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Progressives organizing within Democratic Party 

The Democratic Party of North Carolina has a women's caucus, with county chapters thereof, and the women are officially entitled to seats on the party's leadership committees. There's also an African-American caucus, an Hispanic caucus, the Senior Democrats and the Young Democrats, all with official status. What the Democrats don't have--so far--is a progressive caucus.

A meeting Saturday, June 5, in Greensboro is aimed at correcting that oversight. At least 100 progressive Democrats are expected there (and hundreds more are on the membership list) for the "founding convention," at which they'll start the ball rolling toward getting official recognition--and clout--inside the party. The meeting is also expected to spawn a political action committee that can raise money and help elect specific progressive candidates in targeted races.

The PAC plan is long-term, says Mischi Binkley, a Forsyth County activist who will serve as temporary chair of the meeting. The immediate goal is to form a "true coalition" of the progressive-minded, "bringing together a lot of folks who've been working on the outside of the party, on single issues, and on the Dean and Kucinich campaigns, and recognizing that our problems are political and our issues really are related.

"It's time to go to a broader approach," Binkley argues, "within the Democratic Party." Activists need to recognize that third-party efforts like the Green Party are not getting anywhere in North Carolina, she says, thanks in part to our uniquely exclusionary ballot-qualification requirements, but also to the general difficulties that third parties face in a winner-takes-all political system without proportional representation.

"The hurdles are just too high here," says Binkley, a native of Germany (where they have proportional representation) who's lived in the U.S. since 1977. "But it's not enough just to complain about it. We need to create a home for [progressives] inside the party."

Binkley, a former chair of the Forsyth County Democratic Women, got a resolution approved a year ago at the 5th Congressional District party convention calling for a progressive caucus. Then she got together with Pete MacDowell, the Carrboro organizer and former head of Democracy South, who'd put a similar plan in writing. Soon a group was meeting at former Chatham County Commissioner Gary Phillips' farm. The founding members include such recognizable figures as Adam Sotak, David Mills, Chris Fitzsimon and former Durham City Council member Cynthia Brown.

MacDowell sees the 2004 presidential campaign as an historic opportunity to change the direction of the party in North Carolina away from its traditional conservatism. The reason: The "party" will steer clear of the Kerry presidential campaign, preferring not to associate Gov. Easley, U.S. Senate candidate Erskine Bowles and the other Tar Heel Dems with the perceived Massachusetts liberal. But rank-and-file Democrats are consumed with presidential politics, especially newly minted ones fresh from the Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich campaigns.

"One of the things we see ourselves doing is launching county-by-county 'Beat Bush' campaigns," MacDowell says. The county groups would form the basis for subsequent county chapters of the statewide caucus, called Progressive Democrats of North Carolina, mirroring the Democratic party's organizational structure.

Long-term, MacDowell says, the caucus is an effort to answer the big strategic question that's always dogged Democrats: "Do you go Republican-lite, and try to pick off some conservative votes? Or do you go to the left and try to expand your base?" Obviously, his answer is the latter. "So much of conventional politics has been almost a voter-restriction strategy," he says. "It's time to reach out."

Organizers haven't attempted to draft policy statements beyond a general embrace of "sustainable development" and "economic, social and environmental justice" as their mission.

Still, 84-year old P.R. Latta, a long-time Democratic worker from Raleigh, didn't hesitate one second when asked what one issue he'd like to see the caucus focus on first. "Removing the contamination of exorbitant money from politics," he said.

Latta is a retired telephone worker and union member who's always worked within the party, not around it, and always bucked its tendency to kow-tow to business and big-money interests and ignore its grassroots members. He thinks that's slowly killing it, but a new generation of activists has a chance to turn things around.

"A party that doesn't organize from the bottom-up, and is run by money from the top-down, is a party that will eventually die," Latta warns. "This is a chance to give grassroots people a position in the party so they can have a voice.

"Of course," he adds, "before you can run your mouth, you have to run your feet some, too." l

The founding convention to create a progressive caucus within the N.C. Democratic Party starts at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at New Garden Friends Meeting, 801 New Garden Rd., Greensboro. An agenda and proposed caucus and PAC charters are at www.greendogs.org . Call 968-9184 (Pete Macdowell) or 336-777-1812 (Mischi Binkley) for more information.

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