Political Survivor - Part 2
by Tom Sullivan
Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, the first openly LGBT Buncombe County Commissioner and executive director of Campaign for Southern Equality. Photo by John Moriarty.
(Read Part 1 here.)
Kathy Sinclair knew the Courthouse Gang planned to nominate Randy Flack for chair of Buncombe County's Democratic committee in April 2007. Flack was one of Rep. Heath Shuler's district representatives and a longtime friend. Progressives would not contest that choice. They still wanted the 1st vice-chair position, which by state party rules had to be of the opposite sex from the chairman. From that perch, Sinclair could organize precincts and begin building towards November 2008.
Sinclair and her team (this writer included) recruited a second slate of candidates but planned to endorse Flack to minimize blowback.
With 300 flyers with the alternative slate printed, there would be one in every seat where the annual convention took place. Candidates prepared speeches and recruited friends to nominate them.
But Shuler's chief of staff, Hayden Rogers, got wind Flack planned to run for county chairman. With the Hatch Act to consider, Rogers gave Flack a choice between working for his longtime friend or serving as county chair. A week ahead of the convention, Flack bowed out.
Without a chair candidate, the insiders' slate fell apart. Sinclair had another in reserve.
By then the Courthouse knew of the challenge. Sinclair offered to pull their fat out of the fire. The Courthouse agreed to "allow" her to serve as chair. The remaining slate became a combination of the retiring chair's slate and hers. Progressives had hoped to provide delegates a real choice in 2007. Ironically, there was only the compromise slate left by Saturday. Only because Sinclair’s team was prepared.
Sinclair won the chairmanship at the convention by acclamation. In the county courthouse.
Sinclair had persisted. She had learned from her defeat. "Those progressives" had strategized and organized. When the party establishment faltered, they were positioned.
That was not the end of the transition struggle. But by 2011 when Otto DeBruhl, the longtime Register of Deeds and local Democratic "godfather," announced his retirement, a team of Obama campaign veterans was poised to make a move. Twenty-seven year-old Drew Reisinger set up a campaign overnight, lobbied the executive committee, and won the election to serve out the unexpired term. Reisinger still holds the position today.
Progressives had no animosity towards the "old guard." They simply wanted their chance to lead. Their predecessors had not adapted to the new political climate and shifting demographics. They lamented the dearth of young people in the organization even as they gave them no path to leadership.
I wrote last December:
The real split is between top-down leaders and bottom-up, grassroots activists expected to wait their turn. A top-down establishment holding onto the past with white knuckles is not going to grow the party out of the minority status in which it finds itself. The familiar and comfortable is not what the electorate is thirsting for. Years of service is not enough. Voters want bold, forward-looking leadership. Offer a new generation of activists something less and they'll stay away. That's not a promising vehicle for change to anyone under 40 years old.Jeff Rose, a talented, 32-year-old Bernie Sanders organizer, became Buncombe County Democrats' new county chair in April 2017. Sinclair recruited him to replace her after her third term. She later ran for and won the chairmanship of NC District 11 against veteran Luke Hyde. Her leadership team included several officers under 35.
“I don’t own this seat. The seat is not mine,” Sinclair says. “If you are going to build for the future, you’ve got to have a pipeline of people” to make grassroots politics sustainable. “We opened the doors.”
Even progressive elected Democrats needed convincing to support the transition. They'd come to count on Sinclair’s fierce work ethic for their re-elections. When friends asked last January when she expected to start working on the 2016 elections, Sinclair could reply, “We started working on 2016 the day after the election in 2014.”
An election protection attorney visiting from Boston on Election Day 2014 said he’d never seen an operation like Buncombe’s. County Democrats picked up two state House seats on a day Democrats across the country took a shellacking.
But an organization doesn’t thrive when leaders hang on beyond their time. Nor will young activists join one with the institutional vigor of a men's fraternal organization.
The DNC has not yet learned that lesson. Neither have the DSCC, the DCCC, or their state-based counterparts. Their focus is caucus-building – more Democratic butts in legislative seats – and not movement building. It's no fun serving in the minority of a legislature dominated by committed antagonists, and they will support good fundraisers before good candidates. But caucus-building doesn't inspire voters or volunteers.
If there is a moral of this story, it is this. If progressives expect to reform the Democratic Party's culture and generate new dynamism, it will take commitment and work. Probably at the county and state levels first. Sorry.
This is political "Survivor." Outwit. Outplay. Outlast. Commit to it and your position will advance. Those who don’t show up to play forfeit.
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