Gary D. Robertson
RALEIGH — It’s been a contentious year for North Carolina Democrats in the run-up to Tuesday’s start of the national party convention in Charlotte, but they expect division to fade as they witness President Barack Obama seeking to make history in their backyard once again.
State party leaders and Democratic National Convention delegates are preaching harmony with the approach of a watershed event they hope will energize party regulars and newcomers through the fall campaigns.
“The convention is a very unifying force for the party,” said Sam Spencer, president of the Young Democrats of North Carolina.
Tar Heel Democrats also want to make a positive impression on the 35,000 people arriving for the convention, television viewers nationwide and media from around the world. The idea of North Carolina hosting a national political convention seemed farfetched 40 or 50 years ago.
“To have something of this magnitude, it’s exciting and humbling at the same time to be a part of it,” said state Rep. Becky Carney, a member of Charlotte’s Convention Host Committee and North Carolina’s 188-member convention delegation.
As the party nominates Obama for a second term and seeks to boost his re-election chances, the convention also will shine a national spotlight on North Carolina and on state candidates on the ballot below the president. Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, the party’s gubernatorial nominee, will speak at convention Thursday, when Obama delivers his acceptance speech, Dalton’s campaign said.
The convention also gives rank-and-file Democrats a reason to coalesce following a string of troubles.
The state party faced unexpected division in January when Gov. Beverly Perdue decided not to seek a second term in office as her poll numbers sank. Her withdrawal led party members to take sides in a six-way primary, won by Dalton.
Party activists also split when Perdue, Dalton and other elected leaders called on state party chairman David Parker to resign as harassment allegations surfaced at party headquarters. Many didn’t like the way Parker handled allegations by a former party employee against the executive director. The national Democratic Party tried to push him out.
But the party’s executive committee decided in a close vote to refuse his resignation, irking the party establishment and leaving Parker in place at least until January. The party also had struggled with fundraising.
North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, who was among the first to call for Parker’s resignation, said she and other Democrats are focused now on helping re-elect Obama and elect Dalton.
“A lot of people have put the business of the chairman to the side,” she said. “There are bigger, more important things for North Carolina right now.”
State party spokesman Walton Robinson said Parker wasn’t doing media interviews leading up to the convention.
Parker was suspended from his position on the Charlotte Host Committee, which helped assemble the convention. Robinson said Parker focused pre-convention on getting the state delegation organized and their questions answered, as well as helping people find seats for Obama’s acceptance speech at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday night.
Spencer said the state’s delegation will promote unity because such a diverse group is supporting the president, who made history by narrowly winning North Carolina’s electoral votes in 2008. It was the first such win for a Democratic candidate since 1976, and this will be the first Democratic national convention ever in North Carolina.
Polls show Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney running neck and neck.
The party exceeded delegation diversity goals in several categories including the number of female delegates and alternates (92), black delegates (88) and those identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (13). Nearly three-fourths of the delegates were elected in local and statewide party races.
The number of delegates age 35 and under also surged to more than 30, a ten-fold increase over 2008 goals. They include Justin Conley, 26, of Macon County, who will attend his first convention. He said he tunes out most intraparty politics and is excited about “a growing movement of young people that are just ready to kick down the door” and make a difference.
North Carolina’s oldest delegate, 90-year-old Charles M. Johnson of Rocky Mount, is attending his seventh convention as a delegate or alternate. He said Charlotte will leave a good impression with the rest of the country. About 15,000 people registered to volunteer for the convention activities, the host committee said.
“They’re going to find some of the nicest people and everyone down there, whether Republicans or Democrats, are going to extend North Carolina hospitality to them because they were raised that way,” Johnson said.