A joke leads an independent into party politics

By Jayson Jacoby July 19, 2013 09:34 am

Ryc Rienks’ foray into partisan politics started as a joke.

And although Ryc, who lives in Baker City, hasn’t lost his sense of humor, he’s pretty serious about his new role in the political system.

Ryc, 69, had been registered as an independent.

So had his wife, Penny.

But last year, feeling a trifle disenfranchised by Oregon’s sometimes restrictive primary election system, the couple decided to consider registering as either Republicans or Democrats.

Voters who are not affiliated with either of those two parties can be left out during primary elections, which take place in May of even-numbered years.

If neither major party opens its primary, voters registered as independents, as the Rienkses were, or with another party don’t receive a ballot.

(They can, of course, vote in the general election regardless of affiliation.)

Exceptions occur occasionally.

For the May 2012 election, for instance, the Republican Party opened its primary in Oregon, allowing independents who wanted to do so to choose among the GOP candidates for president.

Non-affiliated voters can also temporarily switch their registration to one of the two major parties, provided they do so at least 21 days before the primary election, then switch back after the election.

But that’s sort of cumbersome — a paperwork obstacle from which Republicans and Democrats are exempt.

Anyway, the Rienkses scrutinized platforms of the two major parties printed in the voters pamphlet for the 2012 primary. Both agreed that they preferred the Republicans’ espoused principles.

“They essentially applied to the values I find important,” Ryc told me recently — chief among them the Republicans’ belief that people, not the government, are the source of America’s greatness.

But then the couple noticed something else in the voters pamphlet.

There was an explanation about how a person could apply to be a precinct committee person for either the Republican or Democrat party.

Penny Rienks told her husband that, as a lark, she was going to nominate him for an opening in their neighborhood precinct, one of 17 in the county (five of which are in Baker City).

“Naturally I voted for myself,” Ryc said.

He had pretty much forgotten the matter until a few months later, when he got a letter from County Clerk Tami Green.

He had been elected to a two-year term.

The joke was no longer so funny.

Oh, the Rienkses were still amused about how Ryc came to be elected as a precinct committee person.

“But now I have a precinct for which I have a responsibility,” Ryc said. “I take that very seriously.”

Although I had heard the term “precinct committee person” before Ryc phoned me, I would have miserably failed any quiz about the position and what it entails.

I suspect I was not alone in my ignorance.

Of the 50 Republican precinct committee positions in Baker County, almost half — 24 — are vacant.

The ratio is similar for the Democratic Party in Baker County — 30 of the 50 committee slots are filled, 20 are open.

(Each precinct has at least two committee positions, one for a man, one for a woman. Two of the Baker City precincts have six positions — again, divided equally among genders — and each of the three other city precincts has four positions.)

Although Republicans would no doubt bristle at the term, precinct committee members could reasonably be described as “community organizers.”

Their duties include promoting their party’s candidates and platform, attending meetings of their party’s county central committee, and electing delegates who attend the state party platform convention.

Ryc cites another task, one that epitomizes the notion of “grassroots activity” — strolling your neighborhood, talking to people and encouraging them to partake in the most cherished of civic privileges: voting.

“So many people get agitated about politics, but if you don’t vote, ranting does no good at all,” he said. “You do have a recourse.”

But the way Ryc sees it, a precinct committee person can have a more profound effect on the political process than casting a single vote.

Precinct members have a say, albeit a minor one, on their party’s nominees for national offices and on the content of their platforms — they have an “influence further upstream,” as Ryc puts it.

If nothing else, he said, representing a committee almost certainly will enlighten a voter about critical issues and about how parties, and their candidates, propose to deal with those issues.

“There are people out there who want to be more involved in the process but they don’t know how,” Ryc said.

But even if that involvement doesn’t include serving as a precinct committee person, he hopes more voters will consider attending central committee meetings, of either major party — or, indeed, of both in case the case of people who are mulling their affiliation.

“Be active in your party — make noise,” Ryc said.

But — and he emphasizes that this point is, in his estimation, the most vital of all — recognize the inestimable value of silence.

“Civil discourse is key,” Ryc said. “I intend to work for the voters in my precinct — to encourage them to vote to education them if possible, but most important, to listen to them.”

There’s no trace of a smile on his face when he finishes this statement.

Jayson Jacoby is editor 
of the Baker City Herald.