The forgotten Democrat: Rory Blake tries to ride blue wave into red territory

by Amy Kingsley

A man dressed in a suit and tie walks up to the table where Travis Gaddy, a smooth-faced 23-year-old in a polo shirt and Cubs baseball hat, cradles a scotch in his left hand.

“Are you with the Democratic Party?” he asks.

About 100 people have gathered on the second floor of Natty Green’s in downtown Greensboro. The room is a whirl of back-patting and pumping handshakes as Democratic Party members flit from group to group and watch the election results scroll across big-screen televisions.

“We’re with the Rory Blake campaign,” Gaddy answers.

The man’s face registers nothing.

“In the 6th Congressional district,” he adds.

“Can you sign in?” the man asks. “We’re trying to get a good idea of who is here with the Democrats.”

Gaddy obliges and passes the list along to Avery Smith, his second-in-command, a computer science student at Davidson County Community College who is silently following the local returns. Their man Blake slipped out some 30 minutes earlier flanked by his wife Laura and son William, wrapped in a tasteful black peacoat.

He shook a few hands as he made his exit, but the Democrats seemed on this victorious night to barely notice North Carolina’s first declared loser in the 2006 general election. Local news channel 14 jumped out early, anointing him beaten with a scant 3 percent of the vote tallied, when the results showed Republican incumbent Howard Coble leading by 30 percentage points.

Blake was the only one of the Democratic Congressional candidates running to represent Guilford County who appeared at the party’s election night soiree. Incumbents Mel Watt and Brad Miller, both of whom sailed to easy victories, celebrated elsewhere.

Miller and Watt’s successful campaigns in Democratic strongholds marginalized Blake’s dark-horse campaign in mostly rural, largely Republican District 6. The other Democrats benefited from widespread ill-will toward the Republican Party in general and President Bush in particular, but Blake struggled to find an ideological angle from which to dislodge Coble from his loyal constituents.

Still, they tried.

“I just can’t sit here and do nothing,” Gaddy, Blake’s campaign coordinator, says. “This is my home and this is where I’ll stand and fight.”

Earlier Gaddy admits that chairing the 6th District Young Democrats and campaigning for an underdog can seem a thankless task. In a room filled with the cheerful clink of pint and wine glasses, Gaddy knocks back his first scotch and contemplates ordering another.

“As long as a Democrat runs in the sixth district,” Gaddy says, “I’ll be behind them.”

Early in the evening, before Democrats take the House and edge out key Senate candidates, Gaddy and Smith collect their things and head back to Davidson County.

Two days before Election Day, Blake had stood in front of the stately Rowan County Courthouse in Salisbury, NC. In front of him a black binder lay open on top of a low stone monument, its plastic-encased pages bearing words he had been toting from county to county.

Thank you. My name is Rory Blake. I’m proud to be here as the Democratic nominee for North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District. I know you care about our democracy, and’….

Six supporters from the local Democratic Party gather in a semi-circle to hear his speech, one of a series of “Bring the Troops Home” rallies designed to whip up support in the election’s waning days. Blake has planned one rally in each of the six counties that make up the 6th Congressional District during the last week of the campaign. He starts on Oct. 31 in Moore County, which he calls home, the southernmost county in the 6th and one renowned for twin characteristics: golf courses and affluence.

Saturday’s rally finds him one county north, amongst a small but committed group of supporters.

Under the Republicans our country has changed, and changed in ways we are not comfortable with. The vast majority of the American public now feels we are on the wrong track and headed in the wrong direction.

Although he’s running against Coble, Blake has branded his campaign a referendum on the Bush administration. Coble, like many incumbent representatives, has earned a reputation for strong constituent services, and he publicly parted ways with the Bush administration over Iraq earlier this year. Still, Blake says, his best chance for victory involves equating the two Republicans and, within his core of supporters, the plan appears to be working.

“The issue that I have with Howard Coble is that he’s a George Bush yes man,” says Blake supporter Nan Lund.

By the end of the speech, eight Democratic activists have gathered in front of the courthouse, including county chairman Bill Dover. From there, Blake and the others walk down to the party headquarters to organize the day’s canvassing operation.

Rowan’s Democratic Party headquarters occupies a prominent storefront space on the town’s Main Street, just a few blocks away from the courthouse and caddy-corner from the newspaper offices. It’s a temporary arrangement; party activists move into the converted retail space during election season every other year.

Genoal Russell, a 72-year-old retiree who’s lived in Rowan County for 50 years, considers her service to the Democratic Party a civic duty no different in scope than tutoring schoolchildren.

“I was so dissatisfied with the way things were going,” Russell says. “If you see something that you think can be better, it’s good if you try to make it better.”

In that spirit, Lund, Beth Bowman and Amanda Ford pile into Lund’s sedan to canvass registered Democrats in Rowan County. They reached their first destination, a neighborhood called Celebration, after much fretting over a fold-up map. Bowman abandons the chart to the back seat, and, having consulted her voter lists and spatial memory, steers the group into the new development of handsome starter homes.

Ford, who got her political start as a student at NC State campaigning for US Rep. David Price, wades through yards full of fallen leaves to greet voters.

“We’re here today on behalf of the Rowan County Democratic Party,” she says. “We’re just encouraging everybody to get out and vote.”

Blake faces an uphill battle in the 6th District unlike Ford’s former boss, the incumbent Price, but the campaign worker says she’s noticed little difference in name recognition between the two candidates.

“Even with David Price,” she said. “If people aren’t familiar with their candidate, then they’re not really familiar with anybody.”

The group leaves Blake standing in front of party headquarters. Having forgotten his name tag, the candidate shoves a sheet from a promotional memo pad into his suit pocket. He introduces himself to those strolling through the historic district.

“Hi, I’m Rory Blake and I’m running for Congress in the 6th District,” he says.

“We’re from South Carolina,” one man replied, referring to the wife and son in tow.

Rowan County, like several of the counties comprising the 6th District, is also represented by Watt. The vast swath of land in the 6th District resembles the negative space in the optical illusion known as the Rubin Vase. It’s cut down the middle by the narrow strip of Watt’s 12th District, which runs from Guilford to Mecklenburg County.

Watt benefits from the gerrymandering that carved Democrats out of the 6th District. Rowan County as a whole is a conservative place. No Democrats sit on the county commission, and the school board recently forbade the formation of a Gay, Lesbian and Straight Alliance club in a local high school.

Ford, Lund and Bowman target Democratic voters the Saturday before the election. Almost all of them reside in the narrow strip Rowan County conceded to the 12th District.

“In my family we always thought Mel Watt was our representative,” Ford says. “We didn’t even know who this Coble guy was.”

By the time the volunteers return to headquarters after two hours of canvassing, Blake has left for High Point. In lieu of cash – Blake doesn’t have much of a war chest – the candidate has been knocking on doors in his district, introducing himself to voters.

“I even did some of Mel’s accidentally,” Blake said. “Democrat’s a good brand this year.”

Lund and Bowman are Blake fans.

“He’s smart,” Lund says.

“He’s somebody thoughtful,” Bowman said. “Just because he doesn’t do sound bites people don’t buy into it.”

Blake doesn’t do sound bites. He peppers his political speech with Latin law terms and historical anecdotes. And, while moderate Democratic candidates all across the country connect with disappointed rural and suburban voters, he exhorts his supporters to remain vigilant for signs of World War II-era fascism.

Last week George Bush signed a bill that abolishes Posse Comitatus. That is Latin for our Constitutional protection of – keeping the United States military from being used in a police action against our citizens.

Blake, a 56-year-old retired pharmacist, lost money in two separate bids for Congress in the 1990s. His experiences in those two elections inspired a unique campaign strategy: Blake is trying to spend the least amount of any North Carolina Congressional candidate.

Coble’s 22-year incumbency has encouraged a sort of election-year complacency. The Republican candidate boasts wads of cash – more than $600,000 according to Federal Election Commission reports – but declines to run television or radio ads. Blake decided to do the same, saving the money he would have spent on a broadcast advertising blitz. This election has therefore been off the radar screen for voters and journalists alike.

By election night, the networks, cable news, newspapers and websites will each have settled on some variation of a red-blue continuum to graphically depict the shifting balance of power. Competitive races occupy a narrow middle, monitored by the press and dogged by predictions that shift with the subtlety of a sophisticated diagnostic device.

The 6th District lies outside the contentious middle. It exists in the vast red swath of the bar graph, abandoned at least in this election by the vast majority of the Democratic Party.

“Howard Coble is not nearly as invulnerable as he appears,” says Wayne Abraham, the chair of the 6th Congressional District Democrats.

The district includes all of Moore and Randolph counties and parts of Rowan, Guilford, Davidson and Alamance. It’s an area still reeling from the disappearance of bread-and-butter industries like furniture, textiles and tobacco. A glance at the NC Board of Election numbers reveals that 42 percent of its residents identify as Republican compared to 33 percent who are registered as Democrats.

“I think if he had had more exposure he might have stood a chance,” Abraham says. “But that’s very costly. I don’t think the media paid much attention to Rory Blake. You have to raise at least $1 million to be considered a serious candidate.”

The Democratic Party campaign machine focused on unseating Charles Taylor and Robin Hayes, Abraham said.

“The potential is really there for them to win this district,” he said. “It’s just a matter of finding the right candidate and getting the support.”

I remember Richard Nixon in the 1950s talking about how evil the Soviets and the Stalinists were. Holding people without charges, torturing them.

On the Monday before the election, Blake delivers his speech in front of the Old County Courthouse in Greensboro. A retired Episcopal priest and leather-clad member of the Davidson County Concerned Bikers comprise a third of his six-person listening audience. Unlike the Rowan County group, this crowd won’t be doing any canvassing.

Bill Clinton made difficult choices to get the deficit under control. He made having both parties working together on reducing the debt a priority. Because of Clinton, we expect our presidents to be willing to make difficult choices.

He finishes the speech and chats up the crowd for a few minutes before they disperse.

“This has been an interesting deal,” he says. “I don’t want to stand out here and pretend like I’m clairvoyant, but if it’s raining it’s going to hurt us.”

He says this under clear blue skies, but a stiff wind rolls in from the north, causing this reporter to sniffle.

“It sounds like you’re getting a cold,” he says, then recommends an over-the-counter remedy.

It’s a slip from politico to pharmacist, back to a time when he owned a chain of drug stores spanning from Charlotte to Lexington. He still possesses the concerned demeanor of a corner apothecary, with friendly features, a beard and a silver mop of hair.

Democratic Party volunteers have gathered in a meeting room on Election Day, foraging through foil-covered dishes and crock pots while they await marching orders. Bess Lewis fields calls from precinct runners who are reporting turnout. It’s high, by all reports, despite the rain which falls as predicted.

Blake pokes his head around the corner and summons his campaign staff – Smith and Gaddy – into a back room. In front of him sits a pile of sample ballots lifted from several 6th District precincts. His race tops the ballot, but his name doesn’t appear on the paper.

“You can either choose Howard Coble or Howard Coble,” Blake says, his temperature rising.

He’s heard secondhand that a Democratic observer at Edgefield Baptist Church encountered the same non-choice during the actual touch screen voting and he’s livid. Guilford County Board of Elections Director George Gilbert assures Blake the mistake had been taken care of and does not appear on the screens, but Blake doesn’t buy it. The candidate is on his cell phone, trying to bend the ear of sympathetic journalists and gin up some last-minute support for what he now thinks might have been a stolen election.

“If we can get some people out in the last few hours we might win this,” he says. “It’s not a slam dunk for them. If the unaffiliateds go our way we’ll win. But everybody’s fighting the last election. This time I had an idea, a vision.”

It’s a vision he distilled a decade ago in his book The How and Why of Market Democracy: The Decline of American Ideals and Rise of a Two Class Society. The book is a collection facts and musings about the influence of special interests on the democratic process. Blake carries a stack of them to every event.

The vision includes running a shoestring campaign in an election projected to favor Republicans. But the specter of monetary influence rises over the last few hours of the campaign, as Blake ponders whether Coble and Republican money bought off the most basic component of our electoral system: voting machines.

“Can you call Jerry?” he asks Gaddy, referring to Jerry Meek, the head of the state Democratic Party.

Blake is unable to make headway with local radio stations. He wants to make a public plea for sympathy during the last few hours, but news departments are reluctant to oblige him without independent confirmation of his charges. Blake dials again, trying to reach the observer who said she was unable to vote for him. After two hours of fighting he sits back in his chair and picks up the problematic sample ballot.

“This is really just bogus,” he says. “All we really have them on is this, and this isn’t that big, is it?”

Gaddy and Smith discuss whether to go out to Edgefield Baptist Church to protest. But instead of mobilizing they plant themselves in corner chairs in the bustling office space and wait to see how the situation resolves itself. All the while, the volunteers in the other room parse the numbers, occasionally clucking their tongues at Blake’s misfortune.

The candidate’s wife and son walk in, assess the situation and discuss the options, whether to stay in Greensboro for the Democrats’ party or drive 70 miles back home to Carthage in Moore County.

“This whole thing has bummed me out,” Blake says. “I wouldn’t have minded a fair fight. But this’….”

At 4 p.m. Blake and his family depart for a late lunch.

“Can we stop by the precinct first for just a little bit?” Blake asks his wife.

Later that night, at Natty Green’s, Blake’s cheer returns. The polls show a wide deficit, but he’s still out-polling Vernon Robinson, the outsider Republican candidate in the 13th District who raised and spent some $1.5 million.”That’s like ten bucks a vote,” he says. “We spent maybe 50 cents a vote. As long as I stay ahead of Vernon I’m happy.”

He stands near a table filled with family and campaign staff. As House seats fall into the win column, the feeling in the room turns decidedly cheery, and Blake, counted out early, seems a vestige of the past, a relic, like hundreds of other Democratic candidates across the country, of 12 years of party failure.

In Burlington two weeks earlier, Blake appears alongside his opponent Howard Coble in a forum for Alamance County voters arranged by the Elon University political science department. Candidates for county commission and school board present first, and each answers a series of questions on issues from countywide zoning to the logistics of No Child Left Behind.

The candidates, almost all natives, interrupt the politicking with fond remembrances of Burlington as it once was.

When Blake and Coble take the stage, the tone of the debate changes palpably. Instead of entertaining with visions of the past, the Congressional candidates batter the crowd with predictions for the future, each offering horrifying apocalyptic visions. Coble opens with warnings against the jihadist threat.

“These people want to kill you and me,” he says breathlessly. “They want to come right here to the Paramount Theater.”

Blake’s prediction is no less dire. He leans toward the 40-odd audience members, poised with his hair swept from his face.

In 1939 the German Army invaded Poland. The German people believed and trusted in their leaders too. Without question, they were being misled. Do not believe the experience of German citizens could not happen here.

On that note, the debate ends, and the spectators file outside, where storybook downtown buildings border a pitch black, rain-slick street. Nothing stirs.

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