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Dems look to revitalize college chapters

by Amy Kingsley

When the president of the state Federation of College Democrats called on NC A&T University during a delegate roll call, two students from the nearby campus raised their hands.

Rikkia Ramsey and Jason Collins were recruited last year by federation leaders to restart a dormant chapter on a campus once known as a political hotbed. The emergence of a College Democrats chapter at A&T, along with new chapters at Fayetteville State University and UNC-Asheville, proves that the party is undergoing a renaissance among young people, event organizers said. To Ramsey and Collins, the new chapter represented a renaissance of a different kind.

“I felt like we were losing our reputation for activism,” Ramsey said.

In the last two years, the federation has tripled the number of chapters active at colleges across the state, said president Laura DeCastro. Between 2006 and 2007, the number of chapters doubled. Historically black colleges and universities have been crucial to that growth, DeCastro said, but her organization has shied away from targeting any specific type of school in favor of a larger goal.

“We just want a chapter on every campus,” DeCastro said.

During the 2006 election, the federation focused its resources on Heath Shuler’s campaign for Congress and Ty Harrell’s race to represent a Raleigh district in the General Assembly. Both candidates backed by students prevailed in contests against Republican incumbents.

Speakers at a gathering of the Young Democrats at the Koury Convention Center in Greensboro on March 23-24 touted those victories during presentations to political activists from around the state. The same speakers already set goals for the 2008 elections – chief among them the election of Larry Kissell in North Carolina’s 8th Congressional district. Kissell missed unseating Republican incumbent Robin Hayes by only 329 votes in 2006. Democratic representatives from North Carolina already outnumber their Republican counterparts seven to six.

Artur Davis, a Democratic representative from Montgomery, Ala., traveled to Greensboro to deliver the convention’s keynote address and to raise money for Kissell’s 2008 campaign. During a presentation on political careers, Davis convened with Kissell campaigners and supporters in an 11th floor suite. Davis, the Southern regional co-chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Kissell’s narrow loss was one of the biggest Democratic disappointments on election night.

Davis said he thought North Carolina had the potential to vote Democratic in 2008 federal elections. Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s seat will be up for reelection and the state’s 15 electoral votes will also be up for grabs.

“North Carolina has a strong progressive tradition,” Davis said. “What I’m seeing in the South is a big Democratic comeback in places like Alabama and North Carolina.”

Voters in North Carolina have elected the Republican presidential candidate in every election since 1980. In spite of that, Davis said he thinks the state could go Democratic in 2008.

“If you look at North Carolina and look at other Southern states, this is a huge opportunity,” he said. “Frankly we haven’t paid enough attention to states like North Carolina.”

Along with Davis and Brad Miller, the Congressman from the 13th District, several candidates and presumptive contenders for state office in 2008 trekked to Greensboro for the convention. Four candidates for lieutenant governor attended: Winston-Salem City Councilman Dan Besse, Canton Mayor Pat Smathers, NC Sen. Walter Dalton and Hampton Dellinger, former legal counsel to Gov. Mike Easley.

Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, considered by many a top contender for the 2008 Democratic nomination for governor, addressed attendees briefly during lunch. The convention was an opportunity for those campaigning for state office to begin to recruit foot soldiers for 2008. Several college students in attendance displayed signs supporting Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

In addition to the number of new chapters of College Democrats, overall attendance at the Young Democrats conference increased between 2006 and 2007. Jason Coley, one of the event organizers, estimated the number of attendees at around 400, up from about 325 last year.

“It’s a good day out there,” Coley said. “It’s spring, the sky is blue and Guilford County is a blue county.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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