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The Democrats' Mini-Deans

In Two Southern States, Outsiders Rise to Power on Grass-Roots Appeal

By Terry M. Neal
Monday, February 28, 2005; 7:22 AM

Democrats didn't have a lot to smile about in November, particularly in the South, where North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley was one of the party's few bright spots. The incumbent from Rocky Mount raised and spent more money than his Republican opponent on the way to an easy reelection.

But three months after defeating Republican challenger Patrick Ballantine, 55 percent to 43 percent, Easley found himself rebuffed by the state's Democratic Executive Committee last week. The governor's choice for state party chairman, attorney and party insider, Ed Turlington, was rejected in favor of attorney and 34-year-old party activist Jerry Meek.

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In the News & Observer of Raleigh, reporter Rob Christensen called Meek's election "a rebuke to Gov. Easley and party insiders."

Meek ran an insurgent's campaign, accusing the governor and the party's power structure of being unresponsive to the interests and needs of the local party activists.

"I believe that our party has lost touch with the local party,' Meek told a packed room at N. C. State University's McKimmon Center" after the vote, according to the News & Observer. "'I'll create a party of inclusion where grass-roots workers have a real say and power isn't just limited to the Raleigh insiders.'"

A few weeks before Meek's election, Democrats in Arkansas bucked the system, too, by ousting two-term incumbent state chairman Ron Oliver of North Little Rock for 34-year-old Jason Willett of Jonesboro. Willett argued, among other things, that the party had ignored its grass-roots base.

So why should anybody care about some inside politics stories from Arkansas and North Carolina? Because in some ways they mirror what happened on the national level with the election of Howard Dean as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and because they underscore a restive force that could reshape Democratic Party politics in the years to come.

The Washington Post's Dan Balz noted in a Feb. 20 story that Dean has called "for 'bottom-up reform' of the Democratic Party and the further empowerment of grass-roots activists who flexed their political muscle in his unsuccessful presidential campaign."

Balz's story examined the national ramifications of Dean's election; but it's clear that Dean has been an inspiration even to the activists on local and state levels, who see his election as a clarion call to take over their increasingly institutional party.

The movement is less ideological than it is strategic and structural. Activists from the local level to the national level believe the party has become hierarchical, too much like the GOP. Democrats, they argue, aren't Republicans and respond better to a bottom-up campaign process.

There was a time when Democrats, despite their seemingly eternal financial disadvantage, beat Republicans by doing what they did best: winning the ground game. But Republicans caught up, largely by out-organizing Democrats. Last year, Karl Rove's strategy of energizing evangelicals and social conservatives trumped the Democrats' unprecedented money-raising apparatus.

Even as the Washington-based Democratic power structure caught up with the GOP in its ability to finance costly television ad campaigns and target voters through high technology, the grass-roots activists complained that they were being ignored in the trenches.

"I don't think you've seen the end of it [with North Carolina and Arkansas]," said former Gore presidential campaign manager Donna Brazile, whose expertise is grass-roots organizing. "[Dean's election] marks the end of the Terry [McAuliffe] era and in a way the end of the Clinton era. What you see is Deaniacs really asserting themselves across the board.

"I don't see this is a bad thing, because when you infuse new blood in the party you bring it alive and bring new energy. My only caution, though, is whether this new group is going to really be willing to get down and do the hard, dirty work of rebuilding the party."


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