DG MARTIN COLUMN: Can a 25-year-old woman be a great political party chair?

Published 10:47 am Tuesday, February 21, 2023

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Earlier this month, the North Carolina Democratic Party’s state executive committee elected 25-year-old Anderson Clayton state party chair.

D.G. Martin

How and why this young woman beat the incumbent who had the support of Gov. Roy Cooper are important and interesting questions for another day.

But the more important question for today is: what does she do now?

What can she do to mobilize the state’s Democratic voters whose candidates’ poor performances in the recent gubernatorial and state legislative races were disheartening?

She might find a useful example in the actions of a Republican, Thom Tillis. Although Tillis is currently a U.S. senator, in 2010 he was a recently elected member of the North Carolina House of Representatives. His only prior political experience was a term on the Cornelius town board.

Realizing that so long as his party was in the minority he would have little influence, he went to work, driving across the state to identify and recruit candidates to run as Republicans in the upcoming elections, raising money to support those candidates, inspiring and training them.

His tireless work, helped by national trends that favored Republicans, bought about victories for enough Republicans to change control of the North Carolina House of Representatives.

In 2011, the House elected Tillis speaker.

What do Tillis’s experiences mean to Ms. Clayton?

She should consider taking a personal role, as Tillis did, in recruiting, training, and finding financial support for candidates of her party, being careful not to let conflicts within the party diminish her efforts.

Several important state political figures have given and gained valuable experiences as state party chair.

In 1985, Raleigh attorney Wade Smith served as Democratic Party chair. On his travels throughout North Carolina, he used his well-tuned trial lawyer skills to recruit and mobilize. He told stories, sang songs, and used humor to bring the audiences together before making his “support the party” pitch. At the end of his meetings, he always said something like “We don’t want to get rid of all Republicans. We want to preserve at least one to put in a museum for history’s sake.”

David Price retired last month as a member of Congress representing North Carolina’s Fourth District. Prior to his election to Congress in 1980 he had served as chair of the state Democratic Party. He learned how to deal with the state’s major political figures and how to show them his strengths. His state party leadership experience helped prepare him for his first congressional campaign.

Former Congressman Bill Cobey, who coincidentally lost to Price in the 1986 congressional elections, served as state Republican Party chair between 1999 and 2003. He reminded me that a party chair cannot simply travel, raise money, and motivate voters. The party chair may have fractious organization to bring together as well as fundraising responsibilities and various complicated projects to manage. For instance, under his leadership, the party purchased a new headquarters building.

Robin Hayes represented the Eighth congressional district between 1999 and 2009. From 2011 to 2013, and from 2016 to 2019, he was chair of the Republican Party. In 2019 he was accused in a bribery scheme and later convicted of lying to the FBI. President Donald Trump pardoned Hayes on Jan. 20, 2020. The matter showed there can be a thin line in the work of public officials between properly serving public constituencies and bribery.

Chairs of both parties have brought a variety of strengths and weaknesses to the job. But the youth that the 25-year-old Clayton brings could make possible a fresh and positive approach that could change the party for the better.

Or, her lack of experience-honed judgment could lead to detrimental decisions and actions that could plague the party for a long time.

For the sake of all North Carolinians, we should hope her tenure will inspire all citizens of our state to take a role in politics and participate in positive and constructive ways.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”