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Orange County Democrats are building the party one precinct at a time 

North Carolina may be a red state, but Chapel Hill and Carrboro stick out like bright splashes of blue. So you'd think that liberal Orange County would be solidly Democratic. Statistically, that's true: According to voter registration counts, Dems outnumber Republicans 2 to 1. But there's a lot more to a political party than what you see on a voter registration card--and if you want to jump into politics, Orange County shows there's much more to do than vote.

Barry Katz, chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party, says his party's organization was withering last year, but thanks to a concerted volunteer effort, along with a little push from Howard Dean supporters, the party is taking off once again and gearing up for a high-stakes election this fall.

"I'm not campaign pro material," says Katz, a self-described introvert. "I'm a microbiologist. I took this on because no one else would take it." Katz says he felt compelled to assume the leadership role because "this is a race that's too important not to do your best. Come Nov. 3, I don't want to be thinking I could have done more."

There has been a lot to do. A year ago, fewer than half of the county's 48 precincts had chairpersons, meaning there was no one to call meetings or represent those voters to county organizers. Today, 38 precincts have leaders. Katz credits the change in part to a re-thinking about what leadership means--with so many new people coming and going in the precinct, it doesn't make sense to maintain a rigid structure of chair/vice chair and underlings. While there are still people in those roles, the general approach is far more collaborative and responsibilities are more broadly shared.

"Getting our precincts organized is helping to build a sense of identity for the new people coming in," Katz says.

The other major challenge facing the party last year was a long-outdated voter contact list. "The get-out-the-vote drive was disorganized and poorly planned," Katz recalls. "We had between 30 and 50 percent of wrong numbers in our phone database, which meant we were annoying people who weren't our targets and wasting a lot of time."

So Katz organized a countywide volunteer effort to find updated contact information for approximately 44,500 Democratic voters and build a database of the new information. Even in the technological age, the work is time-consuming and tedious: Volunteers gathered registration rolls from the county Board of Elections and looked up the names in the phone book. Katz expects they'll be done by June, and can start making contact in August through e-mail, phone canvassing and good, old door-to-door outreach.

That's where the precincts can be a big help. Ann DeMaine, a retired state administrator in Chapel Hill, chairs the Battle Park precinct of nearly 1,000 Democratic voters. About two dozen people have told her they want to help, whether with the database project or staffing Democratic booths at public events to register voters.

Precinct meetings also offer voters a chance to ask questions--about the delayed state primary and the confusing new caucus system, for instance. And because Orange County is one of the few counties that has its own platform, precincts can submit resolutions on issues of importance to the group. DeMaine says the meeting last week brought up resolutions on local environmental concerns and women's access to birth control, among other things; a resolution on proposed school merger failed to pass, she said, because there were many differing opinions among the 14 assembled Dems.

"People were enthusiastically involved in that," she says of the resolution process. "People in Orange County like to talk and express themselves on those things." (Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that the OCDP platform is nine pages long.) "It takes longer, but it's good and important." Not only does that discussion give voters an outlet for expressing their concerns, it also educates them about what matters to people in their communities, which helps when trying to draw new people into the process.

New blood is crucial. Katz says Howard Dean supporters have boosted the party in many ways. He says he attended meetups and found that "the Dean supporters had great ideas, put their ideas into action and brought in droves of people who have never been involved in politics before. These people, they've stuck around and they're active in voter registration." Several previously unorganized precincts are now led by Deaniacs. As for Dean's mantra of "taking back the party," Katz says he would like to see it happen. "On a local level, re-establishing a party that exists independent of its candidates but exists to support its candidates, that's taking back the party. And that's what's happening in Orange County."

A surge in student activism is also shaking things up. Tom Jensen, a sophomore studying political science and history at UNC-CH, is chair of the Greenwood precinct. He says when he took the job last February, he wasn't worried about the responsibility. "I knew that some of the town residents that live in the precinct were really neat people, and that they would be able to help me. And I knew I had a lot of support from people on campus. So I figured I'd give it a go."

The cooperation has worked well, Jensen says. "It's absolutely been a collaborative effort. The vice chair of my precinct is 85 years old, I'm 20, and we're both working to make this happen."

While frustration with the Bush administration has drawn more people to become involved, student volunteers feel invested in local and state issues as well as national ones, Jensen says. Last fall, a group of UNC students formed a political organization and endorsed candidates for the Chapel Hill Town Council race, marking the first UNC-student foray into local elections in recent memory. This new bond has boosted student participation, Jensen says. "Student political activity has been so much more heightened in the national election, the senate race, locally. And it seems like everyone has been more interested in everything much further ahead in the game. That's one thing that's struck me the most. People are moving up the time frame. I think it's going to be an incredible Democratic year, because people are so motivated to sweep away Republican power both in Raleigh and in Washington."

The hardest place for Orange Democrats to reach is the northern part of the county, where Republicans have enjoyed increasing support in the past few years. More rural and agricultural compared to the populated, cosmopolitan south, northern Orange is on the verge of explosive growth and suburbanization. Katz says a recent push by the African American Voter Alliance has helped organize the northern precincts.

For Republicans there, the winning issue is lower taxes. Doug Biddy is Katz's counterpart in the Orange County Republican Party, and though Biddy knows his group is outnumbered, he says the residential tax burden continues to draw more supporters. When it comes to the nitty gritty of organizing, both parties have the same challenges filling precinct leadership. "It's an ongoing job and it's one that I don't see ever fulfilled like you'd like for it to be. It's like the church," he continues. "People are converted one at a time." EndBlock

Save the dates
March 25: County platform and resolution committee meeting
April 17: County caucus 8 a.m. to noon and annual convention at 1 p.m. at the Hillsborough courthouse
May 22: District convention at the Durham courthouse
June (day TBA): OCDP Meet the Candidates Rally and barbecue at the Big Barn in Hillsborough
June 19: State convention at the Civic Center in Raleigh
July 20: North Carolina primary election
July 26: National Democratic Convention in Boston
Nov. 2: Election Day

For more on the Orange County Democratic Party, see www.orangedems.com

For statewide Democratic information and schedules, see www.ncdp.org

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