The outcome wasn't in doubt when Democratic officials in Southeast Raleigh met to choose a replacement for the late Sen. Vernon Malone, who died last month. A House member for all but four years since 1981, Rep. Dan Blue was an easy victor, winning on the first ballot with 52 of the 84 votes cast. (Eligible voters were the party precinct officers in Senate District 14, plus other elected Democratic officials who live in the district.)
The meeting served instead as an audition for candidates seeking to fill Blue's District 33 House seat when he vacates it. It was also a reminder, as Blue acknowledged in a short victory speech, that Southeast Raleigh and the African-American community in Wake County is still looking for the next generation of political talent that will succeed the Malones and the Blues.
Malone, a former Wake school board chair, former Wake County commissioner and a four-term state senator, was considered Southeast Raleigh's senior statesman when he passed away suddenly at age 77. That title now goes to Blue, 60, who for three decades has been Southeast Raleigh's most successful and best-known leader; he was speaker of the House for four years in the '90s and a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2002, when he lost the primary to Erskine Bowles. He came back to the House in 2006 when he was appointed to fill the vacancy created by the death of his successor, Rep. Bernard Allen.
(Or perhaps Blue shares the title of senior statesman with Harold Webb, Malone's longtime friend and ally who filled his vacant commissioner's seat when Malone was elected to the Senate; Webb, now chair of the county commissioners, is 84.)
Two of the unsuccessful aspirants for Malone's seat emerged as contenders for Blue's House seat. Wake Board of Education Chair Rosa Gill bowed out before the voting and endorsed Blue. She said his experience with reapportionment while a House member will be especially valuable in the Senate to assure that, after the 2010 U.S. Census is taken, legislative district lines for the coming decade are drawn with Southeast Raleigh's interests in mind.
Gill made it clear she'll go for the House next. "I want to be in the General Assembly," she said with a big smile later. So will Bernard Allen II, son of the late House member who works in the state Department of Juvenile Justice. Allen did not withdraw and ran second in the balloting for Malone's seat with 29 votes.
Gill, who is 64, can argue that she's earned the nod after a career as a teacher, Department of Transportation aide and 10 years of tough school board duty. She's not the youthful alternative, however, and that's a big factor in Southeast Raleigh. In her nominating speech for Allen, who is 44, Montica Talmadge called him "a sign of new leadership that we desperately need in Wake County."
Talmadge, 29, is a Democratic national committee member and, she said, looking around the crowd, the only member of the Young Democrats of North Carolina in the room with a vote. She revered Malone and admires Blue enough to have written a school paper about him, Talmadge went on. But the older generation of Democratic "titans" is aging out. "It's time for us to take our turn," she said.
Later, Blue recognized that Talmadge, a friend of one of his sons, "raised a challenge this evening" that was valid. As senator, he pledged, "We want to hear the voice of young people and have young people included ... every step of the way."
Blue won't resign from the House until after the "crossover" date for legislation this week, according to Jack Nichols, chair of the Wake Democratic party. When he does, his appointment to the Senate seat by Gov. Bev Perdue is considered automatic and should take place within a week; Nichols then has 30 days to call a meeting in House District 33 to fill the new vacancy.
Nichols said he knows of no other candidates to replace Blue besides Gill and Allen, though others have time to step up. Some whose names were mentioned for the Senate seat, including St. Augustine's College executive Kim Luckes, do not live in Blue's House district and are therefore not eligible.