MOORHEAD — The atmosphere inside the 2020 Democratic Caucus in Moorhead was quiet and serious Tuesday, Feb. 25, a far cry from the crowds in 2016.

The missing ingredient? Presidential selections are no longer done at the caucus level, but at the primaries.

Thaddeus Laugish, 36, of Moorhead, joined the DFL Caucus to discuss issues, but he’s also running for the U.S. House of Representatives seat held by Collin Peterson. Peterson was first elected to the Seventh Congressional District of Minnesota in 1990, but has not announced if he will run this year.

A designer of commercial grain elevators, the issues Laugish was most concerned about dealt with agriculture, investment into rural communities and growing hemp. He joined the caucus for the second time to “make sure Bernie Sanders has a good shot,” he said.

Now that presidential candidates are no longer selected in Minnesota caucuses, he was disappointed with turnout.

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“Compared to 2016, it is far less chaotic. We were packed in here standing shoulder to shoulder and didn’t know where to go,” Laugish said. “And that’s unfortunate being that there are so many issues we need to deal with. People feel their voice doesn’t matter, but it does, and it should, and that’s one of the reasons I’m running for Congress.”

In one room at Minnesota State University Moorhead’s Comstock Memorial Union, a group of 14 people, mostly younger men and women, sat around a long table and first voted Jamaal Abegaz, a Moorhead resident, in as the Caucus chair. His job was to lead the group on deciding positions, rules and issues.

“We’re all neighbors, so in a perfect world we’d be discussing all the time about the issues and trying to get our neighbors who aren’t here in the room to the polls,” Abegaz said.

Heather Keeler, 38, of Moorhead, was chair of the group who lobbied the city to recognize Indigenous People’s Day last year. As a registered member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe with lineage to the Eastern Shoshone, she said her past experience in political issues and her education has spurred her to run as a Democrat to fill Ben Lien’s vacant seat in the state House of Representatives.

She joined a crowded field of Moorhead City Councilman Chuck Hendrickson, former council candidate Edwin Hahn and MSUM student body president Will Hagen.

Keeler went room to room introducing herself and her intentions, saying that with her background she originally wanted to run for the local school board, but after community members approached her about running for the legislature, she decided to take up the challenge.

Although Keeler has not been involved in politics before, she is undaunted by the road ahead.

“I love learning, and I work hard,” she said. “And I’m looking for your endorsement because it takes many hands. As a minority female, I feel it is really important for our young females to see this. It’s important for us to be seen.”

The DFL Caucus in Moorhead split into 22 precincts and made proposals and arguments for platform ideas ranging from climate change to health care as a human right. Some motions were typed, double spaced, others were written by hand on notepad paper.

Abegaz made a motion to make housing a human right.

“We have homelessness and in a really cold place,” he said. “And we all need housing or we will die.”

Across the hall, another group quickly plowed through issues of criminal justice reform, the climate crisis and ensuring zero emission policies in the near future. Other groups focused on health care, subsidized medical insurance, pesticide controls, copper mining issues, better environmental studies and issues pertaining to legalization of recreational marijuana.

Athena Gracyk described herself as “a dynamic middle-aged woman,” a writer and the chair of the Clay County DFL Organizing Unit.

“And this is my first time organizing a caucus as well,” Gracyk said.

She moved to Minnesota from California 30 years ago and became involved in politics.

“I had no idea how delegates were elected. When I moved to Minnesota, I went to my caucus and was amazed. Caucuses are the beginning of grassroots here in Minnesota. You gather together and your voice is heard. I love that aspect of us defining what happens to our country at the caucus level.”

The Moorhead Caucus met to refine — not define — the party’s platform, Gracyk said. Anyone who was an area resident, a member of the DFL and affirmed they will support the party platform was welcome to attend.

Minnesota is unique as it still retains both caucus and primary conventions. A caucus is a gathering of neighbors for the purpose of discussing issues and electing delegates to the congressional and state conventions.

The presidential primary is focused on voting for the preferred presidential candidate, which will occur on Super Tuesday, March 3. Polling places will be open from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m.

“In past years, the presidential balloting has taken place at caucuses, and that caused a lot of confusion,” Gracyk said. “Here in Minnesota, we have chosen to separate the primary straw-polling from the caucus participation, and the reason why is a lot of people are not interested in building the party; they’re interested in voting for the president.”

The old system helped weaken the party, Gracyk said.

“It makes your caucus’s purpose and function diluted; you can’t focus on what you really need to focus on. And it’s super nice to be part of Super Tuesday,” Gracyk said.