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Like father like son? Not the case in Clinton-Obama race

by Amy Kingsley

Political arguments don’t end at the Coley family dinner table. In fact, sometimes members of the clan take their disagreements all the way to the top of the party.

Like this year, when Tom Coley and his son Jason – delegates elected, respectively, from North Carolina’s 13th and 12th Congressional districts – will take their political differences to Denver, the site of the Democratic National Convention.

Both Coleys are longtime party activists, but like voters, the two have parted ways over which presidential nominee – Sen. Hillary Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama – is the better candidate. The elder Coley supports Clinton, but Jason has pledged his vote to Obama.

The two are a microcosm of the Democratic Party, which has suffered a split between supporters of its frontrunners during the long primary season, prompting questions about whether it will be able to put itself back together in the fall. If the Coleys are any indication, the party – and the family – will be just fine.

“At the end of the day we’re both Democrats,” Jason Coley said. “We’ll support whoever gets the nomination.”

This year’s convention will be the second that the father and son have attended together as delegates. In 2004 they traveled to Boston to throw their support to Sen. John Kerry, who lost to President Bush in the general election.

Because former Sen. John Edwards was on the ticket as the vice-presidential nominee, the Coleys snagged good seats, in the front row opposite the press corps. That’s how it always works, they said.

“All the media were looking out on the crowd,” Jason Coley said. “I was on the front page of USA Today, the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times. Then the next day I was on the inside page of USA Today. Not too many people can say they were in USA Today two days in a row.”

Although neither candidate has announced a vice presidential pick, the Coleys said they expect to be seated at the back of Denver’s Pepsi Center. There they will mingle with the rest of North Carolina’s 139-member delegation, most of whom will be supporting Obama, who won the state’s May 6 primary by a wide margin.

“The reason I’m supporting Hillary is because she’s got a proven record and I really don’t see much difference between the two candidates on the issues,” Tom Coley said.

Tom Coley first got involved in Democratic Party politics when he was in his thirties. A volunteer in his community, he was seduced by the party’s commitment to public education and equality. His first big presidential campaign also happened to be the last one the Democrats won in North Carolina – Jimmy Carter in 1976.

That was before Jason was born. The state has gone Republican since 1980, including back-to-back wins for Bush in the two presidential elections in which the younger Coley was involved.

Jason’s political activism started in the first grade, intensified throughout his primary school years and calcified into zeal during college at UNC-Wilmington. He campaigned for Al Gore in 2000 and pushed the ticket in New Hanover County.

“This is going to be the year,” Jason Coley said. “This is going to be the year great things happen for Democrats.”

Both Coleys said they believe new voters swelling the Democratic rolls will make the state competitive for the first time in more than 30 years. And they think it will happen regardless of who gets the nomination.

“I hope Obama goes ahead and locks up the nomination in the next couple days,” Jason Coley said on May 28, the week before the last two primaries. “Then they can go ahead and seat the full delegations from [Florida and Michigan].”

Those states were penalized for moving their primaries to the earliest part of the election season. Clinton’s was the only name on the Michigan ballot, and hers was the only presence in either state after the rest of the Democratic candidates promised to refrain from campaigning.

North Carolina and the other nine states that held their primaries in the final month received a 20 percent delegate bonus. The Tar Heel State was by far the biggest beneficiary of the rule, which was enacted just last year to discourage states from moving up their primaries. The state added 24 delegates to its original allotment of 115.

There’s good reason to want all the party’s delegates seated for the late August convention, Jason Coley said. In addition to picking a candidate, delegates to the national convention undergo intensive election training. They learn how to mobilize the base, register new voters and get them to the polls.

In 2004, the Coleys spent most of their days in meetings, learning about techniques employed by other state offices.

“We hope to bring back things that they are doing somewhere else that are working,” Tom Coley said.

The Coleys earned their place in the North Carolina delegation by putting in long hours at the county and district offices. Pledged delegates like them are elected by their colleagues, and there is plenty of competition for the limited number of seats. In the 12th District, represented by Democrat Mel Watt, 13 applicants vied for three male Obama slots.

Aspiring delegates chose the slot for which they are applying. The process prizes party politics more than it does candidate loyalty.

“We hold office and do a lot of hours,” Tom Coley said. “We’re really looking at it on a macro level. That’s really our primary work and what we’ll be building with the other delegates in Denver. It’s really about helping all Democratic candidates and having an equal opportunity to serve all of them.”

If North Carolina does indeed become a swing state in 2008, the development will energize the bottom of the ballot, where Democrats are competing for US Senate, governor, lieutenant governor and treasurer.

And the Coleys will be there, campaigning for them all. All the political experience has given the family, which also includes Tom Coley’s wife and another son, some perspective on what it takes to win a campaign. The elder Coley said he felt like Clinton events in North Carolina were poorly organized and not designed to build a base for the candidate.

“I think it was over before North Carolina,” Jason Coley said. “I think Obama already had it.”

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

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