The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Gen Z party chair hopes to change Democrats’ fortunes in N.C.

Anderson Clayton, head of the North Carolina Democratic Party, makes donor calls inside “Big Red,” her father’s old work truck. (Logan Cyrus for The Washington Post)
11 min

MONROE, N.C. — When Anderson Clayton walked into the member meeting of the Union County Democratic Party, her eyes widened and a smile spread across her face as she surveyed the packed room of people who had turned out on a recent weekday evening to meet their new state party chair.

“I really did not expect to come into a room this full,” Clayton said, prompting laughter from the crowd of more than 80 Democrats. “I get my energy from people, and I have got an overwhelming amount of it right now, to be honest.”

One month into her role as head of the North Carolina Democratic Party, the 25-year-old organizer is still getting used to the spotlight as the youngest state Democratic chair in the country. She’s hoping to use her platform to highlight that it is people like her — young and from rural parts of the state — that Democrats need to draw out to help North Carolina flip blue.

Clayton also knows that while being the first Gen Z member in her position has given her more exposure, it also means more pressure to prove, after disappointing results in recent election cycles, that Democrats can fare better in the Tar Heel State in 2024.

She has a tough challenge: Democrats haven’t won a presidential or U.S. Senate race there since 2008, when Barack Obama and Kay Hagan, then a state senator, carried North Carolina. Republicans are one seat short of a supermajority in the state legislature and have control of the Supreme Court. And if Democrats lose the governor’s race next year, the GOP would have an opening to pass an abortion ban and sign it into law in one of the last states in the South with abortion access.

“So many people across the state are fed up. I don’t know about y’all, but I’m tired of losing,” Clayton said, drawing cheers and applause from the crowd. “I’m tired of Republicans coming in and threatening my rights. … We all should be so tired and angry.”

Here in Union County, which is about 45 minutes southeast of Charlotte and one of the state’s top poultry producers, Clayton is met with the kinds of Democratic voters to whom she’s hoping to provide a renewed sense of optimism: They live in a red county that hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1980. And many hail from rural parts of the county that think the party has ignored them.

“We have all experienced a lot of disappointment and discouragement over the past few years and even longer than that,” Lisa Walker, chair of the local party, said as she introduced Clayton. “And with her leadership — it’s just a breath of fresh air. I feel like our batteries are being recharged.”

Clayton was elected chair in February. She said she decided to run for party chair in December after talking with county party chairs and young leaders across the state. She challenged the incumbent chair, 73-year-old Bobbie Richardson, who had been endorsed by Gov. Roy Cooper (D) and the rest of the state’s Democratic establishment. The party’s state executive committee voted 272-223 on a second-round ballot for Clayton over Richardson, a former state lawmaker who became the state party’s first Black chair in 2021. Party leaders, including the governor, were quick to publicly unite around Clayton after her win. Richardson did not respond to a request for comment.

During her campaign for the job, Clayton’s message was simple: The state party needs a change in direction. Party leaders and activists have been frustrated over Democratic losses in recent cycles, including in the midterms, when the party lost the state Supreme Court and seats in the General Assembly. In 2022, turnout among Black voters, young voters and those in urban areas fell short of 2018 levels, and rural support continued to erode.

Clayton said she ran for chair to challenge “the idea that demographic changes are going to be what saves the state of North Carolina and what flips us blue in the future. We can’t wait to organize the state that exists 10 years from now. We’ve got to organize the state that we live in right now.”

Asher Hildebrand, a public policy professor at Duke University and formerly chief of staff to Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), said that for years political observers saw demographic shifts in the state — more voters of color in growing urban areas — as a sign the state was diversifying in a way that would make it reliably Democratic. But while it’s clear that cities are becoming bluer, he said, rapidly growing areas along the coast and other areas where higher numbers of retirees are moving into the state are becoming redder.

Republicans acknowledged that Clayton’s election might energize Democrats, but they say the party’s policies are out of touch with the state’s voters and the GOP already has a strong ground game.

Jonathan Felts, a veteran GOP operative in North Carolina, said Clayton’s election was “probably a good thing for Democrats,” given her background in organizing, but also a sign that the party’s “standard-bearer Roy Cooper has no influence on the grass roots” because he endorsed Richardson. Going into 2024, he said, “it’s a very clear reality that Republicans have all the advantages right now.”

“We’ve got a fired-up grass roots, and we know how to organize them,” Felts said. “Democrats, they have been ignoring grass roots for basically six years now.”

Since her election, Clayton has zigzagged across the state to meet with party leaders, precinct chairs, volunteers and voters. Her car has been in the shop for a few months because a part has been out of stock due to supply chain issues, so she has borrowed different people’s cars and recently been using her father’s work truck.

She has temporarily transformed her father’s Reading truck, which she calls “Big Red,” into a mobile office, stocked with everything she needs. There are a variety of blazers hanging on the passenger seat, the jacket on top of a plaid-printed one from Madewell. She keeps a makeup bag, hot-air hair brush and Ponds cream in there, quipping that if the cream is good enough for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), it is for her, too.

Just hours before the Union County meeting, she sat in the truck and moved everything aside as she pulled her laptop out of her lavender Telfar bag, which matches her iPhone cover. She then spent an hour making calls to invite donors to fundraisers the state party is hosting in Washington at the end of March.

Clayton grew up in Roxboro, a small town in Person County, which is along the state’s northern border with Virginia. Her passion for politics and social issues was ignited as she saw the struggles of her diverse circle of friends in their hometown. “I grew up with a gay best friend in Roxboro,” Clayton said. “I grew up with someone who was in an interracial relationship — and things that I felt like weren’t really accepted there at that point in time.”

“I got told a lot growing up, ‘You’ve got too big of ideas to be in Person County for the rest of your life, Anderson. You need to go somewhere else and do something different with it,’” she said.

After attending Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., Clayton got involved in national politics — working as a field organizer for the presidential campaigns of Sens. Kamala D. Harris and Warren in Iowa and then working for Amy McGrath’s Senate campaign in Kentucky ahead of the 2020 election.

“One of the things that I think that I learned from being on national campaigns is that a lot of times the national party is not looking at rural places like they should be. They’re not looking at places like Union County as a place of opportunity,” she told the crowd here. “They’re looking at it as a place of a problem. And for me, I got really frustrated with that. It was part of the thing that called me home.”

Clayton returned to North Carolina after the 2020 election and became chair of the Person County Democratic Party. During her tenure, Democrats flipped the Roxboro City Council and one state House seat. She said that she, a group of volunteers and local candidates knocked on every Democratic door in the city of about 8,000 residents to get out the vote.

She still lives in Roxboro, making the one-hour commute to party headquarters in Raleigh. Clayton also works part time as a broadband analyst for a nonprofit organization focused on rural innovation. The party chair position comes with a salary, but she says it’s not enough to get by, so she has continued to work at the nonprofit.

Clayton acknowledges that a top challenge will be raising money. In the Union County meeting, she said it takes about $114,000 per month to fund the state party, “and that’s just to keep the lights on” at the state party headquarters and keep staff employed. Her goal is to bring back a year-round organizing program, but that would essentially double the amount of money she needs to raise each month.

She also acknowledged that the party can’t turn around overnight. “This is not a two-year rebuild of our party,” she said. “This is a 10-year rebuild of our state party because we’re not just looking at 2024. We’re looking at 2030.”

Democrats in the state emphasize that North Carolina has a track record of being a purple state even if the party has struggled to win federal elections. Democrats have held the governor’s mansion for seven out of the last eight election cycles and the attorney general’s office since 1975. The current attorney general, Josh Stein, has announced his campaign for governor next year.

Clayton sees the attention she’s gotten for being the youngest state party chair as a chance to draw fresh attention to North Carolina. She’s received the numbers of several high-profile members of Congress to call them for advice. Rep. Maxwell Frost, the first Gen Z member of Congress, congratulated her in a direct message via Twitter and they’re planning a call to talk strategy.

She’s also heard from Rep. Jeff Jackson (D-N.C.), 40 — who during a recent chat over morning coffee gave her tips on how she should use TikTok — and Ken McCool, the 24-year-old mayor pro tem for the town of Matthews, a Charlotte suburb. The two of them brainstormed about getting more people their age to vote.

Ruth Helms, 81, the last Democratic county commissioner in Union County in 1990, who came to see Clayton at the member meeting, said she was thrilled to see a young woman taking the leadership role.

“When I walked in the door tonight, I was just floored with the amount of people here. It’s like what we used to be years ago,” Helms said. “It’s just wonderful to see this energy and her optimism for the future.”

After the meeting, Clayton stuck around to chat with members. She took selfies with some and offered up her email to others, asking them to stay in touch and let her know of any local issues she should have on her radar. She was among the last to leave before making her three-hour drive back to Roxboro.