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N.C. socialists gather in Garner

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Members of the Socialist Party of North Carolina will meet July 29, bringing together in the Wake County town of Garner the South's only statewide chapter of a party that traces its roots back to the turn of the 20th century and includes past giants such as Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas and, more recently, David McReynolds.

The party has about 1,000 members nationally, with active state chapters in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, California, Wisconsin and North Carolina, according to McReynolds, the Socialist Party USA presidential candidate in 1980 and 2000. The N.C. affiliate has locals in Charlotte, Richlands (near Jacksonville) and Raleigh.

Although the party is struggling nationally, McReynolds, 76, praised the SPNC for its willingness to back the work of other progressive groups in North Carolina.

"The socialist party folks in North Carolina are relating to the local issues of North Carolina to support the progressive and liberal positions in the state," said McReynolds, who has made several trips here over the years. "They're keeping alive the concept of democratic socialism as an alternative to a totally capitalist structure."

Rather than emphasize getting candidates on the ballot, party member Vernon Kelley of Richlands, the state party treasurer, says N.C. socialists have focused their energy on progressive causes, such as abolition of the death penalty, backing a farm worker labor union and working to stop U.S. military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Specifically, the SPNC has backed People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, various antiwar efforts and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a union that won a battle two years ago with Mount Olive Pickles, said Kelley, who teaches sociology at Jacksonville's Coastal Carolina Community College. Kelley said the party is also rallying support for an environmental public education effort to reduce mercury levels in seafood.

"We have a different vision, and we don't believe we can move the Democratic Party to the left," Kelley said. Efforts to do so have been a failure, he said. "So why do that? Let's give people an alternative."

Although the third-party efforts of socialists are not as well-reported as those of the Green Party, Kelley, 52, said socialists are making a difference. Without a headliner such as Ralph Nader, the group is not as recognized nationally. But that was not the case in the early years, when the Socialist Party of the United States of America was organized at a unity convention in Indianapolis in 1901.

The two merging groups were the Social Democratic Party, led by Eugene Victor Debs and the so-called "Kangaroo" wing of the older Socialist Labor Party. The SDP had been organized in 1898 by veterans of the Pullman Strike of the American Railway Union, led by Debs, and was largely composed of U.S.-born workers. The SLP had its roots in the circles of Marx's First International and the Workingmen's Party of America, and was primarily composed of immigrants in big cities.

Prior to World War I, the Socialist Party elected two members to Congress, more than 70 mayors and innumerable state legislators and city councilors, Kelley said. Its membership topped 100,000, and its presidential candidate, Debs, received close to a million votes in 1912 and 1920.

"I like the history of the Socialist Party," Kelley said. "We're definitely not nearly as established as I wish we were, but we bring up issues that the Democrats won't bring up." For example, the SPUSA is calling for a ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah, while condemning the violence on both sides.

Kelley credits Melvin Little, a member from Smithfield, with getting the ball rolling for the N.C. affiliate. Following the 1996 presidential election, national group members living in North Carolina organized into a statewide political party. Little drafted a state party constitution, and the party experienced several years of what Kelley calls "slow growth."

By 1999, the SPNC sent two delegates and one alternate to the national convention in Secaucus, N.J. It was there that Kelley, his wife, Katherine Nicewander, and Little made the commitment to jump-start the party in North Carolina, Kelley said. An initial meeting of the SPNC was held Feb. 12, 2000, and drew "around 10 people" to Raleigh's Richard B. Harris Library. A slate of officers was elected, and a bank account and Web site were created.

In 2000, the SPNC achieved write-in ballot access for McReynolds, the first time since the Norman Thomas campaign of 1936 that N.C. citizens could have their votes for a socialist recorded.

Today, the national organization is struggling, McReynolds said. During the Cold War, anyone who identified themselves as socialists were often red-baited, McReynolds said. Without a strong labor party or a parliamentary system for elections, socialists don't have much chance of making inroads nationally, McReynolds said.

"The capitalist structure has been able to keep the political dialogue confined to the two parties," McReynolds said. "There's not a coherent left alternative."

When Jim Schaefer moved to Raleigh in 1996, he looked for a third party to join--one that would back workers and economic justice.

"The Socialist Party just seemed to fit into my comfort zone," said Schaefer, who serves as the national group's treasurer. "I could agree with almost everything in their platform, especially the party's long history of supporting peaceful revolution."

Schaefer said he also backs the party's call for a 50 percent reduction in military spending.

Because N.C. ballot access rules are "extremely restrictive," it's hard for third-party candidates to get on the ballot, Schaefer said.

"There is a role for third parties to play even if they can't get on the ballot or elected," Schaefer said. "We can keep important issues in the realm of public discourse."

Saturday's meeting begins at noon at the Southeast Regional Library at 908 Seventh Ave., Garner. For more information, visit www.ncsocialist.org or call Kelley at 910-938-6235 (day) or 910-989-0417 (evening).

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