Faced with questions about their identity and future, Triad Democrats stick together as the party of racial diversity, women’s equality and LGBT rights, while exploring ways to be more responsive to voters who feel left behind.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s spectacular upset, local Democrats are pondering what went wrong for Hillary Clinton, what they might do to reach out to disaffected white voters and whether the Obama electoral coalition is still tenable.
Trump’s stunning win materialized through the Republican nominee’s success at appealing to feelings of white racial resentment and economic insecurity in Midwestern states that traditionally lean Democratic, but party leaders in the Triad are quick to point out that Clinton won the popular vote by about 2 million ballots while losing the Electoral College.
The intensity of support among white voters for Trump, including women who stuck with the candidate despite his sexist rhetoric and behavior, caught many Democrats off guard. Some, including Clinton’s former primary opponent Bernie Sanders, have called on the party to move past or put aside so-called “identity politics.” But in the Triad, Democratic leaders indicate that the party’s progressive coalition of people of color, women, LGBTQ people and millennials that President Obama cemented in the past two election cycles is likely to remain intact.
“I think the Democratic Party is the ‘big tent’ today, and we must continue that,” said Dan Besse, a member of Winston-Salem City Council who attended the Democratic National Convention as a delegate for Clinton. “We welcome all people into active participation in our party. We do not and should not welcome backwards movement on key social issues. We will not ever again welcome racism or sexism. We will not ever again welcome prejudice against people based on sexual orientation, nationality or faith.”
With Clinton’s defeat, Sanders’ voice has become elevated on the national stage.
During a Q&A after a speech in Boston on Nov. 20, Sanders told a young woman who said she wants to be the first Latina US senator that her platform would have to extend beyond her ethnicity and gender.
“I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class of this country and is gonna take on big-money interests,” he said, adding that the importance of diversity is given.
“But here is my point, and this is where there’s gonna be a division in the Democratic Party: It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman. Vote for me,’” Sanders said. “No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry. One of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics.”
Whatever the Democratic Party’s shortcomings on articulating a message that speaks to Americans’ economic insecurities, outgoing state Rep. Chris Sgro said the last thing the party should do is distance itself from the constituencies that have anchored its base. Sgro, the executive director of Equality NC, was appointed to fill the unexpired term of the late Ralph Johnson, representing state House District 58 in Greensboro, but will be replaced by fellow Democrat and current Guilford County School Board member Amos Quick following the Nov. 8 election. Sgro was a founding member of LGBT Democrats of North Carolina.
“I think it’s vital that Democrats not lose sight of the rising American electorate and the successful coalition we have built of young people, people of color, LGBT people and women,” Sgro said. “We saw that borne out in places like Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Virginia where we either won or made gains.”
Anne Evangelista, president of Young Democrats of Guilford County, said she agrees with Sanders that Democrats could do a better job of articulating their economic message, but she said it shouldn’t come at a cost to the party’s commitments to social equality. Evangelista also serves as communications director and women’s caucus chair of the North Carolina Young Democrats.
“Identity politics is why we’re the big-tent party,” she said. “We can’t just ask for people to ditch their identities. I do agree with the fact that we can talk about all these issues. We can talk about economic issues; we can talk about job creation and the economy in general. There’s plenty of room to talk about all these issues. There’s plenty of room for both of the conversations. With LGBT issues like HB 2, the social issue is linked to the economic issue. With reproductive justice, there’s an economic issue there, too. It’s so closely linked to a woman’s ability to get the job she wants.”
At the national level, Democratic leaders appear to be moving their party in a more progressive direction, in contrast to the corporate alignment that characterized Bill Clinton’s presidency and to an extent Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. As one indicator, leaders ranging from Sanders to Senate Minority Leader-elect Chuck Schumer have backed Rep. Keith Ellison, who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, to chair the Democratic National Committee. Ellison is the only practicing Muslim currently serving in Congress.
The rising Democratic leader’s brother, a Winston-Salem criminal defense lawyer named Eric Ellison, serves as chairman of the Forsyth County Democratic Party. In an interview, Eric Ellison echoed his brother’s mantra when he said, “We need to have more of a focus on voters, not donors.”
He said Sanders’ plea for the party to address the economic pain of Americans who feel left behind resonates.
“Yes, absolutely yes,” he said. “In the presidential election, I don’t think the most important number is how many votes Clinton got. Forty-three percent of the American voting population decided to sit this one out. That’s horrible. There is a very large segment of our population that just didn’t see any reason to vote. Whoever can come up with the economic message that speaks to these people, their work will be rewarded.”
Ellison said the party needs to listen to voters rather than tell them how to feel about economic issues.
[pullquote]“I think it’s vital that Democrats not lose sight of the rising American electorate and the successful coalition we have built of young people, people of color, LGBT people and women.” — State Rep. Chris Sgro[/pullquote]“We’re going to go door to door to talk to Democrats and unaffiliated voters,” he said, “and ask them: ‘What are the issues that are important to you? What needs to happen to make you engaged in the civic process?’ Go to the people on Waughtown Street or MLK. If they say, ‘My biggest concern is the high price of daycare,’ then we’ll work on that.”
Like Ellison, Guilford County Democratic Party Chair Myra Slone said she feels somewhat disadvantaged in diagnosing the national party’s challenges; the job of the two chairs is to make sure Democrats turn out in their respective counties, and at that level they both succeeded. Both counties supplied decisive margins of support — 61,225 from Guilford and 26,018 from Forsyth — for Roy Cooper, the Democratic candidate for governor, who currently leads Republican Pat McCrory by almost 10,000 votes in the race McCrory has yet to concede. But the Democratic vote in the two counties would have needed to more than double to overcome Trump’s statewide lead of 173,784 votes.
Rather than beating up on themselves for losing the rural vote, Slone said the Guilford party is focusing on building on momentum from new volunteers who got involved through the various auxiliaries.
“We’ve had a lot of people reach out to us because there were a lot of new people who didn’t know about us before,” she said. “There were people pouring into our headquarters. We had anybody and everybody handing out slate cards at polling places. We’ve had a lot of people who reached out to us, and we don’t want to lose momentum. They reached out to the Guilford County Democratic Party, Democratic Women, Young Democrats and Senior Democrats.”
Ellison said the Forsyth party made ad buys with newspapers in Kernersville and Clemmons and held interest meetings there “to increase the battleground” to rural areas of the county, although he said it was unclear whether the investment translated into more votes.
“North Carolina cannot even be tempted to fall into a view of looking at urban areas versus rural areas,” Ellison said. “As Democrats, we have to bring our message not only to Forsyth County, but also Stokes County; we have to bring it to not only Guilford, but also Randolph.”
Making inroads in rural areas, where the electorate is whiter, poses a challenge for Democrats. Rep. Cecil Brockman, a black state lawmaker from High Point who attended the Democratic National Convention as a delegate, expressed disbelief about the enthusiastic support Trump received from white voters.
“His message for black people was ‘stop and frisk,’ which is unconstitutional,” Brockman said. “That was a reason why black people did not vote for him. That same reason wasn’t sufficient to keep white people from voting for him — they supported him.”
Sgro expressed confidence that the surge of support from white voters that propelled Trump to the White House is a one-time phenomenon.
“Demography is absolutely on the side of progressives and Democrats, not because of any notion of identity politics but because Democrats have stood with people of color, with LGBT people and for reproductive rights,” he said. “Millennials are the biggest age group. People of color are going to continue to increase in the South and West and across the country. I don’t even think in the next cycle that the winning electoral college coalition that Trump used to win will be viable again.”