Leftist Dems meet in Greensboro to take on their party

by Jordan Green

dirt. Leftist Dems meet in Greensboro to take on their party

David Parker, a Statesville lawyer, acknowledged he’s been pegged on occasion as a Democratic Party insider. Sure, he’s a member of the Democratic National Committee, he served as an elector in the primary, and he represents corporate clients in his practice. But he was sounding populist notes as he campaigned for chairman of the state party at the Progressive Democrats of North Carolina convention at the Bur-Mil Clubhouse in Greensboro on Dec. 6. “Have you gotten your list yet?” Parker asked. “No,” came the resounding cry. “Do you think the state party has the list?” The attendees responded without hesitation: “Yes.” The lists in question are rosters of North Carolina volunteers to the Obama campaign, whose effectiveness has stunned both the activists in the progressive flank of the party and the operatives in its business wing, not to mention Republicans and independents. Because Democratic regulars worked side by side with Obama volunteers to get their candidate elected, grassroots Democrats expected to share in the organizational spoils of the victory, but most of the conventioneers said their county parties had yet to receive the lists from the state organization. That complaint is only the latest and most acute of progressives’ grievances against their state party. Near the top of the Progressive Democrats of North Carolina’s Statement of Purpose is a pledge to “work for a more democratic, transparent and open political process within the Democratic Party.” “If they volunteered in the Obama campaign, they should be integrated into the county structure,” said Chris Telesca, a Progressive Democrat and a precinct chair in Wake County. “I don’t understand. I don’t know why the staffers are not more forthcoming. We need to talk to [the volunteers] so we can say, ‘You did a great job with the Obama campaign. How’d you like to organize your precinct and change your party from within to make it do what you want it to do?’ In order for any of those volunteers to get their foot in the door as a delegate in the Democratic Party to get resolutions passed, they have to be at that precinct meeting in February.” To Parker, that such a struggle should be underway between the party’s leadership and base is nonsensical. “Who in the world should covet those lists?” he asked. “Anybody knows those lists erode by one percent in a month’s time. In two years they’re twenty-five percent eroded. After that, they’re worthless.” North Carolina progressives, many of whom worked hard to get Obama elected, have regarded the presidentelect with ambivalence. They look with awe on his ability to cultivate small donors and use community organizing techniques to build a movement at the base of his campaign, but they consider his ideological makeup to be essentially centrist. Members of the Progressive Democrats of America, the statewide organization’s national counterpart, backed John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich in the primary. Few were surprised when Obama appointed proponents of deregulation from the Clinton administration to his economic team and advocates of a muscular foreign policy to national security posts. Progressives’ relationship with the state Democratic Party in North Carolina is even more conflicted. “Democrats in North Carolina moved from the Dixiecrat days based on racism and patronage politics to a more progressive plutocracy — responding to the civil rights struggle and the rise of corporate consolidation” led by former Gov. Jim Hunt, past president Pete MacDowell recounted during the opening session of the convention. “We are emerging from the long, dark tunnel of the Bush years nationally and the Mike Easley/Jim Black years in North Carolina,” he told them. “In those years the national and state Democratic parties distinguished themselves primarily by abject spinelessness and legalized and occasionally illegal corruption. Many progressive Democrats and many folks we were trying to recruit felt that putting the two terms together was an oxymoron. “We need to be on record about doing away with the gerrymandering system in which less than half of House seats have opposition in the general election,” he continued. “The Democratic Party and the Republican Party essentially choose their seats so they don’t have to run for reelection. It’s a recipe for….” Nick DiVitci, chair of the Guilford County Progressive Democrats and a former campaign manager for at-large Guilford County Commissioner John Parks, finished his thought: “ …political disaster.” Progressive Democrats from both the national and statewide organizations were talking at the Greensboro convention about challenging business-friendly Democrats in primaries and withholding votes from Democrats in general elections who consistently rebuff their agenda. And taking a page from the Obama playbook, they also urged each other to wrest more power by cultivating their own small-figure donor base. The practice of hoarding volunteer lists is only the beginning of the Progressive Democrats’ grievances against their own party. They believe elected officials ignore the wishes of those who campaign to get them into office because of the abundance of corporate money sloshing around the campaign system. Compounding that hurdle, they see district lines as being drawn to favor incumbents, diminishing political competition. “There’s a four-thousand dollar limit on individual contributions to candidates,” MacDowell said. “But if I’m a millionaire I can give unlimited amounts to the Democrat Party or the Republican Party. The Democrat Party or the Republican Party can give unlimited amounts to a candidate. That’s called a loophole you can drive a truck through sideways. It totally guts any campaignfinance reform bills. The state Democratic Party is two schizophrenic things. It’s a grassroots party for the people that is democratic all the way up. And it’s a money- laundering operation for the rich and powerful.” The reason for that disconnect is simple, said Isaac Coleman, who headed a successful effort to elect Terry Bellamy in 2005. Coleman said that Bellamy, the first black mayor of Asheville and someone considered a rising star within the party, is also the first progressive on a city council dominated by white male conservative lawyers. “We vote for [politicians], but the people who they kowtow are the corporations that provide the money for their campaigns, the utility companies and the insurance companies,” he said. “They campaign year round, and we’re shouting at them that you’ve got to do a little of what you promised us.” The Progressive Democrats of North Carolina’s agenda is pro-organized labor; anti-death penalty; and for a clean environment, single-payer healthcare, a more progressive income tax structure, and more compassion and sensitivity towards immigrants. Those positions typically receive little consideration from Democratic governor-elect Bev Perdue and the Democratic leadership in the state House and Senate, much less the Republican minority. “The progressive caucus of the North Carolina Senate is maybe two people on a good day,” conceded NC Justice Center budget and tax director Elaine Mejia, one of the presenters at the convention. Much of the Progressive Democrats’ agenda aligns with the 14-point agenda adopted by the Historic Thousands on Jones Street coalition headed by the NC National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, whose lobbying efforts MacDowell characterized as illustrative of progressives’ new boldness. The coalition includes roughly 80 member organizations representing a range of interests from immigrants to workers and the environment. MacDowell recounted how last spring NC NAACP President Rev. William Barber was able to schedule a meeting with House Speaker Joe Hackney and Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight, but the two legislative leaders tried to get him to come with only a small delegation.

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Delmas Parker (standing), second vice chair of the NC Democratic Party, proposes a set of reforms to make the party more transparent and accountable during a presentation to the Progressive Democrats of North Carolina in Greensboro on Dec. 6. (photo by Jordan Green)

‘The national and state Democratic parties distinguished themselves primarily by abject spinelessness and legalized and occasionally illegal corruption. Many progressive Democrats and many folks we were trying to recruit felt that putting the two terms together was an oxymoron.’

— Progressive Democrats of North Carolina Past President Pete MacDowell