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Can the Democratic purists live with the Democratic pragmatists

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, February 14, 2005

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The Democratic Party is in the news this week.

Three news stories shed light on that political party's ongoing struggle to position itself to win elections and, at the same time, satisfy its core supporters that it hasn't "sold out."

First, over the weekend, the Democratic leadership selected Howard Dean to be national party chairman. The move elated many Democratic activists who see Dean as the representative of the "Democratic wing of the Democratic party."

For the Democratic purists, there is a hard reality.

Some Republican partisans were just as elated. They think that their party can beat the "Democratic wing of the Democratic party" anytime, almost any place. Some Democrats agree. And, while they are maintaining a public face of party unity, they would have preferred a leader who projects a "mainstream" approach.

The second story is the battle for leadership of the North Carolina state party that is playing out this week. It is part of a similar struggle
between pragmatists and purists. The pragmatists want to win elections, even if they have to compromise their principles to succeed. The purists want their party to hold to their principles even if it means losing elections.

Raleigh lawyer Ed Turlington and current party vice chair Jerry Meek are vying for state party chair. Turlington, who earned national attention and respect for his role in managing the presidential campaigns of Bill Bradley and John Edwards, is the choice of Governor Mike Easley. The Democratic Party's executive committee, a large group with representatives from every part of the state, makes the selection. Traditionally, it honors the governor's request. Nevertheless, Meek decided to run, and, early on without apology to the governor, claimed that he had enough commitments to win.

Some Democratic purists relish the opportunity the leadership contest gives them to register their displeasure with their moderate-conservative governor.

However this contest turns out, it is the latest reminder that the relationship between the state party and Democratic state elected officials is strained and growing weaker.

The third big political story is the continuance of the coalition leadership arrangement in the State House of Representatives. It also shows the tension between Democratic pragmatists and purists.

First a little background if you don't keep up with North Carolina politics on a day-to-day basis: In the state house, although the Democrats hold a 63-57 majority, they included Republican Richard Morgan in a top leadership position and promised to share other leadership roles with other Republican lawmakers. This year's arrangement is built on the "co-speakership" coalition that Morgan and Democratic leader Jim Black developed two years ago when the parties' strength was equally divided.

What is the problem with this arrangement? From the Democratic purists' point of view, it means that some of their goals will be compromised in order to hold the coalition together.

All three of these stories are symptoms of a growing trend of separation and division between pragmatic Democratic office holders and the idealistic purists who want their party's elected officials to represent them.

For the Democratic purists, there is a hard reality. In North Carolina, it is pragmatic Democrats like Mike Easley who can get elected in statewide elections-not purists like themselves.

There is a hard reality for Democratic pragmatists as well. Without the passion, organizing skills, and election-day efforts of the party purists, even the most pragmatic Democrat cannot win a statewide election in North Carolina.

Can the Democratic pragmatists and the purists in the Democratic Party work through their problems and find a way to win statewide elections in North Carolina?

If we knew the answer now, watching politics over the next few years would not be nearly as much fun.


D.G. Martin is the author of "Interstate Eateries" a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina's interstate highways-available through Our State Magazine (800-948-1409). He is the host of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch (Sundays at 5:00 p.m.), which will return to the air in April at the conclusion of Festival, the annual fundraising campaign.

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