It was almost but not quite like being in the middle of the action on Inauguration Day. If you opened the door of the restaurant on the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol, you could practically hear echoes of President Obama's speech and Beyonce's rendition of the National Anthem, real or lip-synched. But it was all a little muddled. You could say the same about the state of the Democratic Party in the South.
I watched the inauguration ceremonies on big screens in the eatery, surrounded by Southern Democrats with a plan. I listened to strategies designed to re-establish the party's dominance in the region it once owned. Because of issues of race, social issues and habit, for starters, it won't be easy.
While Democrats celebrated the national win that gave Obama four more years and basked in his inclusive inaugural message to women, minorities and gays, the South — with the exception of Virginia and Florida — was left out in the cold.
After narrowly favoring Obama by just 14,000 votes in 2008 — raising hopes of a permanent purple realignment — North Carolina returned to a reddish hue. A Republican, former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, captured the statehouse and has a strengthened GOP majority in the legislature.
What's a Democratic Party to do now? Why, form a committee to go after races closer to home. That's the mission of South Forward, a type of political action committee that allows for direct contributions to candidates and state-party organizations. The goal is to start locally, training and backing candidates for races for city and county councils and state legislatures.
Don and Carol Fowler, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and former chairwoman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, hosted the Inauguration Day Washington breakfast that kicked off the PAC. Like the Fowlers, South Forward has a Columbia, S.C., address. Guests came from a variety of Southern states, many more solidly Republican than North Carolina, whose demographic and educational profile more closely resembles Virginia than its neighbors to the south.
Don Fowler was honest in discussing the party realignment in the South after Democratic politicians, once the stalwart protectors of segregation, took up civil rights, with a Democratic president, Lyndon B. Johnson, signing his name to '60s landmark legislation.
"A lot of people left because they didn't like Lyndon Johnson and Medicare and Medicaid," Don Fowler told me. "Head Start or those other programs that were so good for people were generally considered to be 'liberal' programs, and a lot of people left the party because of that."
Increasingly, the parties in the South are split along racial lines, with blacks voting Democratic and whites lining up behind Republican candidates. The goal, said Fowler, "is to send a signal to people who are interested in progressive issues that the Democratic Party is for those issues. We have to raise money and we have to hire staff people who will go into targeted communities where we think there are good opportunities to elect Democrats to the city council, to state legislatures."
He knows they will never win over everybody.
"There are some people who are racists, hard, and we're not going to get them," he said. "We don't particularly want them, frankly."
As I watched the restaurant crowd spill outside, I saw much of the same diversity I had seen on the campaign trail — though only at Obama rallies.
When Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan or campaign surrogates such as Rick Santorum swung through the Carolinas, I heard a message about those who "get it" and those who don't, even as they wondered why minorities don't find the GOP appealing. It reminded me why my parents, once staunch Lincoln Republicans, were turned off after the GOP's Southern strategy cast African American as "welfare queens" and "bucks" looking for a handout.
In Charlotte for its winter meeting, the Republican National Committee looked to make some changes of its own on the national level, with panels and programs to broaden the base. If my late parents were still here and listening in, they might be amused. As I talked with RNC members, it wasn't clear if their wake-up call meant a change in policy or just in tone. For example, will the GOP reject voter-ID legislation that led not to fewer minority voters but instead to longer lines at the polls?
If Southern Democrats don't change many minds, demographic trends could do the job for them. For now, Republicans have the tougher challenge.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte-based journalist, is a contributor to The Washington Post's "She the People" blog, The Root, theGrio and the Women's Media Center. Her "Keeping It Positive" segment airs Wednesdays at 7:10 a.m. on Fox News Rising Charlotte, and she was national correspondent for Politics Daily.