be a convener.

A father of nine children, Hajiali said he was there to advocate for early childhood education. He said not all of his children have been able to attend Head Start, and they struggled in school as a result. He said he supported Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination because of his views on making education free.

"I don't want that to happen to the rest of my kids," Hajiali said about missing out on Head Start. "It's not easy. Three- and 4-year-olds, they are suffering to find the right place."

Amar Taha, a 21-year-old Rochester Community and Technical College student, was also attending his first precinct caucus, there to support Aleta Borrud for state Senate District 26.

He said he supported her because of her stance on health care and her willingness to stand up for Muslim communities.

"It's getting worse by the day," Taha said about Islamophobia. "If it's bad today, it's worse tomorrow."

He said ignorance and a lack of awareness are the biggest culprits behind wrong-headed views toward Muslims. Some view them as lazy, but he noted that his mom works 16 hours a day and his dad holds down two jobs, one as a dentist.

Alexa Horwart, a lead organizer for Faith in Minnesota, a sister organization of ISAIAH, an immigration advocacy group, said the group has trained over 200 people in Rochester to attend caucuses.

Faith in Minnesota advocates for paid family leave, an expansion of the child care assistance program and the idea that undocumented immigrants in Minnesota should be able to obtain a driver's license.

"Our mission is to transform politics, to put people at the center," Howart said. "We think 2021 could be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to move some of our agenda."

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