by Mike Cooper
After the GOP sweep in North Carolina last year, Democrats face a period in the political wilderness, and will do so with new leadership, after state party Chairman David Parker announced that he would not seek another term.
One of the candidates vying to replace Parker, when the State Executive Committee of the party convenes in Durham on Feb. 2, is Eric Mansfield a one-term Democratic senator representing Cumberland County.
Mansfield exited the General Assembly after an an unsuccessful primary bid for lieutenant governor - a race this newspaper endorsed him in.
Despite his loss, we still think Mansfield, a progressive from Obama's generation of politics, has a bright career in public service. We recently spoke to him about why Democrats lost and how they can regain the General Assembly. The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Why did you enter the race for state party chair?
This is a critical moment for our party. It is time for us to look within ourselves to change our state's future.
Why did Democrats lose up and down the ballot, when Obama was still competitive at the top? Usually the Democratic gubernatorial candidate outpaces the Democrat running for president.
The state party lacked a central message about why we're Democrats. We allowed Republicans to define who we were. Another problem is that we didn't mobilize. The infrastructure in North Carolina was really an Obama for America infrastructure, whose primary goal was to elect the president. If we had our own North Carolina Democratic Party infrastructure in all 100 counties, we could have better encouraged people to vote for state candidates as well. We also lacked money.
What should the state Democratic Party stand for?
It should stand for the same things it's always stood for: equal opportunity, equal access and the belief that we should help the less fortunate. That's not only a Democrat message, that's an American message.
McCrory will be sworn in as governor on Saturday, and swift changes like the Voter ID bill are likely to follow. Without many prominent Democrats left in Raleigh, it will be up to the state party chair to oppose such measures. Are you ready to step into that role?
Even if I become chair, the party must speak as a whole. Great movements are never movements of one person. My job is to make sure there is a diversity of voices who are speaking in a unified way.
What are some issues in North Carolina that you most want to improve or influence?
Voting and redistricting. If we have open and accessible voting - and district lines that are best for the state and not for a particular party - then we'll elect officials representative of North Carolina as a whole.
You're originally from Georgia. How'd you find your way to North Carolina?
I went to Howard University on an ROTC scholarship, went to medical school on scholarship, came to North Carolina by Fort Bragg, and then left the army to start my medical practice. I was fairly cynical about politics until 2008, when I campaign in Cumberland County for Obama. My wife and I were very fortunate to organize the first visit by the president to Fayetteville.
Who from North Carolina inspires you?
Terry Sanford. He stood up for desegregation as governor of North Carolina and said, We will not exist as separate, we will work together, we will fight together, and we'll figure this thing out. He changed the trajectory of everyone in the state, whether black or white. It's the notion that we will walk the hard and difficult road, and we'll lose friends along the way. That's principled leadership, and that's what Democrats should be about. We shouldn't be against Republicans because they are Republicans - we should be against their ideas.
Demographics in the state are rapidly changing and that bodes well for the party in the long term. But redistricting maps and the money favors conservative government. What has to happen in the short term for Democrats to win again?
We have to mend our party and make every region of our state important. The politics of one region may not be the politics of another region, and that's OK. Disagreement on an idea should not mean disloyalty to Democratic Party ideals. A person running in Iredell County doesn't have to be the same as a person running in Orange County. We've gotten to a place where if we don't all think the same, talk the same and sound the same, we're not all Democrats. But that's not true.
For the party to be successful it will have to win back some of the rural poor.
When Republicans go out west or down east, they talk about faith, family and security. Those are Democratic principles. Most of us believe in God. But even if you don't believe in God you should still be part of the conversation. We believe in patriotism, but we also believe you shouldn't give up your civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism. We have those same values. We've just done a poor job of telling people we share those same values.
As a preacher and a youth pastor, what role does your own faith play in life and in your politics?
Having compassion for others. I also understand that everyone has faults. You should approach anyone who "has all the answers" and "hasn't done anything wrong" with caution. Faith requires you to look at yourself critically before you look at someone else critically. I'm also strong enough in my faith to respect people of different faiths and not feel insecure. Unfortunately there are people who use faith as a wedge tool rather than as a tool to bring people together.
If I'm a State Executive Committee member of the party at the meeting in February, why should I affirm you, a relative newcomer to politics, to lead my party in a time of crisis?
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, A man's character is defined not when things are comfortable but when things are hard. I believe our party is not defined when we have the executive mansion and the General Assembly, it is defined right now. I have a plan for us to have a message, to mobilize, to mend our party, and to raise money. We have to inspire Democrats to be proud of who they are. We are the people who believe that fiscal responsibility doesn't mean cutting healthcare and education irresponsibly. We must build a North Carolina that is not only for the CEO of the bank, but for the cook at Burger King; not just for the wealthy of Charlotte, but for the waitress who lives in Clinton. I can do that, but I also know I can't do it alone.