Political Survivor

Political Survivor

From a post last December:

There is a lot of "old-boyism" in party politics. Mostly because people who have the time and/or resources to pursue party work are older. But older doesn't always mean more skilled; experienced doesn't always mean the right kind.

Political leaders tend to hang onto power and neglect cultivating heirs who have mastered technologies they don't understand. They would rather turn over the reins to trusted chums. Kathy Sinclair was not in the club.

Sinclair had been the driving force in organizing an unofficial John Kerry campaign in western North Carolina in 2004. The newcomer from Chicago attended a meetup at a local tavern, and with no prior experience organized hundreds of volunteers in a region that would not be considered a part of a swing state until 2008.

Dennis Kucinich winning the presidential caucus here in 2004 was a deep embarrassment to seasoned party hands. Didn't "those progressives" know favorite-son John Edwards was supposed to win? A Kucinich convention delegate won a key seat on the county executive board the next year, but bristled at the top-down culture. Party leaders stonewalled her, as she saw it, and she resigned.

The old boys got their club back. It didn't last.

The Democratic committee in Buncombe County, NC began the transition to a more grassroots organization around 2007. It is a transition the DNC has yet to make nationally. Insiders often don't know when it is time to pass the baton. They have forgotten what skilled managers know. Training their replacements is a key responsibility.

The problem here was, as it is nationally, lack of succession planning. Insiders hold power so closely for so long they had no one to pass the baton to except another of their graying cohort.

When Ellie Richard, the Kucinich delegate, resigned her position as 1st vice chair in 2006, Sinclair, by then party secretary, ran to fill the vacancy. The position would give her responsibility for organizing precincts across the county, a power held closely by what amounted to a shadow party known downtown as the Courthouse Gang.


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In North Carolina, when partisan elected officials die or resign their seats, members of their local committee elect a replacement for appointment by the governor. Keeping tight rein on who held those voting positions ensured the Courthouse could control who was in control. For Democrats, the same group votes to fill county committee vacancies.

With her organizing bona fides and name recognition, Sinclair figured the open position was within reach. She gathered names of committee members and began making phone calls to ask for their votes.

The county chairman was coy about Sinclair’s chances. All he would tell me was, “Let’s just say, she'll have competition.”

The Saturday morning of the special election, the party headquarters was filled to bursting. Sinclair’s stunned supporters whispered, “Who are these people?” Precinct officers they had never seen at headquarters appeared for this vote, summoned by the Courthouse.

Party veterans presented one of their own: JoAnn Morgan, a native, a Courthouse employee and former county chair. After a tense relationship with progressive activists, the Courthouse was re-exerting control.

Sinclair lost. The vote wasn't even close. Progressives were blindsided, and the defeat was crushing. Sinclair went home to lick her wounds.

For many activists, that would have been the end. Nevertheless, she persisted.

The fall of 2006 was a “blue moon" election in North Carolina (as 2018 will be). There were no national or statewide races in contention. The 11th District race for Congress was, locally, the marquee race atop the ticket.

Former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler ran against and defeated Rep. Charles Taylor, an eight-term Republican and associate of Russian bankers. Shuler’s was an energetic and well-funded campaign. (Full disclosure: As NCDP’s Get Out The Vote Coordinator for NC-11, I answered to the campaign.)

Progressives outside the South may have a low opinion of Shuler. (The Blue Dog left Congress in 2013 to become a Duke Energy lobbyist for a few years.) Still, sending home "Chainsaw Charlie" was a shot in the arm to local Democrats. Progressive campaign veterans now had a win under their belts and solid organizing chops.

In December 2006, a core team met at a local Greek restaurant to plan taking on the Courthouse in the party committee's 2007 spring elections.

By established practice, the county chair appointed a committee to "nominate" a slate of candidates for the six county executive posts. The list would be presented to the county convention essentially as a fait accompli. Progressives knew anyone named was likely in the pocket of the Courthouse. Convention delegates deserved a choice. Sinclair and company planned to give them one.

Ensuring continuity of leadership was the chair’s responsibility, but maintaining control was their goal. The last thing old party hands want is democracy breaking out in the Democratic Party. "Division in the party" is the traditional bugaboo veterans invoke to discourage contested races. Contested races here meant the Courthouse might not get its way.

In 2007, it would not.

(conclusion tomorrow; cross-posted from Hullabaloo)

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Request a copy of For The Win, my county-level election mechanics primer, at tom.bluecentury at gmail.

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