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.
Of course, it's not the national strategy alone that's bringing record numbers out to county conventions, precinct parties and Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners. The main event this morning is going to be a heaping helping of the other ingredients in the Democratic resurrection across so-called red America--fury and frustration.
"Good morning everyone!" comes the booming drawl of Seth Chapman, the longtime clerk of court in neighboring Alexander County who's pondering a 2008 challenge to the archconservative Republican Congresswoman from these parts, Virginia Foxx. "Isn't this something--in Wilkes County of all places! I'll tell you what, I've been over here before when there was maybe six of us. This is great. How on fire the Democratic Party must be in Wilkes County--and rightfully so. You have suffered for centuries!"
Amen! shout several voices as Chapman, a plain-looking, middle-aged fellow in a dark suit ideal for funerals, serves up a couple of laugh lines, surveys the crowd with a gimlet eye and then, rather than work himself up to it, begins to flat-out holler into the superfluous microphone. "This hard work that we've got going on here, and the only thing the opposition is working for is their own sorry hides! Staying in there with the rats, looking out for nobody but their own selves and their own political agenda. And I for one am about fed up with it!"
Mmmm! a woman's voice rises from the second row. Tell it!
"Heard all the rhetoric. Heard everything they said they was going to do. What have they done? Bankrupted this country. Got us into a war needlessly! And doing nothing but telling us everything's all right. I'm going to go into a little more detail about that."
As he does, it becomes clear that Chapman, like speakers in many a county courthouse these days, is aiming not only to light a fire under the long-discouraged Democrats but also to pick apart the Republican messages that have proven so irresistible to folks, Democrats included, in places like Wilkes. "Of course, we know why Republicans oppose taxes: They want all the tax breaks. Let the rich man go, let the poor man pay: That's their philosophy, as it has been and always will be!"
Chapman pauses to shuffle his notes dramatically, Baptist preacher-style, then brandishes a copy of resolutions passed at the GOP's recent district convention. "Do you believe their resolution says, Listen to the people of their district, not special-interest groups? Republicans talking about cleaning up governmental corruption is just like saying that Lucifer will suddenly become the angel of light again!"
You know that's right!
It seems impossible, but Chapman is getting louder now, jowls swinging, sweat beading, as folks alternately "mmm!" and "amen" and whoop out loud. "You ought to be tiiiiiired of what's going on in government! It's a shame, and it's a sham. This is the party of what's right, they tell you. The party of God, they tell you. The party of moral values, they tell you. And if they can't play the God card, they'll play the military card. Now, I pray daily--and I beg you to--for our troops and what they're trying to accomplish over there with this needless, reckless war that's going on. I pray daily that God will hasten the day--"
"--that they can return home and know war no more!" That gets a standing O.
"We're fighting a war" right here at home, Chapman declares. "Let's see... what should we call it? A war against radical Republicanism!" And from there, as he swells toward one final crescendo, the Wilkes Democrats having gotten pretty red-faced and sweaty themselves.
"The day of Republican smoke-screening and hiding under the outward righteousness of pharisaical Rome is ov-ahhhhh! America has seen, America has witnessed, your party's lip service to values, and we're tired of it. We will tolerate it no more! The Republican Party has no more claim on values and principles and especially God than those crazy jihadists over there! Your party's reign of terror values is ov-ahhhhh!"
Whew! Back in the long-gone days when Chapman's style of Democratic preachment was a popular form of entertainment in the South, the folks would have started filtering away after "the speaking." But nowadays the real work starts after the officers are elected, after the barbecue lunch is wolfed down. Ingle has organized a "practice canvass," in which novices will peel out across local neighborhoods, each accompanied by an experienced canvasser, to knock on the doors of fellow party members, urge them to get off their couches and put their own frustrations to work. "Practice, practice, practice," Ingle tells the folks. "That's what 2007 is all about. In ten months, we are gonna be something. We're going to take back the halls of Congress and City Hall." Farfetched as it sounds, it wouldn't be any more so than the red-to-blue turnaround that's happened just up the road in three formerly Republican counties. Not, that is, unless the Washington Democrats revert to their old form and find a way to douse the flames.