Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Jerry Meek has benefited Democrats

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on November 25th, 2006:

When Jerry Meek was elected chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party last year, riding the wave of support from activists who thought there should be a greater emphasis on the grassroots, you would have thought from what some folks were saying that the sky was falling.

Meek's hands-on leadership style is certainly different from what people were used to. There were also concerns about his ability to raise money for the party.

Twenty months and an extremely successful election later, those voices seem to have disappeared.

Simply put, Meek's emphasis on making the most out of the strength of the party's individual activists has worked. Across the state Democrats had a remarkable number of volunteers considering the lack of attention-grabbing races. Not only were thousands of new workers, empowered by Meek's commitment to them, coming out of the woodwork, but they were also performing higher level and more creative tasks than they ever had before.

The greatest accomplishment Meek can point to is that even though legislative Democrats could have been tarred by the scandals involving Jim Black, they actually made significant gains in the House and Senate.

One of the keys to that success was simply making a commitment to contesting more seats. For instance Ty Harrell defeated Russell Capps in a western Wake County district that no Democrat even contested in 2004. In another Wake County district, Greer Beaty came within a handful of votes of knocking off incumbent Nelson Dollar, who also had not faced a Democrat in his previous campaign.

There certainly is room for improvement in the number of seats with serious Democratic candidates, but in his first term Meek made significant strides in changing the culture around the party and emphasizing the importance of not writing off any area of the state.

One of Meek's first actions upon taking office was the unveiling of a Western North Carolina task force. Democrats had underperformed in that area of the state for a significant period of time, and Meek thought it was important to get a bunch of party activists together to have some serious dialogue about how to improve the problem in the future.

The results speak for themselves. Democrat Heath Shuler knocked off longtime incumbent Charles Taylor in the region's U.S. congressional seat. Democrat John Snow retained his state Senate seat in a Republican-leaning district by a significant margin, and his fellow party member Joe Sam Queen beat an incumbent Republican to take back the seat he had lost in the 2004 election.

Democrats also nearly swept the statewide judicial races, including the victory of every party-supported candidate for the Supreme Court. While other Democratic successes in North Carolina this fall could be attributed to the national political climate, the nonpartisan nature of these races makes the work the parties do on behalf of their candidates that much more important.

It had been a long time since there was an election where Democrats dominated the judicial races, but it happened this fall based both on the strength of the candidates and based on the work of many activists across the state who got out the vote on their behalf.

Many of those volunteers wouldn't have been there if Jerry Meek wasn't chairman of the party.

I know many people who have been pleasantly surprised by Meek's performance. Orange County's activists knew all along, though. When Meek was elected two years ago, he earned the overwhelming support of our local delegation, and no one I've talked to since the election regrets it.

Meek's re-election as party chairman this winter seems a certainty. Why would anyone challenge a winner?

The party activists who blog at, which prominently include Orange County activists Jim Protzman and Robert Peterson, have encouraged Meek to pursue a "100 county" strategy for the 2008 election. This would entail fielding Democratic candidates for every office in the state.

This seems like an admirable goal, and one Meek and his leadership team should subscribe to in the coming months. Frankly, it's one Republicans should pursue as well, since competition enhances the political process.

I think the success Meek has had over the past couple of years with the North Carolina Democratic Party is a good sign for politics in general. Although he's been a fine fundraiser, he has emphasized the power of people over the power of money, and that is how politics should work.

I'm glad that our local Democrats saw the need two years ago to help put Jerry Meek into office, and I'm glad that his work over the last couple years has ensured that they don't regret it.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Joe Hackney is ideal choice for Speaker

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on November 18th, 2006:

With Democrats increasing their majority in the legislature and Jim Black's re-election status still unclear as a recount looms in Mecklenburg County, it seems pretty clear that a new speaker of the House will need to be selected.

It's a decision not to be taken lightly for members of the Democratic caucus. I think hardly anyone is exactly sure what's been going on in Raleigh over the past few years but it sure doesn't smell right.

So the first attribute I want in a new speaker is that he or she be absolutely beyond reproach. The individual needs to be of impeccable integrity. Whether it's fair or not, the House doesn't have a very good image right now, and its new leader will need to inspire confidence among peers and the state's citizenry.

The second attribute I want is someone with a long record of experience in Raleigh. The legislature is a remarkably complicated institution, and the state needs someone who knows how to get things done in it. Furthermore, someone who has been there a long time and never had a whiff of scandal is unlikely to have the power of the speaker's gavel tempt them into misbehavior.

The third attribute I want is someone who is a progressive leader, but also a realistic leader and one who will be well respected on both sides of the aisle. I don't see any good in having a speaker who is a knee-jerk liberal and can't get anything done. But I also think there is definite room for improvement in the progressivism of legislative leaders.

When you take these requirements as a whole, there is one person in the legislature who stands far above the rest. As an added bonus, he is one we in Orange and Chatham counties can call our own. The clear choice for the next North Carolina speaker of the House is Joe Hackney.

Joe Hackney is a model elected official. He has represented us now for 26 years, and he is one of the most influential leaders in Raleigh.

But he has never come close to getting in trouble. He has never wavered from his principles to get ahead, or subordinated the trust of his constituents for his own personal advancement. His election as speaker would send an immediate signal to the state that the House is getting its act together and committed to earning back the trust of those it has lost in recent years.

I barely know Joe Hackney but have always respected him from afar. I have hoped ever since Jim Black started getting in trouble that if it got to the point where he had to be replaced, Hackney would be the man.

But it was a meeting with local leaders of the Sierra Club last month that made me even more of a Hackney fan. Folks were giving our local legislative delegation ideas about environmental legislation they would like to see passed during the next session.

Some of the ideas weren't particularly feasible. A lot of the time when I'm in meetings with elected officials and constituents make suggestions that are perfectly valid but not likely to happen, one of two things happens. Some folks will smile and nod and say they'll work on it, knowing full well it's never going to happen. Others will say it's not possible, but do so in a way that's condescending and serves to make the person with the suggestion feel put down.

Hackney calmly and politely would explain why various things were not likely to work out. He did it in such a way that people understood the pitfalls that pursuing particular courses of actions could cause.

They appreciated the fact that he neither pandered nor preached, but gave respectful and useful feedback. And on the suggestions made that were feasible, he promised to take action. His track record shows we can count him on to do it.

I relate this anecdote because I think it puts the lie to what seems to be the biggest strike against Hackney when it comes to the possibility of his becoming speaker. Some people write him off because they think he's too liberal.

Hackney is definitely more progressive than the average legislator. It is highly unfair, however, to paint him as the stereotypical ineffective liberal. He is extremely competent and that's the biggest thing folks should be worried about in picking a new speaker, rather than where they fit in on some ideological spectrum. From his years of experience he knows what will fly and what will not in the halls of the Legislative Building and he's not afraid to say no to his allies. That should put the "too liberal" critique to rest.

Joe Hackney is as fine a public servant as we have in this state. Hopefully his colleagues will recognize that in January and make him Speaker of the House.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Breaking down the local election results in Orange County and Chapel Hill

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, November 11th:

Despite being a "blue moon" election year with no major statewide races in North Carolina, Tuesday night's election has some interesting implications for Orange and Chatham counties.

One lesson learned is that we have the most popular senator in the state. With 74 percent of the vote, Ellie Kinnaird received a higher percentage of votes than anyone else in a contested seat throughout North Carolina. While some people like to peg her as a liberal kook from Carrboro, the fact that she won all but one precinct in Orange County points to her wide appeal.

Another lesson confirmed is that a ballot initiative without an organized opposition will always pass. I predicted a month ago on that since no organization had formed to fight district representation, the referendum would likely pass with 60 to 65 percent of the vote. It actually received 68 percent of the vote. If folks see a proposal on the ballot and have not heard any arguments against it, they'll generally assume it is fine and vote yes. I don't know if the results really reflect a great concern for representation of Orange County's rural minority or not, but at this point it doesn't really matter.

One of the big winners Tuesday night was former Carrboro mayor Mike Nelson, who successfully sought a seat as an Orange County commissioner. In the closing weeks of the campaign, a small group of residents made an effort to cut into his support by falsely painting him as a merger supporter. The efforts were ineffective, as Nelson received nearly two and a half times as many votes as Republican Jamie Daniel.

Nelson will likely take particular pleasure from receiving the votes of 60 percent of the folks at the new Hogan Farms precinct, where the residents of Carrboro's recently annexed Northern Transition Area vote. Although the folks angry about the annexation certainly make a lot of noise about it, Nelson's success shows that their political capital might be pretty limited.

This could have implications for next year's election. Some of the noisemakers in the annexed areas have promised to boot out the incumbents on the Carrboro Board of Aldermen. Their inability to do so to Nelson certainly calls into question their ability to do so to Mark Chilton, Joal Broun, Dan Coleman and Alex Zaffron. If I was one of those folks I'd be breathing a little easier today.

The Superior Court race, in which I managed candidate Adam Stein's campaign, is still unsettled as the count of the provisional votes and a likely recount looms. Whatever the final result is, Allen Baddour has provided a model for how to run an effective campaign in a local judicial race.

In the primary, dominated by Democratic voters in Orange and Chatham counties, Stein took a thousand-vote lead. It is clear from the precinct-by-precinct data that in the general election, with many more Republicans voting, Baddour made large strides in northern Orange County precincts that went for Bush in 2004.

Baddour is certainly no Republican, nor were any of the other three candidates in the race. But it looks like Republican votes swung the race in his favor, and he must have had the strongest strategy of the three candidates fighting for the second seat behind Carl Fox for reaching out to them. In a closely contested race with four outstanding choices, it appears that may have made the biggest difference.

Of course in such a close race, just about anything could have made the difference. One person even told me they cast a ballot for Baddour because it looked like his father was on the cusp of bringing in former Miami coach Butch Davis to resurrect the football program! I doubt that affected too many votes, though.

It was another outstanding election cycle for the Orange County Democratic Party, whose volunteers ran as effective and efficient an operation this year as it did in 2004, even in the absence of a prominent campaign. They did a good job of turning out the vote and an even better job of ensuring everyone going to vote who wanted a sample ballot showing who the statewide Democratic choices in judicial races were got one.

No doubt state Supreme Court Judge-elect Robin Hudson, whose 11,000 vote victory in Orange County accounted for more than half of her statewide winning margin of 20,000 votes, is appreciative of the efforts made by local volunteers.

This election reflected positively on the level of civic engagement in Orange and Chatham counties, and showed that for the most part we're pleased with our current elected officials. I'm sure many local residents are happy above all else that the robo calls and expensive mailers will stop coming.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Quest for election information in North Carolina

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on November 4th, 2006:

It's not often that you will hear me compliment John Hood, the president of the right-wing think tank John Locke Foundation. But when it comes to breaking down the important battlegrounds for control of the North Carolina General Assembly in Tuesday's election, he's provided some important analysis where the state's major newspapers have failed.

With much of my attention focused on the national congressional picture and our local elections, I realized late last week that I didn't really know what races I would need to monitor on election night to find out the new balance of power in our state House and Senate.

The first place I went to look was, a great service you can access through UNC and the Chapel Hill Public Library that provides archives for 15 of the state's major newspapers, including The Herald-Sun. I figured any worthwhile article about the race for control of the Legislature would include Greer Beaty, an appealing Democrat running against a freshman Republican in Cary. Her race is widely considered to be among the most competitive in the state.

So I searched for appearances of her name in all 15 of those papers. I was stunned to find that her only mention outside the News and Observer of Raleigh was a brief comment I had made about her in a column in early August.

It seemed inconceivable to me that no paper outside the Triangle had done any substantive analysis of the key face-offs for control of our Legislature, so I figured maybe for whatever reason people weren't including her in their lists.

Next I did a search for Joe Sam Queen. Queen was one of the rare bright spots for Democrats in the 2002 election when Republicans swept most of the important contests in North Carolina. He was elected to a Senate seat in the western part of the state, but then narrowly defeated for re-election in 2004. Now he's running again in this seemingly Democratic year in hopes of recapturing his seat.

This may be the tightest legislative contest in the state, but it still has not been covered in any of the state's newspapers besides The Asheville Citizen-Times and a few brief mentions in Associated Press wire stories.

Clearly, North Carolina's newspapers have little interest anymore in providing substantive coverage of state politics. The only news stories that have generated much traction on a statewide level during this election cycle are a nutty state Supreme Court candidate whose antics have led her to be disavowed by the Democratic Party, and a congressional candidate running in a district he doesn't even live in whose campaign has been characterized by crazy attacks.

Political coverage should not be restricted to candidates who make our state look bad. With the scandals that surrounded the General Assembly during its last term, the stakes are high in state legislative elections this year. I believe newspapers have an obligation to go beyond the off-beat news stories that might draw readers' attention.

They should be covering the important races that will determine where power lies in Raleigh for the next two years.

That's where John Hood comes in to the picture.

After realizing I wasn't going to find the information I was looking for in the state's major daily newspapers, I turned to Google to see if any other Web sites were providing the information I was looking for.

What I found were two of Hood's daily columns from early September. In one he outlined the state's six most competitive Senate races.

In the other he breaks down 15 of the tightest House races. His analysis is lucid and relatively nonpartisan and makes for an enjoyable and informative read. If you're interested in knowing what to watch for on Tuesday night check it out at

I do think Hood's analysis is slightly off in that he does not include three races in the Triangle that should be close.

One is the aforementioned contest between Greer Beaty and incumbent Nelson Dollar. Also in Wake County incumbent Russell Capps faces an uphill battle for reelection against attractive Democratic challenger Ty Harrell, and incumbent Republican Paul Stam is nervous about challenger Ed Ridpath. These, in addition to those outlined by Hood, should be the ones to watch.

North Carolina's newspapers are failing their readers by not providing more substantive political coverage.

I hope this is a trend that begins to reverse itself in the coming years. It is still important that voters be able to get information from impartial observers instead of the punditry on both sides of the aisle.

Polls will be open from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday. Please remember to get out and vote!