Roadmap for the NC Democratic Party
The following is a more complete version of similar op-eds written for the News & Observer and the Wilmington Star News.
When the clock struck morning on November 9th, Americans from all corners began to ask what happened. While newspapers are doubtlessly filled with reflections on the surprising Republican wave that hit our country, I’m concerned with something closer to home.
One of the television advertisements for my campaign posed the question: “What Happened to North Carolina?” I’ve been asking that myself a lot over the past few weeks, and even more, what happened to the Democrats last month? I am a lifelong Democrat who believes that we should do more than pay lip service to the idea of a big tent. I am, uncharacteristically for my age demographic, a fierce advocate for institutions — political parties, religious denominations, and brick and mortar schools. Our political parties provide a strong associational life and a healthy landing place for the marketplace of ideas, a corrective for the Bowling Alone culture of contemporary America. Democracies and economies work better when there is a standing and successfully ordered mechanism for civic engagement.
So it matters to me that the Democratic Party is not only stable (as it is now) but also strategic (as it needs to be). North Carolina has managed to push back the tide more than other states, electing a Governor, seating a Supreme Court Justice and picking up a couple of executive offices. As such, all is not lost here in the Old North State.
There is a way forward.
First, we need to develop a 100 county strategy that operates a permanent field operation throughout the state. My campaign employed an extensive ground operation that kept Republican gains in swing precincts at bay. While that was not enough to win in a sharply Trump climate, it provides a model for a holistic ground strategy that should take place every year in every corner of the state.
When not canvassing for our candidates, we should be knocking doors and listening to voters for their concerns. When not holding rallies for a current campaign, we need to be hosting regular, calendared town hall meetings to appropriately disseminate the Democratic message. From 2005 to 2009, the Democratic National Committee operated a successful 50 state strategy that led the way for a grassroots model that would come in the winning 2008 Presidential campaign. The North Carolina Democratic Party can and must do the same thing if we expect to win again.
Second, we need to invest in strong municipal efforts that encourage effective local leadership as well as defend municipal autonomy from legislative overreach. Rest assured, the North Carolina Senate will continue to depict city leaders as far-reaching bastions of left wing thought. We must aggressively and proactively respond, articulating the reasonableness and soundness of pragmatic leadership for our cities and towns.
Third, we need to overhaul our existing structure at state party headquarters and operate a leaner, more efficient operation that includes our legislative caucus operation. Democrats have to recognize that we are currently the minority party in the legislature, and our party infrastructure must reflect that. As the minority party, our job is to offer principled opposition when necessary and cooperation when appropriate. Our job is not to maintain a bureaucracy that serves our own needs at the expense of spreading our message to the women and men of North Carolina.
Fourth, we need to highlight our next generation of leaders within the party. As frequently as we lament a lacking Democratic bench, we have the responsibility to highlight those we do have and raise the gauntlet, demanding that our new leaders rise to the challenge in the current climate and make the key steps necessary to lead when the time is right.
Fifth, we need to avoid duplication of efforts to unite like-minded initiatives toward rebuilding a Democratic structure. We cannot afford to have competing projects moving toward a same goal in an era of limited Democratic control. It is time to come to one table.
Finally, we need to engage in a permanent campaign that deploys best practices 365 days a year. This includes an aggressive communications operation that tells the story and presents our vision in a coherent, simple, and repetitive manner. Our communications operation must be 21st century to reach 21st century voters.
We must not allow a void to exist with our message going silent. If we believe the things we say we believe, we will tell the story and build a better North Carolina. Our state’s own novelist and poet Reynolds Price once wrote that “the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives. We crave nothing less than the perfect story; And while we chatter or listen all our lives to a din of craving — jokes, anecdotes, novels, dreams, films, plays, songs, half the words of our days — we are satisfied only by the one short tale we feel to be true.”
Since the early months of 2010, we have chattered to the din of cravings with every effort to try to fill the desires brought on by a political landscape leaving us quickly behind. We have done it with noble intentions but without consistent and forward-thinking vision. To borrow from the novelist, it is time for the one short tale we feel to be true.
The story says very simply this: North Carolina Democrats built a modern state of economic innovation. North Carolina Democrats led the South into a new era where far fewer of our people were left behind than nearly any state around us. We built a community that made sure fewer families struggled to get by and where our two North Carolinas became more nearly one. And we will do it again.
In 1984, our beloved Governor Jim Hunt was defeated by Jesse Helms for one of our state’s two seats in the United States Senate. But two years later, the same voters elected Terry Sanford as our Senator. We crave nothing less than the perfect story. And we have one to tell.