New movement seeks to re-energize local Democratic Party

MIKE CONLEY/MCDOWELL NEWS

Jacob Blair (left) and Tony Bradley are two of the leaders of the McDowell County Democratic Reinvention Project. The movement was started on Facebook by a posting from local musician Freddy Bradburn, who was unavailable for this photo.

A movement that started through social media among progressives and left-leaning people in McDowell County is seeking to reinvent the local Democratic Party. The leaders say they also want to enact positive change and help the county, state and nation move forward.

“We want to be a part of something positive,” said Jacob Blair, the group’s spokesman. “Be positively rebellious and rebelliously positive.”

Blair is helping to lead what has been named the McDowell County Democratic Reinvention Project. It is a group of local Democrats and progressives who want to reinvigorate the local party.

This local movement started on Facebook with a posting by musician and former McDowell Tech instructor Freddy Bradburn.

Bradburn said felt frustrated and worried about the direction that the United States is heading now that Donald Trump is president. And like many progressive North Carolinians, he’s also been concerned about the actions of the Republican-led General Assembly.

But living in a conservative rural county, Bradburn knew his left-leaning views and opinions would not be popular here.

McDowell County voted overwhelmingly for Trump and supported every other Republican presidential candidate in recent decades. All of the county elected offices are now held by Republicans. Last year, not a single Democrat even filed to run for office in McDowell County.

Then there is the state General Assembly, which is dominated by conservative Republicans, and legislation like House Bill 2, which caused controversy and boycotts nationwide and division even here in McDowell. Actions by the GOP-led Legislature resulted in the Moral Monday protests in Raleigh and elsewhere.

“We are concerned about the direction North Carolina has taken,” said Bradburn. “I felt voiceless and there are a lot of smart, talented people who are being shut out.”

Bradburn reached out through Facebook to find out who else in McDowell County shares his worries and frustrations. At first, he was a little apprehensive. He told The McDowell News that he had to ask himself “Do I really want to step into this?”

He immediately found out that numerous other people here felt the same way and thought it was past time that their voices were heard.

“It kind of has exploded,” said Bradburn. “I think our real goal is to become a positive force. We didn’t want to get into political squabbles. A lot of talented people have come on board. One of the most important things I wanted to do was to get young people involved.”

Blair is one of those. He’s attended meetings of the Marion City Council and the McDowell County Commissioners and has paid attention to how local government operates. Blair said he hopes this new movement will advocate for positive changes in the local community through citizen participation and volunteerism.

“I want us to become a volunteer organization, as well as a political organization,” said the 28-year-old Blair. “We are here to build bridges, build communities. We want work with every charitable organization.”

Tony Bradley is another person who has joined in this effort although he is older and more politically experienced than Blair. He was president of the McDowell County Democrat Club for several years. He said there was also a Young Democrat Club here in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, but it faded from the scene.

“This is an all-new movement in our county that was started on Facebook but has been encouraged by the recent events in the leadership of our local, state and federal governments and especially our new President,” he said in a Facebook message to a McDowell News reporter. “Our local Democratic party, including myself, has suffered due to the aging of our members and the failure to bring newer people into the party and keep them involved. However with the recent election and the recent events in Washington there has been a great interest in our local young and middle age people to revive our local Democratic party again.”

In an interview, Bradley said McDowell will experience change when people from Buncombe, which is more liberal, will likely relocate here because it is about to go through a revaluation. The property values in McDowell are much more affordable. These newcomers will bring different ideas and attitudes to this community.

A week ago on Sunday afternoon, Bradburn, Blair and Bradley convened a meeting of like-minded people at the Crooked Door Coffee House. More than 50 showed up. The gathering included more women than men and a few African-Americans and Hispanics, according to Blair and Bradley.

Blair said he and others in his group are aware that many Hispanics, who could be undocumented residents, are fearful of what might happen to them under the Trump Administration.

“We want them to know we stand with them,” he said.

Mott Buff, chairwoman of the local party, said she’s happy to see this movement get underway. She was unable to attend the meeting on Sunday.

“Yes, there is a positive movement in our county for a bigger and better Democratic Party and as chair, we welcome them,” she said. “We are excited that folks are wanting to be involved.”

Long-time Democratic Party leaders Robert Ayers and Don Ramsey were there for this meeting along with local NAACP President Ray McKesson.

The group agreed to call their movement the McDowell County Democratic Reinvention Project. They want to work with the local Democratic Party but also focus on community involvement and volunteerism, along with political campaigns.

“We want to be kind of a separate entity,” said Blair in the interview.

Following this Sunday meeting, Bradburn asked these people through Facebook to share their thoughts about why they are getting involved. He told them their statements would be provided to a McDowell News reporter for this story. Almost 20 people submitted their statements.

“I joined because I want to help,” said Ann Kernahan of Little Switzerland. “The Democratic party needs a simple, plain plan of action. A platform we can all agree on. I'd like to see us less fractured, more focused. A community organized and ready to stand up for Democratic ideals. We can sit back and let the Republicans speak about who we are, or we can do it ourselves, more honestly.”

“I joined because the social and economic needs in the county are heartbreaking and I don’t see much being done about them on a local government level,” said Janet Patterson of Marion.

“I joined because my daughter works for Women & Girls Rights internationally at the International Center for Women's Rights in DC,” said Gabrielle Marlene Thompson of Marion. “As I write this, she is in Dubai working for Women’s economic rights in Dubai. She grew up here. She believes in human rights. We need to go forward as a Democratic Party that supports us all.”

“I joined so that I could be the change I want to see,” Elizabeth Bush Suttles of Marion. “I wanted to be more actively involved in our community and help this community to thrive like those around us, but I wasn't sure what steps I needed to take. I had been losing my faith in humanity, then you all showed up. I had felt like an outcast in this community for so long, and I wasn't sure where I fit in because of my progressive leanings. It was refreshing and comforting to be included in this group and meet other people who share the same views and goals. I wanted to be a part of something that was sure to bring about a positive change in our community.”

“The McDowell Reinvention Project has given me new hope for this change to come about, with people actively wanting to see it improve and become a party for all people,” said Justin McGovney, former Marion resident who lives in Boone. “And it’s not just here in Marion but it seems to be happening all across the state and the nation. Let’s take this opportunity and have our voices heard and cared for again. Let's make a future together.”

“I joined because I'm invested in McDowell County,” said Amanda Elledge Finn of Marion. “I came back to McDowell because I believe in the people here; they have good hearts. I'm invested in a career as an educator and administrator that serves McDowell County. We are at a crossroads, we can move forward and enact change here in our own community or we can watch while the country that our founding fathers built is disassembled.”

Ramsey, who is a city councilman and former Clerk of Court, said many progressive-minded people feel their voices have not been considered by those in power here and elsewhere. They have been ostracized in a conservative community.

“They have been left out and they haven't been heard,” he said.

Blair said he hopes this new positive movement will work with other organizations to make McDowell County a better place for all to live. He listed the McDowell Trails Association, More Heart Than Scars, Alive Cubed and the various animal welfare groups as some of the local organizations with which they can find common goals. Bradburn wants to include music and the performing arts in this effort.

“No one is alone here,” said Blair. “This is a community for leftists, progressives. We want the arts to flourish. We want to make it fun.”

They also plan to be a part of the next meeting of the county Democratic Party, which is set for 6 p.m. Thursday at the Dragon’s Lair restaurant. Patsy Keever, the past chairwoman for the N.C. Democratic Party, is the guest speaker.

Ramsey, who is chairman of the Democrat Club, said he’s very encouraged by this new effort.

“We are going to come out with a positive message,” he said. “We've been going backwards far too long. Overall, there was a great group of people at the meeting. We're out to combine our efforts and forces and do what is good for our county and our state.”

Members will also talk about organizing the county’s 17 precincts.

Members of the McDowell County Democratic Reinvention Project are already talking about how to do that.

Another meeting is being discussed to be held at the Marion Depot.

“My goal is to make the Democratic Party more progressive and electable,” said Blair.

Bradley, who has worked on this far longer, said “We’re facing an uphill battle in this county. It’s a very conservative county.”

“It’s the uphill battles that are worth fighting,” said Blair.