Democratic leaders come to terms with powerlessness

by Jordan Green

When Pat McCrory is inaugurated as governor on Jan. 12, he will usher in an era of complete Republican control of state government in North Carolina after more than a century in which Democrats dominated both the executive and legislative branches of government.

The loss of the governor’s mansion is the second humiliating loss for Democrats, who ceded control of the General Assembly in early 2011. That shift has marked a demotion in power for Democratic lawmakers who represent the urban areas of Forsyth and Guilford counties, the near extinction of white Democratic politicians and enhanced political clout in the suburban doughnut.

Four years ago, Linda Garrou, a white Democrat, represented Winston-Salem in NC Senate District 32, serving with fellow Kay Hagan, also a white Democrat, who represented Greensboro in District 27. The two women co-chaired the powerful Appropriations Committee in the Democratcontrolled Senate. The position gave Hagan a springboard for a successful run for US Senate. Garrou would soldier on for another four years, but find herself drawn out of her district by Republican leaders who openly stated that the purpose of exiling her was to give a black candidate a shot at representing the district. The Republican majority had already stripped Garrou of her power, handing her seat on the Appropriations Committee to Pete Brunstetter, a Republican who represents the suburban and rural doughnut around Winston-Salem.

Earline Parmon, a black Democrat who will be sworn in next month to replace Garrou, joins the Senate with a markedly different standing.

“Earline, you’re about to go to war, for all intents and purposes,” said Judge Denise Hartsfield, a Forsyth County district court judge who moderated a discussion in Winston-Salem last month. “You’ve got to have your war clothes on because you’re going into a war where you are a minority in every sense of that word. Not just because you’re a woman, not just because you’re black, but because you are one of the few Democrats.”

Hosted by Forsyth County Democratic Women, the panel discussion focused on taking the party forward in the wake of recent electoral setbacks.

In Guilford County, Don Vaughan, the white Democrat who succeeded Hagan, was drawn into a Republican-leaning district. District 27 was redrawn from a central urban district to a rural wrap-around district, and flipped into the Republican column. Rather than being represented by two Democratic senatorial districts — one predominantly white and one with a strong minority influence — Greensboro is now largely covered by one district represented by a black Democrat.

Parmon and Evelyn Terry, the representative-elect in NC House District 71, told fellow Democrats that they had been already been effectively sidelined by the Republican leadership, which has used the prerogatives of power to put members of their own party in control of committees and bring favored legislation up for vote.

“With a supermajority of hateful people, I recognize what the numbers look like,” Terry said. “We’re going to have to be vigilant. Obviously, when you look at what we’re facing, just to be able to legislate with this session — the deals are already done.”

The Democrats already have two years of experience in the legislative minority, but at least then they had Bev Perdue in the governor’s office to veto Republican legislation, giving Democratic lawmakers a measure of clout when the Republican leadership tried to muster votes for an override.

The troubles of North Carolina Democrats can be traced back to the election of Gov. Mike Easley in 2000, said Walter Holton in a YES! Weekly interview. Holton chaired the Forsyth County Democratic Party from 1989 to 1991. From 1994 to 2001 he served as US Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina at the appointment of President Bill Clinton.

“I think part of the reason was that Gov. Easley was never a really strong party person,” Holton said. “He won his elections on his own with his own organization. He did not really care about building the party. Gov. [Jim] Hunt [who preceded Easley] made it a point to build a strong party. Easley was an outsider. The party suffered due to all the turmoil and fallout from his administration. There’s not really been an individual to put Humpty Dumpy back together again. It’s doable, and it takes the right person to do it.”

Many party insiders agree that Perdue won election as governor in 2008 largely on the coattails of Barack Obama, who was the first Democratic candidate to carry North Carolina since 1976. Perdue came into office as the Great Recession was taking hold, and suffered from low poll numbers throughout her term.

“The party’s been in a little disarray and needs to get its act together,” Holton said. “I frankly think it’s been poor leadership. The governor not making her mind up as to whether she’s going to run or not. There’s not a strong figure right now like Gov. Hunt. There’s just a bit of a void at the top.”

A handful of Democratic leaders contacted for this story said they view McCrory’s victory as an anomaly rather than an indicator of flagging party fortunes. They noted that aside from the lieutenant governor’s race, which was narrowly won by Republican Dan Forest, Democrats held ground in several council of state races that are run statewide. Walter Dalton, the Democratic candidate for governor, had to put together a campaign on short notice after Perdue declared she would not seek reelection in early 2012, while McCrory enjoyed the benefit of name recognition from having run for the office before as mayor of Charlotte.

“Pat McCrory running four years ago for governor, he had already completed three laps around the track by the time Walter Dalton got on his first lap,” said Ryan Butler, secretary of the Guilford County Democratic Party. A former television news producer who now practices law, Butler managed Vaughan’s 2010 state senate campaign and serves as president of LGBT Democrats of North Carolina.

The party has a number of tasks as it begins its period in the wilderness, from developing its base and refining its messaging to retrofitting its organizational structure.

“Bev Perdue stepping down and not coming up with a strong, coherent agenda, conceding the territory — the state party bears some responsibility,” said Delmas Parker, a Clemmons Democrat who challenged Brunstetter in District 31 in 2012. “What we had going for us was [Obama For America]. That’s what was driving turnout. What do we do when OFA goes away — that’s another big question.”

Butler said one of the party’s paramount objectives right now is to integrate the Obama campaign’s infrastructure with the state party apparatus.

“Obama For America had a large number of volunteer supporters,” he said. “We basically are looking to keep a lot of those.”

The four Democrats contacted for this story warned that Republicans in state government will pursue a radical agenda of environmental deregulation and defunding public education while shifting resources to charter schools, particularly considering that McCrory appointed conservative political kingmaker Art Pope as his deputy budget director. But opinions varied on whether Republican policies will alienate voters enough to provide an opening for a Democratic return to power.

“Can McCrory and Pope generate this idyllic business climate?” asked Frank Eaton, a Democratic media consultant from Winston-Salem who worked on Dalton’s recent campaign. “They’ve got the power to do it now. Zero regulation, low corporate taxes and cheap labor — it remains to be seen how quickly they can pull that off and how quickly working people and the middle class realize what it means to them.”

The issue of corporate incentives, Eaton and Butler agreed, is one that separates Democrats from Republicans and could prove to be McCrory’s Achilles heel.

“At some point you will have Nikki Haley, Bob McDonnell and Pat Mc- Crory sitting at a table — the Republican governors of Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina,” Eaton said. “And they’re going to say, ‘Whose state is going to offer Google the biggest incentives? Who’s going to blink first?’

“McCrory can’t run the state like he ran Charlotte because the state is run by Republicans,” Eaton continued. “Charlotte was run by Democrats. Pat McCrory is fairly moderate, but can he entice the General Assembly and Art Pope? What’s going to happen when we start losing jobs to Virginia and South Carolina because of our unwillingness to incentivise a business deal?” Democrats are generally optimistic about long-term demographic trends, but the indicators are ambiguous. The state is urbanizing as rural areas continue to empty out, but it remains to be seen whether the growth goes to urban areas that elect Democrats or the suburban doughnuts that have produced Republican leaders such as House Speaker Thom Tillis in northern Mecklenburg County, Pete Brunstetter in Lewisville, Trudy Wade in Guilford County or Wake County School Board member John Tedesco in southeast Wake County.

Both parties have lost slight shares in voter registration over the past four years — the Democrats more so than the Republicans — with the largest growth among voters who do not declare party affiliation. When broken down by race, Hispanics have doubled from 1 to 2 percent of registered voters. People identified by the racial category of “other” — including Asians and biracial people — have increased six-fold over the same period.

“They have to literally speak their language and bring them an issue,” Eaton said of Democrats’ efforts to reach Hispanics in North Carolina. “I don’t think it’s tough to make an argument to a first-generation Hispanic voter that the Republican Party has been bad for immigration reform.”

Eaton recently produced a Spanishlanguage television advertisement for an immigration law firm.

“The family has a 17-year-old daughter who is going to benefit from the DREAM Act,” Eaton continued. “I said, ‘Holy smokes, here’s a family that was literally depending on Obama to get reelected.’ I don’t think the Republicans have a chance to make the argument. They’re counting on the fact that they’re antiabortion Catholics. That’s all they have.”

Democrats interviewed for this story also emphasized outreach to young, educated professionals.

“The metropolitan areas in our state are favorable to Democrats, and those are the fastest growing areas of our state,” Butler said. “As you see more researchers and entrepreneurs move into our state, they’re going to come to us. Democrats have been identified as the party that supports education and infrastructure. Those are values that are appealing to them.”

Eaton said he was recently contacted by Rep. Larry Hall, a Durham lawmaker who is the new Democratic leader of the NC House, for his input on how the party should develop its long-term message.

“The onus is on us to say, ‘Hey, we are the opposition; there’s another way to do this,’” Eaton said. “We can’t just be contrary. Because we have no political power, we can’t just be waving our arms; we have to introduce exciting ideas into the conversation. We can’t waste our breath just talking to hear ourselves talk.”

Demographic shifts are gradual, and it takes political parties a while to catch up, Eaton suggested.

“The important thing to remember is that they beat us in our districts that we drew 10 years ago,” he said. “It can be done. It takes time, and demographic shifts have to happen. Party affiliation is not as important as philosophical affiliation. New voters are not going to vote for candidates that are anti-choice and anti-equality.”