Forsyth Dems looking for a few good politicians

by Keith Barber

Cal Cunningham has a political r’sum’ that’s hard to top. Elected to the NC Senate in 2000 at the age of 27, he recently returned from serving a tour of duty in Iraq. Cunningham received the Bronze Star while serving overseas as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. A captain and paratrooper in the US Army Reserves, the 35-year-old Cunningham received the medal for “exceptionally meritorious service to the United States” as the senior trial counsel in the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, Multi-National Corps-Iraq. He presided over the largest court-martial jurisdiction in the Army and helped in supervising, training and overseeing 27 attorneys and 70 paralegals, executing criminal law missions within the Multi- National Corps-Iraq theater of operations, according to a press release issued by the Winston-Salem law firm of Kilpatrick Stockton LLP. Cunningham received the Bronze Star for his pioneering efforts with the US Department of Justice to prosecute contractors serving working for the armed forces. His work resulted in a comprehensive system for ensuring contractors are held responsible for crimes committed while in Iraq. Cunningham represents just one of a number of young political hopefuls that could help carry on “the movement” originated by President Obama’s 2008 campaign, said Frank Eaton, president of the Forsyth County Young Democrats. And the first step in bringing real change on a local, state and national level is to encourage young people like Cunningham to run for elected office. “If we are an evolving, growing community, the best way to sustain that growth is to seed city government at all levels with new people — from city hiring to our elected officials,” Eaton said. “We’re not going to fire everybody. We’re not going to get rid of everyone. What we are looking at is a culture of incumbency that just by the numbers is a closed system to people born after 1960.” Timing is everything in elective politics and now is not the right time for Cunningham to toss his hat in the political ring, he said. But the gravitational pull of public service remains strong for the Lexington native. An internship on Capitol Hill at the age of 20 with Michigan Sen. Carl Levin first sparked Cunningham’s fascination with the political process. He said he vividly remembers former vice president Al Gore casting the deciding vote to pass Bill Clinton’s first budget in 1993. “I was sort of drawn to the thought that when the chips are down, this democracy works and the right outcome in my opinion happened because the right person was there at the right time,” he said. Cunningham also recalled an event shortly after he joined the NC Senate that highlights Eaton’s assertion about the state’s aging leadership. Cunningham said RC Soles, the permanent chairman of the NC Senate Democratic Caucus, introduced him to his fellow senators during a dinner at a swanky Raleigh steakhouse in January 2001. “He said, ‘Let me put this in perspective. I was serving in the Senate for five years before this young man was born.’ I said, ‘RC, I won’t hold your age against you if you don’t hold mine against me.’ So that was my introduction to the members of the Senate,” Cunningham recalled. When he served in the Senate, Cunningham was one of only five senators under the age of 45. A visual reminder of the state’s aging leadership and the need to develop the next generation of leaders hangs inside his law office. On March 12, Cunningham leaned across his desk, squinted hard and looked at the photo of the NC Senate Class of 2001. “Fifty members and 20 of them are still involved in government,” Cunningham said. “[US Sen.] Kay Hagan and [US Rep.] Brad Miller are in the photo. That’s a majority turnover in a fairly short period of time. Some of them are deceased, and a couple of them are in jail.” Cunningham said he learned a lot about the inner workings of state government during his time in Raleigh. One of the most valuable lessons he learned informed his ideas about the older generation of elected officials and why some are averse to mentoring younger public servants. “Those who are serving in government now, for good or for ill, got there by fighting to gain an elected position, power. So they don’t give it up easily in any circumstance, whether it be an issue of passing the torch to the next generation or whether it be yielding to the other political party,” Cunningham said. “People in government naturally pull power to themselves.” The passing of the torch from the current generation of leaders to the next holds the key to the future success of the Democratic Party, Eaton said. Incumbent Democratic leaders at the local, state and national level must look beyond their next term, and share their knowledge and wisdom with a younger generation of public servants thirsty for the wisdom they could impart. “We need emeritus leadership without people dying in office,” Eaton said. “There is a political language that will be lost, and with it, all of those dreams and all of those ideals.”

Future political hopefuls

Chevara Orrin serves as director of conferences and institutes for Winston- Salem State University. She is overcome with emotion whenever she speaks about public service, and how her formative experiences shaped her love of public service. As a child, Orrin said her mother,Suzanne, would take herand her siblings by the hand and march them to school board and citycouncil meetings in their hometown of Memphis, Tenn. “We were six,seven and eight and we walked to and from school board and city councilmeetings singing, ‘I think I can, I think I can,’ because we had notransportation,” Orrin recalled. “[My mother] didn’t have to tell me itwas important. Clearly, there was something going on in those meetings.Even though I didn’t know it at the time, it was really shaping andguiding our perspective on the world.” The 40-year-old Orrin,who was named after revolutionary leader Che Guevara, said she wouldgladly “sit at the knee” of a local elected official who has beenintegral in building a better community. But Orrin said she has sensedresistance to engage young people in the political process coming fromthose who hold position of power in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County. “Thoseof us who are interested in helping to transform the community — we’renot wanting to pull that torch away,” she said. Orrin serves on sevenarea boards and committees and has received a number of accolades forher work in the community. She also serves as faculty advisorto two student groups at the university — Black Men for Change and theGay/Straight Student Alliance. Despite her full plate, Orrin wishes todo more. She believes she could make a bigger impact by serving on anelected board like the Winston-Salem City Council. In the meantime,Orrin is committed to encouraging outstanding young people she meetsthrough her work at the university to get involved in communityservice. Tara Orris may one day run for public office, but fornow she’s content to use the resources of the Democratic Party inForsyth to aid others in their quest for elected office. Orris, whoserved as a local field organizer for the Obama campaign has remainedin the area to help mobilize the Obama volunteer base to supportDemocratic candidates in the 2009 municipal elections. “ Irefuse to think that the motivation and commitment seen in the 2008presidential election has just disappeared,” Orris said. “My experienceworking on the Obama campaign was that people came to volunteer and beinvolved because, yes they liked Obama, but mostly because they wantedchange. I think that internal desire is still there.” Winston-Salemlawyer Eric Ellison understands the importance of reaching out to youngpeople. Ellison helped organize Winston-Salem State University studentsto campaign for Obama during last year’s presidential election. Ellisonsaid the onus is really on the younger generation to be more proactiveand particpate in local politics. “If you come in show your interest, your hard work, people will respect that,” Ellison said. “Is there some resistance?

Yes,but I think part of the blame has to lay with the younger generation.I’ve been part of way too many campaigns and way too many subcommitteemeetings. I’m in my late thirties and I’m the youngest guy in the room,so young folks have to step up.” Cunningham said his experience in theNC Senate underscores the validity of Ellison’s assertion. “WhatI found, as a young person, they didn’t see age when I did my homeworkand really, really learned the issues and studied them hard. When Ilistened to the debates and spoke measured and reasonably, theyresponded to advocacy,” he said. “They responded to hard work, and Ihave found within the political process there are a lot ofwell-intentioned people, but what moves the ball down the field arethose that are doing their homework, listening to others and advocatingtheir point of view articulately. Age is a barrier but it is overcome by those things.”

Frank Eaton, president of the Forsyth County Young Democrats, is hoping to recruit candidates for the 2009 municipal elections in Winston-Salem. Eaton believes the best way to sustain the gains of the Democratic party is to engage young people in the political process. (photo by Keith T. Barber)