Black college Democrats contemplate running for public office

by Christian Bryant

Montica Talmadge and Conen Morgan of Young Democrats coached black college students on running for office at the HBCU Leadership Conference in Greensboro on March 26. (photo by Christian Bryant)

Many students and other attendees divulged future plans to run for public office during an HBCU Leadership Conference hosted by the College Democrats of NC at the Downtown Marriot in Greensboro on March 26. Derwin Montgomery, elected to the Winston-Salem City Council in 2009 as a student at Winston-Salem State University, was referenced during the day’s discussions as an example of a qualified student who won public office.

The thought of students running for public office may be taboo to some but according to Daniel McKelvey Jr., one of the conference coordinators, it has grown from a strong possibility to a reality. McKelvey, an NC A&T University student and national coordinator for College Democrats of America, said after the conference that local students have started to think about doing more than helping other candidates win seats.

“I have been approached by a couple of well qualified A&T students that were looking to represent District 2,” he said, adding that A&T students comprise a large share of the district’s population.

“Students from UNCG, A&T and Bennett College have realized there are over 40,000 college students in Greensboro and we make up almost 15 percent of Greensboro’s population and more than 20 percent of the voting population,” McKelvey continued. “We are looking to be represented on the city council accordingly in this next term of council members.”

Ray Trapp III, vice chair of Guilford county Democratic Party, said in an interview after the conference that students should seek to know their constituents before running for office, particularly city council.

“Any student planning on running should know the history of the district,” Trapp said. “I don’t want to see students using a district seat as a platform to run for another office…. I don’t want anyone to represent me that doesn’t plan on staying in the area.”

With the presidential race and municipal elections forthcoming, the College Democrats invited students from historically black colleges and universities and elected officials from around the state to talk party politics in an attempt to garner strength from the black, collegiate demographic.

The culminating event featured NC Rep. Marcus Brandon and a panel of other elected officials who shared their political experiences with conference attendees and answered ques tions directly from the students. Brandon said that the party’s strength comes from college students.

“For [blacks, the colleges are] where a lot of our political organizing came about,” Brandon said. “It comes out of a youth movement…. Young people steer that reform.”

Danielle Adams, district supervisor for Durham County Soil and Water Conservation, concurred.

“HBCUs represent two of the largest bases in the Democratic Party — the youth and blacks,” Adams said. “HBCUs are overlooked…. [It is] important that they are involved and activated.”

The all-day event was the first of its kind and was organized to encourage action from young, black Democrats in upcoming elections. Fayetteville City Councilwoman Kady Ann Davy told attendees that an objective for the conference was to encourage students to use their energy to combat voter apathy, a cause of traditionally low voter turnout in the African-American community.

Breakout sessions were headed by politically active individuals to begin conversations on why students should be engaged and how they should be influencing others on their respective college campuses. Conen Morgan, president of Young Democrats of NC, argued that people of color must not be complacent just because a black president is in office.

“We haven’t come far enough,” said Morgan to a room of attentive college students.

“We haven’t made [progress] until we sustain it.”

Morgan, along with Montica Talmadge, national committeewoman for the Young Democrats, conducted a frank two-part session to discuss the importance of continued involvement. Both Morgan and Talmadge shared stories of their academic backgrounds and respective political beginnings before offering tips on how students should go about engaging their peers and why.

“It’s just not enough of us,” political newcomer Chris Rey said. This fall, Rey will run for mayor of Spring Lake against incumbent Ethel T. Clark, also an African American. He said the success of the party and success for other candidates like himself is directly correlated with the collective voice of black students.

“I decided that it was time to have a seat at the table,” Rey said. “Your energy, capacity and brain matter are needed to make decisions on behalf of us…. I’m fighting but I need help.”

Rey urged students to begin their political careers in college. Talmadge added that students should look to become active wherever they are.

One of the more well attended sessions featured NC Sen. Gladys Robinson speaking mostly to young women about their role in politics. Panelists for the session said both men and women should be supporting women in other capacities besides campaigning to be college queens.

“If we had more women making decisions for women, it would make a change,” said Jacquieta Beverly, a junior political science and history major at Bennett College. “I just wish we had more time [for this session].”

One of the last sessions of the conference centered on a topic of running for public office. Donald Hughes, a 2009 Durham City Council candidate, along with Adams, Rey and Mecklenberg District Court Judge Donald Cureton Jr. lead the session and shared their respective hardships both in success and failure.

Hughes presented a multi-step plan of action for young politicos that included developing a vision, seeking out opportunities to show commitment, knowing the rules of politics, finding mentors and attending campaign training.