North Wilkesboro, North Carolina
What on God’s green earth has gotten into the Wilkes County Democrats? Here it is, the first pretty April Saturday of a snowy, blowy spring. There’s yards to mow, balls to toss, plants to plant, Blue Ridge Mountains to hike–all of which you’d think would be mighty tempting on Democratic convention day in a place where Republicans have a damn near two-to-one edge. “Welcome to red-hot Republican territory,” says Dick Sloop, a career-military retiree turned antiwar protester who’s the new county Democratic chair. “We’ve been like the homeless around here: silent and invisible. The best we ever did in my lifetime, we had two Democrats once on a five-seat county commission.” Even here in western North Carolina, where Republicans have proliferated since the Civil War (when the woods were full of Union sympathizers rather than pro-lifers), Wilkes County–Bible-thumping, economically slumping–has stood out for its fire-and-brimstone conservatism. It’s been a stiff challenge to find folks willing to run against the Republicans. Hell, it’s been rare to hear anybody publicly admit to being a Democrat. “You’ve got a lot of people in this county who probably couldn’t tell you if they’ve ever met one,” Sloop says.
But in a scene playing out this year all across “red America,” from these lush hills to the craggy outcroppings of the Mountain West, previously unfathomable crowds of Democrats are streaming up the steps of the old county courthouse, past bobbing blue balloons and Welcome Democrats! signs. They’re hopping mad about the national state of things but simultaneously giddy with a new-found hope–finally!–for their party.
Inside, as the courtroom fills up, three symbols of the new spirit bustle around. There’s trim old Clyde Ingle, a onetime Hubert Humphrey campaigner who “finally just got tired of sitting up there in Deep Gap and complaining.” Ingle and his wife, Eva, have spent the past couple of years cajoling shy Wilkes County Democrats to “come out of the closet,” get organized and active. Then there’s Mark Hufford, a young, towheaded bundle of energy who’s been helping Democrats win breakthrough elections as a field organizer. And there’s white-haired, wisecracking “Uncle Bob” Johnston, who retired to Wilkes from upstate New York and promptly found himself being talked into the party chairmanship. “You’ve got to be in trouble when you’re asking an 80-year-old Yankee to run things,” he quips.
Suddenly, though, things actually are running, as Johnston notes after the meeting commences. “The county has twenty-two precincts,” he informs the folks. “And I’m proud to announce that every one of them is organized as of just the other day.” It might sound dull as dirt, but this is the kind of meticulous organizing–and pride taken in it–that has long been key to GOP dominance in places like Wilkes. The fifty-state strategy kicked off in 2005 by that other Yankee, DNC chair Howard Dean, has begun to level the playing field by putting field organizers, media directors and fundraisers into both “red” and “blue” states to stimulate grassroots organizing and year-round party-building.