by Daniel Schere @Daniel_Schere

After November’s disappointing defeat for Democrats at the state and national level, party leaders in North Carolina are attempting to repair cracks that have weakened them in recent years. On Saturday in Pittsboro, five candidates will gather where one will be selected as the chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party. The position will be up for re-election in 2017.

The new chair will replace current chairman Randy Voller, who has had an embattled two years as chair in which he was found to have owed $286,000 in back taxes and used the party’s credit card to pay for a trip to Las Vegas worth more than $3,000.

This year’s slate of candidates features a mix of figures from within the party and a few outsiders such as Raleigh’s Ron Sanyal. Sanyal immigrated to the United States from India 39 years ago with a pharmacy degree in hand, $7 in his pocket and the desire to work. He moved from Cleveland to Rocky Mount and eventually to Raleigh, where he opened GlobalLink consulting in 2006. Sanyal also started Brazilian Soccer Connection, a nonprofit that gives underprivileged children a chance to learn soccer skills and compete for free on the condition they stay in school.

He had a brief exposure to politics when he attended the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte as a delegate and then ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for congressional District 13. He said the best kind of party leadership is one that does not make differences into something large.

“I believe in one America. I don’t believe in Republican America or Democratic America,” he said. “Everybody accepts me because I have no personal agenda. I believe we are all God’s children, and we can learn from each other.”

Another newcomer to the party is Marshall Adame of Jacksonville, who was defeated by incumbent Walter Jones in congressional District 3 in November. Adame served in the Marines for 23 years and later served in a number of diplomatic positions overseas, including a year with the state department as Provincial Program Manager of Iraq. He said serving as chair of the state Democratic Party would be another way he feels he can best serve society.

“I’ve been serving my country all my life and this seemed to be a natural extension of that,” he said. “When I didn’t make it to Congress I decided that I shouldn’t stop serving.”

Adame added that he has three children who are veterans, including one son who was wounded in Iraq in 2006 but is now in Wilmington recovering.

Slightly more known on a local level is Charlotte’s Constance Johnson who has served as public relations chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus and helped launch City Political Magazine as a vehicle for getting out the its message.

“When I saw that the organization really needed a publication, I felt that the organization did not have the staffing and was structured in a way that they could only provide a newsletter, and they were limiting,” she said. “I believe that people didn’t know who their elected officials were, and they really didn’t know who the mayor was.”

Johnson has been involved in politics since she was 25 and said she often wrote newspaper editorials about issues she cared about. As a child she said she was inspired by the marches of the Civil Rights Movement. She grew up in Salisbury and attended Livingstone College as well as the University of Maryland Eastern Shore where she earned a Master of Education.

“When I moved from Salisbury, I had been rallying the pastors to organize some programs for our youth because the disparity in standardized testing scores was so heinous that I felt we needed to do something,” she said.

Johnson ran unsuccessfully for NC Senate District 34, but lost to incumbent Andrew Brock. She said there are still several things today that worry her, particularly when it comes to race relations.

“I’m watching our children being shot down in the streets,” she said. “This is not anything we have seen since the 40s.”

Without a doubt the most experienced candidate is current vice chair Patsy Keever who has served on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners and in the NC house for two years. Keever said she considered running to be chair even before Voller announced he was stepping down. She said her experience of being an elected official and being a teacher has given her valuable contacts, which she thinks will be essential heading into the 2016 election cycle.

“I think that the precinct organization really is the foundation of everything we do with the party,” she said.

“To make the party relevant we have to provide the infrastructure to get out the vote.”

Keever became the subject on controversy at a candidate forum in Charlotte on Jan. 20 when she referred to another candidate, Janice Covington Allison, as a man. Allison, who is transgender and identifies as a woman responded, “There ain’t no man left in here, honey.” Keever later apologized to Allison but she said the incident has been largely blown out of proportion.

“I said one word, and the word was man, and it had a question mark at the end of it,” Keever said. “In the context of what I said it was not in any way an attack. It was an ignorant statement, I grant you that. I’ve learned a great deal about transgender persons.”

Keever said her most important takeaway from the experience is to make sure the public is educated about issues important to the LGBT community.

“As involved as I have been with the LGBT community for dozens of years here in Buncombe County, and I still was not aware that what I said was offensive,” she said. “I can imagine many other people out in the general population that need the same kind of education, and I don’t think that anybody who was at the meeting where I said that felt that it was in any way malicious or meant to show disrespect.”

Allison, who has been involved with the party for more than 40 years and was a delegate at convention in 2012, said the remark was surprising and embarrassing but she has moved past it. She said Keever’s apology was personal to her, but the larger issue is improving relations with transgenders.

“She didn’t do quite what I asked,” Allison said. “She apologized to me and I said, ‘Patsy it’s bigger than me. I said, I have an entire community up in arms because of this.'” Allison added that she would support Keever if she ends up being the chair. The incident was discouraging to Aberdeen’s Tommy Davis, who dropped out of the race in disgust at the divisions within the party.

“They need to leave their egos at the door and go in and try to work together to resolve issues and built a platform moving forward,” he said.

Davis has run twice unsuccessfully against state Sen. Jerry Tillman, first in the Republican primary in 2012 and in last year’s general election as a Democrat, where he received 29 percent.

“I don’t think anything’s going to change in the North Carolina Democratic Party,” he said. “That’s one reason why I withdrew. It’s just going to be a reason to argue and disagree on everything. No one’s moving in a direction to solidify the party.” !