Monday, October 24, 2005

''Democrats flush with new blood''

From the North Carolina grassroots: "Rising activists score wins in state, but tensions stir-- RALEIGH -- Jesse Goslen is a foot soldier in the new North Carolina Democratic Party.
Presidential candidate Howard Dean enticed him into politics. Goslen now organizes monthly meet-ups of party activists at Jillian's restaurant in downtown Raleigh. And he says his newfound activism can be explained in two words.

"George Bush pushed me into it," said Goslen, 50, who owns Fine Art Framing in Raleigh. "I was just so disgusted with the way things were going. I lived through Reagan and complained. But it seems this is a whole new radical form of Republican politics that I've never seen before. I think the country is heading in a very scary direction."

Goslen and other newcomers are helping transform the state Democratic Party. They have infused it with energy, providing volunteers to knock on doors and a new source of money. And they are making their presence felt in local elections, such as the Raleigh City Council races earlier this month. But the transition has not always been smooth. Democratic Gov. Mike Easley has practically divorced himself from his own party organization. And there has been tension between the more centrist, pro-business Democrats who hold most of the elective offices and the new, more liberal activists.

The state Democratic Party has for years been run by moderates such as Easley and former Gov. Jim Hunt, and legislative leaders such as Marc Basnight and Jim Black. In recognition of North Carolina's strong conservative streak, they have emphasized issues such as education and job creation that appeal to swing voters while avoiding divisive issues. Nationally, former U.S. Sen. John Edwards voted to authorize the war in Iraq when he was in the Senate, and two-time Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Erskine Bowles supported the war effort. In February, Easley nominated Ed Turlington, a former top adviser to Hunt and Edwards, to be Democratic chairman. But in an upset that drew national attention, the Democratic Party elected Jerry Meek, a 34-year-old Fayetteville lawyer who overcame his lack of support from elected officials with strong backing from party activists.

'It scares some people'

Meek's election echoed the national party's chairman choice of Dean, a former Vermont governor who once declared that he wanted to represent "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." Among those who cheered Meek's and Dean's elections was Goslen, who serves on the state Democratic Party's governing Executive Committee. Goslen likens the rise of the Deaniacs to that of 1980s Christian conservatives in the Republican Party. He notes that the Christian right was first feared, but then embraced, by the GOP establishment, and later helped to broaden its coalition. "The Christian right has tried to take over the Republican Party," Goslen said. "I guess this is a counter to that to make the Democratic Party stand for something. "It scares some people in the Democratic Party. Some people fear that we are going to move to the left. But I don't consider myself a big leftist. If we are going to recruit new people to the party, we need to stand up and say what we believe."

Meek downplays ideological shifts in the party. He said his mandate is not to change the party's philosophy but to involve more local Democrats in its decisions. He notes that the coalition that elected him included not just the so-called Deaniacs but also Democrats who felt the party ignored them. Meek sees a new Democratic Party that is more attuned to local interests, that listens to local activists and that provides a more open forum on controversial issues. Democratic activists complain that in the past, party leaders would not allow platform voting on such issues as gay rights or gun control, for fear of giving Republicans ammunition.

New state chairman reaches out

Although the state chairmanship is an unpaid position, Meek said he spends 60 hours a week trying to build the party while maintaining his law practice. He has earned good marks from party elders by hiring respected political pros to help run the party. He has pushed party efforts into the field by hiring three regional directors around the state. He has sent "action alerts" by e-mail to 10,000 party activists on issues such as lobbying reform. He holds monthly conference calls with all 100 county leaders.

In the most recent Raleigh city elections, the new activists helped elect Russ Stephenson and Joyce Kekas to at-large seats and almost elected fellow Democrat Paul Anderson in a heavily Republican North Raleigh district. "Jerry has done quite well," said U.S. Rep. David Price, a former state party chairman and a Hunt protege. "He has made some good hiring decisions. He has proved to be a very vigorous fund-raiser."

What Meek has not done is get Easley engaged. Governors historically have named their party's chairman. After his election, Meek said he had one pleasant 30-minute meeting with Easley -- and has not talked with him in the eight months since. Nor has Easley appeared at either of the Democratic Party's two main fund-raisers -- the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in Raleigh and the Vance Aycock dinner in Asheville earlier this month. It is unusual for a Democratic governor to skip them. "This governor has a different style," Meek said. "We welcome him in the process but understand if he wants to be, to some degree, apolitical." Many party activists also take issue with Easley's policies, such as his backing of business incentives, the death penalty and a state lottery.

Easley's role may be different

Mac McCorkle, a political adviser to the governor, said Easley might have a different role -- with the party tending to its base while the governor reaches out to political moderates and Republicans. "There is such an imperative in a red state, where we haven't won a presidential race in years, to keep on doing what we are doing," McCorkle said. "Governor Easley and other statewide leaders have to have a big-tent philosophy and reach out to people who are not Democrats." McCorkle says the strategy must be working, because North Carolina Democrats did better in last year's elections than those in other Southern states. But success at the state level has not softened the anger of many activists about Bush and the war in Iraq.

At a party-sponsored forum on Iraq at Chapel Hill High School this month, Price, the 4th District congressman, received a cool reception from many of the 700 people present. Price said he opposed the war but does not favor setting a timetable for withdrawal until Iraq stabilizes. That put him at odds with many in the room. Price said he understands the anger but warned that Democrats should not let their feelings about Bush divide their party.

"Count me as an angry Democrat, but also as a Democrat who wants to win and wants to maintain the broadest possible coalition," Price said. "...That involves finding common ground."-from The News & Observer (NC).

No comments: