by Bob Geary
The outcome was never in doubt at last night's meeting of Democratic party officials to choose a replacement for the late Sen. Vernon Malone. Dan Blue wanted it -- the "it" being the state Senate District 14 seat representing Southeast Raleigh and the eastern part of Wake County -- and he won it easily on the first ballot, with 52 of the 84 votes cast. (Eligible voters were the district's party precinct chairs and vice chairs plus some elected Democratic officials who live in the district.)
But the meeting did serve as an audition of sorts for candidates who might be chosen to take Blue's House seat (House District 33). It was also a reminder, as Blue acknowledged in a short speech after his selection, that Southeast Raleigh and the African-American community of Wake County is still looking for that next generation of political talent who will take over for the Malones and the Blues.
Malone, former Wake school board chair, former Wake County commissioner, a state senator in his fourth term, was Southeast Raleigh's senior statesman when he passed away suddenly at age 77. That title now passes to Blue, 60, who has been for the last three decades Southeast Raleigh's most energetic and effective leader -- as a state House member in the '80s, Speaker of the House in the '90s, candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2002 (he lost the Democratic primary to Erskine Bowles -- a shame), and then again as a House member since 2006, when he was appointed to fill the vacancy created by the death of his successor, Bernard Allen.
Wake School Board Chair Rosa Gill, who put her name in the bidding for the Senate seat but withdrew before the vote, bowed to Blue's superior experience and legislative know-how. Blue's shown he can get things done in the General Assembly, Gill said, and will be a slam-dunk for the Senate seat in the 2010 elections. (Around the edges of the room, where the non-voting politicos and pundits were gathered, the prospect of popular Republican County Commissioner Joe Bryan maybe running for the Senate 14 seat had folks wondering whether it was actually possible for the Democrats to nominate someone in this supposedly rock-ribbed (and near-majority African-American) Democratic district who could lose it to Bryan. Doubtful, but not beyond the realm of possibility, it was thought.) Most important, Gill said, Blue's knows the redistricting ropes, and when the 2010 Census is finished, he'll be a strong hand in the Senate to assure that legislative district lines are drawn for the coming decade with Southeast Raleigh's interests in mind.
Gill clearly means to be a candidate for Blue's House seat. "I want to be in the General Assembly," she said with a big smile when I asked her about it afterward. So, presumably, does Bernard Allen II, son of the late House member. (I didn't get a chance to speak with him last night after the vote.) Allen did not withdraw, and ran second in the balloting with 29 votes. (The other three votes went to Jay Holloway, a media consultant and N.C. State University employee; several others who'd spoken at a public forum previously and/or were "mentioned" as Malone's replacement either weren't nominated from the floor last night or else (as Gill did) were nominated and then withdrew.
Gill, who is 64, can argue that she's earned the seat after a career as a teacher (and later as a Department of Transportation aide) and 10 years of tough school board duty. She can't argue that she's the youthful alternative, however, and that's a big issue in Southeast Raleigh. Nominating Allen, who is 44, Montica Talmadge, a national Democratic committeewoman, called him "a sign of new leadership that we desperately need in Wake County." Among the Democratic officials with a vote last night, Talmadge noted, as she looked around, she was the only "YD" (Young Democrats) there. She revered Malone, she said, and admires Blue so much she once wrote a paper about him (later on, Blue said that she ran track with his youngest son, Damien). But the older generation of Democratic "titans" was aging out, she said. "It's time for us to take our turn."
Whether Allen is the young titan to take that turn remains to be seen, though. His political credentials are thin (he's Raleigh vice chair of the Wake Democratic party, but not a very active one) and his own speech last night fell flat, especially when Holloway and Kim Luckes, an official at St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, followed with stronger ones. (Luckes does not live in Blue's House district, according to her voter registration information; Allen does; I wasn't able to find Holloway's listing.) Other candidates may emerge in the month or more that will elapse while Blue completes some House tasks, is formally named to the Senate by Gov. Bev Perdue, and the process of filling the new vacancy takes place.
For his part, Blue recognized that Talmadge "raised a challenge this evening" that was valid. What he termed "organizing" -- the recruiting and grooming of young talent -- was "somewhat forgotten" by Democrats prior to the 2008 elections, he said, when Barack Obama's extraordinary campaign reminded them of its value. As senator, he won't forget," Blue pledged: We want to hear the voice of young people and have young people included ... every step of the way."