Democratic Convention attempts to oust GOP

by Amy Kingsley

Outside the High Point Theater on Saturday a group of UNCG students dressed like throwbacks from a half-century ago ‘— jackets, ties and loafers ‘— assessed the recently adjourned NC Democratic Convention.

‘“Boring,’” said one.

‘“I wish they had talked more about gay and lesbian issues,’” another chimed.

They were not words one usually associates with revolution. But this year a counterrevolution to end 12 years of Republican congressional control is exactly what convention organizers have planned. The High Point Theater on Saturday was a sea of giddy delegates, several of whom dressed for the occasion in red, white and blue. Almost all of them advertised their dissatisfaction with the current administration in shiny buttons, stickers or T-shirts.

North Carolina Democrats, like their brethren across the country, have approached President Bush’s record-low approval ratings as an opportunity to gain seats in the US Congress and strengthen control of the NC General Assembly. But instead of flogging weariness with the Iraq war and increasing distrust of the executive branch, the party is dusting off an old playbook.

‘“Campaigns are going to focus on the typical group of education, healthcare, jobs and the economy,’” said Jerry Meek, the chairman of the state Democratic Convention.

Neither of North Carolina’s US Senate seats will be on the ballot this fall, but party leaders see the blue moon election (one in which no gubernatorial, senate or presidential races are on the ticket) as an opportunity to end Republican control of the 8th and 11th Congressional Districts. In 2004, Republican Robin Hayes prevailed in south-central North Carolina’s 8th District with a relatively slim 10 percent margin, as did Charles Taylor in the western 11th district. They did so in part by emphasizing social issues like gay marriage and abortion.

The latter is an issue that divided convention delegates. Delegates heatedly debated the plank in the party platform devoted to women’s health, particularly access to abortion and emergency contraception.

A vocal minority, NC Democrats for Life, urged delegates to adopt abortion-neutral language or a conscience clause. But their efforts failed in the face of overwhelming support for existing language that unequivocally supports legal abortions and promotes access to family planning.

‘“We still have a right to exist within our party,’” said Eva Richey, president of NC Democrats for Life and chair of the Henderson County Democratic Party. ‘“We would like them to adopt an abortion-neutral platform and unless they do we can continue to expect the Democratic Party to lose members.’”

After Richey’s proposed amendments to the party platform were defeated, supporters approached her to offer words of encouragement.

‘“They should come out to the rural counties and try to register Democrats,’” said Pitt County delegate Roy Lucas. ‘“The minute those people hear you are pro choice they shut the door.’”

Richey said 43 percent of registered Democrats indicated pro-life views on a 2004 Zogby poll. Delegates and party leaders are twice as likely as registered Democrats to hold pro-choice views, she said.

But those opposing Richey’s amendment said Republicans could attack the platform if it revealed ideological rifts within the party. Richey countered that the abortion language already gave Republicans in religion-saturated North Carolina a tempting target.

Despite wrangling over abortion, delegates and speakers predicted positive results for fall. Rep. Mel Watt, who represents the 12th district including High Point and parts of Greensboro, delivered a brief but spirited pep talk.

‘“Politics has a way of ebbing and flowing,’” Watt said. ‘“Even when things are moving in the right direction they need a nudge sometimes.’”

Delegates met Friday evening and Saturday morning to learn about organizing and political strategizing. But despite declining approval ratings for both President Bush and the Republican-led US Congress, state Democrats still face an uphill battle.

Republicans register hundreds more party members per day than their Democratic counterparts, Meek said. And although many of the state’s residents are sympathetic to Democratic initiatives like healthcare reform and vocational training, the GOP has prospered by exploiting widespread conservative opinions on social issues.

This election features no marquee races or issues that might attract the so-called ‘“values voters’” Republicans have depended upon in the last few elections. On the other hand, Meek said the president’s low approval ratings have inspired Democrats.

‘“Where it will really have an impact is turnout,’” he said. ‘“Democrats right now are very pumped up and we are hoping they will come out to the polls in droves.’”

Meek pointed out the lack of national races on the ballot this fall, which he said justifies the emphasis on local issues such as education and economics.

Opposition to the war and president ran strong on the convention floor, where almost every delegate sported a green sticker urging an end to the Iraq war. A handful of the 150 resolutions concerned exit strategies for Iraq and several others urged the initiation of impeachment proceedings against President Bush.

A group of delegates from Vance County hoisted hand-painted signs calling for the president to step down. Watt noted the upbeat mood in the convention hall.

Candidates in nonpartisan judicial races made appearances at the convention to gather support. Meek said the party is focused on those elections as well, particularly the two open seats on the NC Supreme Court.

The judiciary is another piece of a political system Democratic activists said has been influenced by Republican political dominance, even though federal judges are appointed and state judicial candidates nonpartisan. This year, at least, convention delegates appeared energized by the possibility of pushing it to the left.

‘“[The Republicans] have stacked the deck so much they have control of the legislature, executive and judicial branches,’” Watt said. ‘“It is time for a change and I want us to say we will work for change.’”