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New chairman in tow, a reorganized Democratic party looks to Nov. 4

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With the choice last week of Joel Ford as chairman of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party, state and local party leaders are pondering how the party's recent reorganization could shape the November elections.

Party activists organized 106 Democratic precincts after the Nick Mackey debacle and likely will have formed more by the time CL hits the streets. That's an all-time high, outgoing acting chairwoman Pat Patton said. And statewide, voter registration is surging, with 65,000 names added to the rolls in the first 45 days of 2008.

N.C. party Chairman Jerry Meek said 60 percent of new registrants are Democrats, followed by unaffiliated voters and then Republicans. Meek hopes renewed interest among newbies as well as the party faithful will yield favorable returns at the polls. Still, he said, "it's hard to tell," if Mecklenburg's activists will sustain through November the enthusiasm sparked by the party's post-sheriff's race reorganization.

Meek, at Piedmont Open Middle School to watch the chairman vote March 6, oversaw the local party's reorganization after state Democrats tossed out results of the controversial sheriff's vote that yielded a racially tinged rift in the party. The debacle led party chairman David Erdman to step down, replaced temporarily by Patton. But evidence of the rift remained last week.

"The time for divisiveness is over," Patton, 89, said as she called the meeting to order. "We find that there are still a few who are trying to divide the party ... It's time for them to get with it." Both chairman candidates -- Ford, a black businessman, and Pender McElroy, a white attorney -- called for unity. But some of Ford's words seemed aimed at folks dissatisfied with older white leadership and, perhaps, stung by Mackey's downfall.

"I believe that there's time for a generational shift," said Ford, an African-American. "It's time for the young Democrats, and the Democrats who are not part of the status quo, to take their rightful pace and help lead this party to the next election."

And McElroy's comments at times highlighted a generational divide. His heroes growing up, he said, were Franklin Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson -- white politicians dead before many folks in the room were born.

Ford's efforts to unify and raise money could be vital for Democrats in November. While parties in Wake, Guilford and Forsyth counties each have paid staff, Mecklenburg's party is an all-volunteer operation, now without a headquarters.

Mecklenburg, a majority Democrat county, in recent elections has alternated between favoring Republicans and Democrats presidential contenders. In 2004, John Kerry edged out President Bush with 52 percent of the vote; four years earlier, 51 percent of voters chose Bush over Al Gore.

Candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will setting up their N.C. headquarters this month. The nominee may still be undecided by the state's May 6 primary. "That's going to add fuel to the fire," Meek said.

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