The Wake County Democratic Party’s endorsement of both candidates running in the non-partisan Raleigh City Council race for District D has triggered a minor backlash among area residents fiercely loyal to 10-year incumbent Thomas Crowder.
Although the party has a long-standing policy of not choosing sides in non-partisan elections – in 2009 for example, it endorsed then-incumbent Mayor Charles Meeker and his Democratic challenger Mark Enloe – there are many Democrats who feel this policy creates unnecessary confusion and diminishes the value of an endorsement.
Jimmy Creech, a local Democrat and longtime civil rights advocate who lives in Boylan Heights with his wife Chris Weedy, expressed his dismay over the party’s decision this year to endorse both Crowder and his opponent Jim Kemp Sherron, also running as a Democrat.
“When there’s an endorsement of someone running against a very fine officeholder who is an incumbent, it sort of undercuts that, it says, ‘OK, these two people are equal and they’re not,’” Creech said.
“So the endorsements actually create great confusion, and we’re very upset about this,” he added.
Bob Fesmire, a registered Independent and a resident of District D since 2009, believes the policy of issuing parallel endorsements creates a negative public perception of the Democratic party.
“Most people understand that an endorsement means that it’s an identification of someone being the best choice,” Fesmire said. “If the Democratic Party is going to basically say that this is like an afterschool program, and anyone who wants to can play; that really sort of removes a lot of the value of having an endorsement in the first place.”
“There’s no question where this is going to wind up – the Democratic Party once again engaging in the circular firing squad,” he added.
A Matter of Policy
Dan Blue III, the chair of the Wake County Democratic party, explained that the policy stems from rules both written and unwritten, and was likely shaped by negative experiences in the party’s past, although he did not have any specific examples.
“This is sort of the clutter of history,” Blue said, “where both parties deal with having the party endorse someone that the grassroots doesn’t think should’ve gotten an endorsement; over time there were rules developed where, unless you’ve got a very, very sincerely good reason,” the party is going to issue an endorsement, he explained.
The only exception in the Raleigh Council races the party made this year, he said, was the decision to endorse in District B challenger Brian Fitzsimmons over fellow Democrat Sam Smith in the race against Republican John Odom.
Blue said this was a result of the fact that Smith appeared to have switched his party registration from Republican to Democrat right before filing for office.
The decision to make parallel endorsements, of which he said there were a number this year, particularly in Morrisville, stems from a statewide rule that specifically governs primaries, which is often interpreted as applying to non-partisan races as well.
“We’ve found that it keeps the peace. Until somebody ventures forth to clarify it, we treat it as saying you don’t favor one democrat over the other,” Blue said.
Creech said while he understands that the party needs to follow its own rules, he feels that in this case in particular, it “created some real misunderstanding and, I fear, some mistrust of the party leadership.”
Micah Beasley, the press secretary for the North Carolina Democratic Party, said while the state party encourages local parties to stay out of contentious primaries, he doesn’t feel there is a great desire at this point to add restrictions that would prevent the kind of parallel endorsements that happen in local, non-partisan elections.
As it stands, the only reference to endorsements in the party’s bylaws comes in section 2.3, which deals with the party’s executive council. It reads:
“The Executive Council shall have the authority to recommend to the State Executive Committee endorsements of candidates in statewide non-partisan elections.”
“There’s nothing that says, ‘Wake County: if you endorse this Democrat and don’t endorse that Democrat we can fine you $250 or revoke membership or what have you,’” Beasley said.
“We just kind of encourage people and direct them to the way we do things at the state level.”
While Blue, with the county Democrats, expressed some frustration at the existing policy, he said it was important for the party to avoid the appearance of picking favorites and playing kingmaker.
“You don’t want to seem like you’ve got your finger on the scale or you’re trying to tip the balance, especially right now where you’ve got Democrats or Republicans who want to pull their parties in different directions,” Blue said.
“The last thing you want to appear to be doing is purging candidates that don’t agree with you.”
Phone calls and emails sent to both Crowder and Sherron seeking comment for this story were not returned.
City Council Elections will take place Oct. 8. Early Voting begins Sept. 19.