Late to the party? Democrats welcome progressives in symbiotic alliance
Thousands of pop-up progressive activist groups have emerged around the country since November’s election.
They’re holding marches and rallies, clogging Congressional phone lines, hosting forums and town halls, writing letters to the editor — anything and everything to keep the heat up and public engaged. The question now is how to harness and leverage their energy.
Passion is driving the grassroots movement. But it takes more than passion to influence policy and elections. It takes a political party.
“If you think about the life cycle of these groups, they get people fired up, they get people involved and then they become part of the formal structure,” said Chris Cooper, political science professor at Western Carolina University. “People who are putting a lot of time into politics eventually realize they need the parties.”
It happened sooner than anyone expected, however.
Last month, progressives across North Carolina showed up in force on the doorstep of their local Democratic Party precinct meetings.. They weren’t just visiting. They pulled up a seat and settled in.
“An alliance is absolutely necessary to effect change. We can’t start a third party in Western North Carolina,” said Amber Kevlin, 33, a leader of Progressive Nation WNC in Haywood County.
Kevlin is a newly minted precinct officer with the Haywood County Democratic Party, and she’s not alone.
Dozens of activists with Progressive Nation WNC turned out for the Haywood party’s annual precinct meetings — and 15 of them now hold official party titles as precinct chairs or vice-chairs.
“That was part of our plan,” Kevlin said. “If you really want to make some changes you have to get involved in the local party.”
Almost overnight, the new wave of progressives came to comprise a quarter of the Haywood Democrats executive committee.
“I am a big proponent if we want to change the system we have to do it from the inside out,” said Chelsea White, 23, a founder of Progressive Nation WNC. “We asked people who was willing to step up into leadership positions in the Democratic Party. It is a great opportunity for the progressive movement to utilize their voice inside the party.”
Luckily, it wasn’t seen as a hostile takeover.
“We didn’t storm. We simply showed up and wanted to know how we can help,” said Mary Curry, a Progressive Nation member who took on a role as a precinct vice chair.
Rather than the traditional party stalwarts bucking the newcomers, they had a plate of cookies and extra chairs waiting.
“A lot of older people stepped aside to let the younger people in,” Kevlin said. “They are very, very excited.”
Indeed, that’s a resounding sentiment throughout the party.
“I am tickled to death to see all the new blood that is coming in,” said Marietta Edwards, 75, a Cruso precinct chair. “We need to keep people paying attention. Gracious, that’s how we got in the mess we’re in.”
Edwards was blown away when six new people showed up for the annual party precinct meeting in Cruso — more than doubling their usual attendance. She passed the hat and raised more than $100 to help with rent for party headquarters.
“I was flabbergasted because we’d never been able to collect money at the precinct meeting before,” Edwards said.
Meanwhile, Edwards has started going to the Progressive Nation meetings, a sign of cross-pollination that’s working both ways.
“The Democratic Party here is so ready for a change to be made. I think this election was a wake-up call that change needed to happen,” said Natasha Bright, 40, another leader of Progressive Nation WNC.
Remarkably, the party stalwarts have put pride aside and readily admit they need the help.
“Boy, are we happy to see Progressive Nation WNC come along,” added Buffy Queen, a long-time Haywood Democrat. “Some of us who have been in the party for years are battle-scarred in a way, so we need that fresh enthusiasm.”
An open door
The progressive movement started organically — outside the formal party structure — but now stands to invigorate the traditional Democratic Party.
“I am amazed and impressed in the level of enthusiasm they’ve generated. I think it is fantastic,” said Jon Feichter, a Waynesville businessman who’s been involved in the Democratic Party for years.
Last month, Feichter passed the torch of precinct chair to a newcomer with Progressive Nation WNC. He’s one of several who have moved over to make way for the progressive infusion, and did so gladly.
Of the 15 party precinct positions progressives now hold, there’s only one where a sitting Democrat tried to keep their seat but got out-voted by a progressive contingent at a precinct meeting.
“It was not an ambush by any means,” said Steve Ellis, a long-time party member and Waynesville attorney.
The credit for an amicable merger, rather than a hostile takeover, largely goes to Myrna Campbell, the chair of the Haywood Democratic Party. Campbell embraced Progressive Nation out of the gate, setting the tone for the rest of the party.
“To me they have revitalized the Democratic Party,” Campbell said. “That’s where I think the positive impact of all this energy is. It will reactivate a lot of the people who haven’t been active.”
Campbell worked the mainstream members of the party ahead of time to pave the way for the progressives.
“I thought she did it really well,” said Ellis. “She makes a real effort to stay in touch with all the sort of subgroups within the party. It went much smoother than it could have because she didn’t create a negative atmosphere or barrier to those people being able to participate.”
Campbell not only reached out to her own party leaders, but also the leaders of Progressive Nation during their early formation.
“I told them ‘I want to work with you.’ I didn’t want it to be ‘You have your agenda and we have ours,’” Campbell recounted.
Campbell’s diplomacy, while sometimes tinged with tough love, has been a hallmark of her leadership style the past two years.
“That was a goal of mine, to make it more inclusive and have a bigger tent, and I feel like I have done that,” Campbell said. “Some of it has just happened naturally.”
The groundswell of progressive activists had energy to offer, and it made sense for the party to capitalize on it.
“They were so discouraged after the election. They felt like they couldn’t just say ‘Oh well, we lost’ and not do anything,” Campbell said. “I wanted to get them working with the Democratic Party.”
It’s doubtful the progressives would have walked into a party precinct meeting on their own, however, if they hadn’t been brought in first by Progressive Nation.
“The party hierarchy hadn’t been able to convince people to get involved at the local level,” White said.
They needed a vehicle, and an invitation.
“They hadn’t really seen the way to get in before,” Queen said. “But Progressive Nation have made a big splash and said ‘Come with us and we’ll show you.’”
The trajectory of the current progressive movement has played out in American politics before.
“I think these groups usually pop up because people are dissatisfied with the traditional party structure,” Cooper said. “But it almost functions like a gateway drug into the main party. If they are successful, they’re able to pull the party in their direction.”
Chuck Dickson, a Waynesville lawyer who’s long been involved in the Democratic Party, admitted party bureaucracy can be a turnoff.
“It is kind of boring to have the precinct meetings and elect officers and take minutes and all these kinds of things, but there is a need for the structure that the party provides,” Dickson said.
Dickson is the long-time organizer for the party’s Get Out the Vote effort. He often sees an influx of volunteers who canvass and work polls during campaign season, but then melt away. Progressive Nation provided a venue to keep them involved.
“I think it is a great thing, and I think many in the Democratic Party welcome the infusion of energy,” Dickson said. “It is time to get more spirit into the party.”
Moving the needle
The energized base trends younger and more progressive than the stereotype of a traditional mountain Democrat.
“We are seen as a little more left,” said Amber Kevlin, a Waynesville organizer behind the grassroots group Progressive Nation WNC.
Kevlin openly admitted she’d like to push the party in a more progressive direction, much like the Tea party made the Republican Party more conservative over the past eight years.
“We are the left’s answer to the Tea party,” Kevlin said.
The Tea party emerged as a conservative backlash following Obama’s victory in 2008 — just like the Indivisible movement is a progressive backlash to Trump’s victory.
Kevlin said there’s a stark difference between the movements, however. The Tea party — which stands for taxed enough already — used aggressive, my-way-or-the-highway tactics to push out Republicans seen as too moderate.
“We see Democrats as too moderate, but we still want to work together,” Kevlin said.
While factions within a party can cause it to fracture, Feichter sees the allegiance holding. Inclusion is a fundamental tenet of the Democratic Party, he said, citing Hillary Clinton’s campaign anthem “Stronger Together.”
“This is a prime example of that kind of mentality. We don’t agree on everything but we do have a shared set of values and there is room for competing interests within that sphere,” Feichter said.
The cooperative spirit could be chalked up to a honeymoon period, but many believe it will last.
“The progressive group and establishment Democrats don’t know each other all that well, but it seems like both sides are getting to know the other and working toward a common purpose rather than fighting with each other like it seems the Republicans have,” Ellis said.
Building a bridge
Like many involved in the progressive movement, Mary Curry got involved as a campaign volunteer — first for Bernie Sanders, and then for Hillary Clinton. Typically, her activism would have stopped there.
“This is not what I planned on doing in retirement. Taking hikes in the forest is what I wanted to do,” said Curry, 68, who moved to Haywood County a year ago.
“But after the election I felt like I had to do something productive.”
She began attending Progressive Nation meetings, and soon found herself being courted for a role as vice chair of the Maggie Valley precinct.
The credit again goes to Campbell, chair of the Haywood County Democratic Party. Curry said Campbell invited her to lunch and asked her consider taking on the vacant vice chair role.
“From the very beginning, Progressive Nation and the Democratic Party in Haywood County have been working hand in glove,” Curry said. “We are absolutely working for the same agenda. We want a country for everybody, not just the top 1 or 2 percent.”
Curry believes the symbiotic relationship will continue.
“Progressive Nation is the immediate action wing of the Democratic Party the way I look at it. We are in it for the long haul,” Curry said.
Curry wasn’t the only one Campbell courted from the progressives to fill vacant party precinct seats. Campbell was well aware that progressives planned to show up at precinct meetings, and given their numbers, they would likely have the votes to go head to head with mainstream Democrats for precinct positions. So Campbell tried to find places to include progressives in the party leadership where there wouldn’t be any opposition from a sitting Democrat.
“In most cases, the longstanding Democrats who had been in that position for years were ready to abdicate that role,” Campbell said.
Bill Messer was among the Democratic Party stalwarts who eagerly handed over his precinct chair to a progressive.
“I’d had it for years. When you are working on 77, it is time for change,” said Messer, who lives in Bethel. “I figured she could do a better job.”
Campbell had alerted all the precinct chairs in the county to expect an influx of progressives at their annual precinct meetings in late February. So when Riley Covin opened his Beaverdam precinct meeting, it was the first thing he addressed.
“I asked if there was anyone from the progressive group there. If so, we wanted to make sure they knew they were welcome,” Covin said.
Then something unusual happened. Covin’s precinct crafted a resolution to introduce at the county convention two weeks later pledging to work collaboratively with Progressive Nation WNC.
“Somebody suggested we need to work with the Progressive Nation movement in Haywood County because we have such similar goals — and frankly we need all the help we can get,” Covin said. “There are a lot of young people involved in the progressive movement and we could use their energy and ideas, so it benefits us.”
The resolution is symbolic in nature, stating that the “Haywood County Democratic Party recognizes a kindred spirit in Progressive Nation WNC” and “seeks common ground to cooperate with Progressive Nation whenever and wherever possible.”
Many had no idea the resolution was coming at the county convention. Even Campbell wasn’t sure how it would go down.
“I thought there would be some resistance, but it was unanimous,” Campbell said.
Haywood’s resolution will move on the district convention, and then to the state convention. Campbell wagers there will be similar resolutions from other counties, and they will somehow be wrapped into an overarching version.
Across the state
The same story playing out in Haywood County has happened across North Carolina. President Obama, in his farewell speech, incited Americans to get involved in local politics if they didn’t like where the country was headed. Apparently, the progressives were listening.
All across the state in March, hundreds of progressives claimed seats as precinct chairs and vice chairs in their local Democratic parties. In Wake County, roughly half the 800 Democrats who attended the annual county convention last month were brand new to the party establishment.
The progressive movement recently lobbied for recognition as an official caucus within the state party. The proposal came from a contingent of former Bernie Sanders supporters, and was passed by the party’s state executive committee in February. The recognition not only means symbolic clout but a designated seat at the party’s leadership table.
The real test of unity between Democrats and progressives remains to be seen, however. The relationship could be strained come primary time, when progressive candidates will likely square off against moderates for a spot on the Democratic ticket.
Progressives pose a risk to the party if they push a more liberal candidate to the forefront. A self-described progressive may have trouble winning a general election in WNC’s conservative districts.
But primary competition within a party always creates some strain.
“I don’t think there is any more potential for that now than there would normally be within the party,” Campbell said. “The party was strained between Bernie and Hillary.”
For now, where someone falls on the progressive scale just isn’t part of the conversation, given the larger obstacles Democrats are facing.
“We just aren’t even having those discussions about ideology at all,” Curry said. “I have never seen the Democratic Party so united as it is right now.”