For someone living in a rural county like Rutherford where the name of the Republican candidate is the only one on the ballot in most local races, it’s not news that the state Democratic Party has been largely missing in action during the past several election cycles. At the state level in 2022, Republicans were unopposed by a Democrat in one-fourth of House and Senate races.
Even though it wasn’t news, it was gratifying to hear a Democratic Party official acknowledge it, as Vice Chair Jonah Garson did during a recent event at Henderson County Democratic Party headquarters.
Thankfully, the party shows promising signs of coming to life again. Garson filled in for N.C. Democratic Party Chair Anderson Clayton, who stayed in Raleigh to participate in demonstrations associated with Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of legislation that will ban nearly all abortions in North Carolina after 12 weeks.
The New York Times recently profiled Clayton who, at 25, is the youngest state party chair in the U.S. After a friend invited me to the event, I looked forward to hearing her speak. But in her stead, Garson didn’t disappoint. An energetic, enthusiastic and engaging speaker, he told the gathering that a reform-minded board took over state party leadership a few months ago and plans to recruit and support candidates in every N.C. county.
That’s good news. Voters deserve a choice when it comes to governing philosophy. But at the local level, where voters often have more direct knowledge of candidates, being able to choose the more capable one, no matter party affiliation, in terms of temperament, knowledge of the community and record of service should arguably carry even more weight. When there’s no competition, even the most incompetent or temperamentally unsuitable candidate can prevail.
Garson, 36, is a civil litigation attorney who worked in the N.C. General Assembly for the late Rep. Paul Luebke, a Greensboro Democrat, before attending law school. He acknowledged that Democrats face an uphill battle. He quickly summarized how Republican strategic planning helped the party gain control of state legislatures, including North Carolina’s, through project REDMAP, by pumping huge amounts of money into swing state races aided by the Citizens United decision that allowed corporations and labor unions unlimited spending in support of candidates.
Republicans outmaneuvered Democrats at a time when advances in computer software make it possible to surgically draw district lines to their advantage. Now that the Republican majority on the state Supreme Court has reversed precedent and declared it has no role in determining whether district boundaries disenfranchise voters, you can bet the Republican majorities in both chambers will draw maps that virtually guarantee noncompetitive districts.
But Garson said N.C.’s new Democratic Party board has a six-year strategy to turn things around with four major goals. The first is to elect a Democratic governor in 2024. The second is to break the Republican’s supermajority in at least one General Assembly body, making it possible to sustain a gubernatorial veto. The third focuses on the courts, with a goal of replacing retiring Justice Michael Morgan, a Democrat, with another Democrat, and winning a full term for Judge Allison Riggs on the Court of Appeals. Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Riggs to the appeals court in 2023 to fill a vacancy left by Republican Richard Dietz, who was elected to the N.C. Supreme Court in November. The fourth goal is to win North Carolina for Joe Biden in 2024.
In addition to putting resources into recruiting candidates and urging candidates and volunteers to go out into the community to talk to voters about their concerns, the party plans to employ 12 to 13 regional directors whose job it will be to support local candidates and to make sure the insights they gain from that voter interaction are integrated at the state level.
“In so many of these communities that we need to win, the state Democratic Party has been like wall flowers at a middle school dance, dickering over the line that’s going to get the person we want to dance with us out on the floor and not saying anything at all,” Garson said. “I think that as Democrats we have great values and great policy. Policy is a terrible pick-up line. We really need to start just by talking to folks and having some variation of ‘Hey, we’re are fighting for freedom for you to retire with security, for having a town that your kids want to stay in, for the future of this place, for public education, for safe water, for you to do what you want when it comes to having a family.’”
There is no motto or slogan that will move people, he said.
Garson’s point is well taken. Until local Democrats develop a coherent and authentic response to Republican messaging, there can be no real debate about the role of government in solving the problems that confront us. And without that, there can be no consensus, no common-sense middle ground. We need civil debate about issues, not harangues that demonize those with a different point of view.
Republicans have claimed the mantle of the party of freedom, but Garson talked about N.C. Democrats adopting Biden’s campaign theme that Democrats are in fact the party of freedom – freedom to decide what to do with your body, freedom to be safe in public spaces, freedom to vote. A vigorous debate about what exactly it means to be free seems a good place to start.
North Carolina needs a vibrant, energetic Democratic Party, one that’s peeled off the wall, found its voice and walked onto the dance floor.
Joy Franklin is a journalist and writer who served as editorial page editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times for 10 years. Prior to that she served as executive editor of the Times-News in Hendersonville, N.C. Franklin writes for Carolina Commentary.