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Turlington versus Meek puts state Democrats at a crossroads

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Ed Turlington got his start in Democratic politics going door-to-door in Sampson County for George McGovern--at the age of 15. Four years later, at 19, he was the youngest member of the North Carolina delegation to the 1976 Democratic National Convention.

But Jerry Meek can top that. He campaigned in Cumberland County for Walter Mondale at the age of 13. Four years later, at 17, he was the youngest delegate ever when he attended the 1988 Democratic National Convention.

Now, these two prodigies are campaigning to be the new chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, both promising to breathe new life into an organization that's gotten pretty rickety after years of disuse. Both have legitimate progressive bona fides, Turlington as the top deputy in Bill Bradley's 2000 presidential campaign and as chair of John Edwards' campaign for president in 2003-04, Meek as the insurgent who forced his way in as first vice chair of the state party two years ago.

And there, of course, is where the similarities end.

In this contest, Meek is again the insurgent, and the favorite of the young progressives who poured into the party's ranks throughout North Carolina over the last two years in the vain effort to defeat President Bush. Turlington, who is Gov. Mike Easley's choice for the job, is now the establishment candidate who reminds progressives that the party is a coalition that can't win without the swing voters.

If it's politics-as-usual, then Easley's choice will be ratified when the party's executive committee meets in Raleigh on Jan. 29. After all, the governor is always the real head of the party, isn't he (or, at some future time, she)? But Easley, well known as a hands-off governor, is even more the hands-off Democrat. So Turlington is taking nothing for granted. And neither, for that matter, is Meek. Both are campaigning furiously, a phone call at a time, for the votes of the 566 men and women who make up the executive committee. The outcome, from this distance, is far from clear.

Two big differences are apparent in the two men's approaches. The first is that Meek wants to make the state party a force on issues, even if that means challenging elected Democrats like Easley. Turlington sees the party as a big tent for diverse views, one able to back any Democrat who can win.

The second is that, while both would be unpaid chairs--leaving day-to-day operations to a paid executive director and staff--Turlington makes his living as a lawyer-lobbyist with clients who are keenly interested in what the Democrats in Raleigh decide. "If ever a client matter is in conflict (with a party position), I won't work on the client matter," he says. But otherwise, he plans if elected chair to continue representing clients in the General Assembly and before state administrative agencies.

Turlington's clients in the last legislative session, according to the N.C. Secretary of State's office, included Jefferson-Pilot, the insurance company; statewide associations of broadcasters, convenience stories and electronics firms; and MCNC, or what used to be known as the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina, which was created and funded by the legislature. In the previous session, he also represented the Carolina Asphalt Paving Association, which has a huge stake in the state's road-building programs.

Meek says he practices law in Fayetteville, but only part time, working for a medical malpractice lawyer (and big Democratic contributor) named Wade Byrd. "I'm a trial lawyer," he adds, proudly associating himself with a major interest group within the party. "There's a big difference between that and lobbying."

Most of his time is spent in Raleigh and traveling the state as the party's unpaid vice chair, Meek says. He helps local party members get organized, run campaigns, use the Internet and make use of the "great technical capabilities and resources" available to them from state headquarters that, until he comes calling, oftentimes they've never heard of. "I've put 6,000 miles a month on my car the last two years doing this," he says.

A week ago, Meek spoke in Durham to some two dozen members of the nascent Progressive Democratic Caucus, most of whom enthusiastically support his candidacy. He's a tall (6-foot-8), relaxed guy with a deep voice and command of the mechanics of politics who also professes a love of political philosophy--yes, he was mentored by uber-pol Tony Rand, the state Senate majority leader, who backed him for Cumberland County chair when he was 25, but his views on policy are informed by studying Max Weber, the German philosopher.

Dominant for the past century in North Carolina, the Democrats have always been a top-down organization run by the governor, perhaps with another high official or two, Meek argues. But the days of dominance are over, and unless the party is rebuilt from the grassroots up, it won't survive the Republican tide sweeping the South.

But grassroots Democrats are an ornery lot, and they won't get involved unless given a serious role in policymaking, Meek says. His promise: to build "an independent and strong base," put it to work on issues, then help "frame" the policies it adopts (per George Lakoff's arguments about the importance of framing) and get them out to the rank-and-file and the public by all means necessary.

On the last point, Meek wants to establish an audio editing suite at party headquarters so elected Democrats can cut radio tapes to be aired back home. But he also makes it clear that he will be a party spokesman and put out the party's position himself when "the body speaks," even if that position is in conflict with elected Democrats up to and including Easley and the General Assembly leadership.

"The people out there are hungry for a party that's alive," Meek says. "I think the old guard very much wants to see control kept in the hands of a few people." But, he adds, "To me, you can't get people involved doing things that way."

Turlington agrees--to a point. "We can absolutely do better across the state in building grassroots capacity," he says. The influx of new blood from the presidential campaign gives Democrats the chance to build at the county and precinct levels, he says, and he knows the technical side of that as well as anyone, having served as the party's executive director in the mid-'80s and in various top jobs for Gov. Jim Hunt, Bradley, Edwards and the Kerry-Edwards campaign since then.

But, he warns, there's a right way and a wrong way to build. The right way is to remember that 20-30 percent of North Carolina voters are unaffiliated, and Democrats can't win without appealing to them. "I do worry that we could go in the wrong direction," he says, which would be to forget that while the Kerry-Edwards ticket was badly beaten here, Democrats won the bulk of state and local elections, gaining seats in both houses of the General Assembly and re-electing all the top Council of State officials, including Easley.

Grassroots, sure. But grassroots Dems in Sampson County just don't see things the same as grassroots Dems in Durham, Turlington says.

Turlington was a little taken aback at Meek's suggestion that the party chair should speak out in favor of the platform even if it differs from the governor's. Characteristically, he was careful not to agree, or rule it out. "We'll deal with that when the time comes," he finally said. "I see my job as strengthening the party and helping Democrats get elected.É The party is all of us."

It's no secret Easley and other Democratic leaders in Raleigh are more conservative than the party regulars, for the obvious reason that they raise a lot of money to get themselves elected, and business interests are a key source of same. State Democrats last adopted a party platform in 2002, for example, managing then to elide all serious issues. When progressives came to the 2004 state convention armed with proposals for everything from a death penalty moratorium to legalized hemp production (!), outgoing party chair Barbara Allen's response (ironically, with Meek doing the dirty work) was to adjourn for lack of a quorum without any platform discussion--and then never call a follow-up meeting.

Meek's election would give free voice to the rank-and-file. To Turlington, that sounds like a recipe for losing a lot of state offices fast.

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