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Profiles of some N.C. delegates

Carmen Cusido, David Perlmutt, Austin Baird
Staff reports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. The host delegation for this year’s Democratic National Convention includes 157 voting delegates from every corner of North Carolina. They include first-time delegates and political veterans. Below are some of their stories, compiled by Carmen Cusido and David Perlmutt of The Charlotte Observer and Austin Baird of The (Raleigh) News & Observer.

Jannet Barnes

Age: 59

Residence: Knightdale (Wake County)

Occupation: Compliance Manager

Community is everything to Barnes, and much of the community around the lifelong North Carolinian is composed of church and family.

She and her husband, the Rev. J. Randolph Barnes, pastor of Stokes Chapel Baptist Church in Zebulon, have raised eight children. Now a grandmother many times over, Barnes has won all kinds of awards, including the Gold Community Service Award from President Barack Obama. The awarded was presented to Barnes by Rep. Brad Miller on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year.

Barnes said she often hears criticism of President Barack Obama from within the evangelical community, especially the president’s embrace of same-sex marriage. The first-time delegate said he’s just doing his job.

“He was elected to represent the United States of America, and that includes many diverse types of people with all types of lifestyles,” Barnes said. “We’re not electing a pastor.”

What’s more important, Barnes believes, is what Obama has done while in office to try to boost the economy and support affordable housing.

Ryan Butler

Age: 33

Residence: Greensboro

Occupation: Attorney

Butler said he wants to be a delegate this year because he believes the country is at a turning point for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.

“For the first time in history, the majority of the American public is on the side of the LGBT community. The majority of the country now believes that discriminating based on sexual orientation is wrong. A major political party on the side of the LGBT community – it’s something I’m really excited to see happen in my home in the Carolinas,” said Butler, who is president of the LGBT Democrats of North Carolina.

Of the state’s 157-member delegation, 13 are members of the LGBT community.

“If you look at national polls and state polls, there’s an increase in support of LGBT equality from the 1970s’ almost single-digit numbers to today – over 50 percent support now,” Butler said.

Joy Cook

Age: 35

Residence: Greensboro

Occupation: Public relations consultant, publicist, former plus-size model

The road to the convention for Cook began with a fellowship and Twitter.

“I’ve always been a behind-the-scenes person; I’m more comfortable getting PR for other people,” Cook said.

“I’ve been able to bring media attention to nonprofits that never had communication programs or any type of marketing person.”

But after Cook became a fellow with the N.C. Institute of Political Leadership this year and was invited to the White House in March for a social-media Tweetup, she decided she would start a social-media campaign to run for delegate.

“It means a lot to me, not only to be a delegate, but to be a young African-American female. I couldn’t even vote 40 years ago, so to be able to actually be a presidential (delegate) for my party ... as an African-American progressive woman, it symbolizes that the dream is real,” she added.

Cook also participated in the DNCC’s Tweetup for the key handover event at Time Warner Cable Arena in July.

Some of Cook’s more than 2,800 followers include fellow delegates, elected officials and reporters.

“This is going to be the most transparent convention because of social media and I’m excited to have the world have a front-row seat through my Twitter account,” said Cook, whose Twitter handle is @JoyCookPR.

The good news for Cook extends beyond her role as a delegate. Dave & Fran’s Southern Cafe, owned by her father, Dave Cook, was one of the vendors selected for CarolinaFest and the DNC.

John Crawford

Age: 45

Residence: Trinity (Randolph County)

Occupation: President of UAW Local 5287 at Thomas Built Buses

Crawford is against abortion and same-sex marriage and thinks most law-abiding citizens should be able to own a gun.

Years ago, Crawford voted primarily for Republican candidates based solely on those issues. But issues like jobs and the economy caused him to support the Democrats.

“If I ain’t got no money and no job, abortion and gay rights are going to mean nothing,” Crawford said. Obama’s plan for the country, Crawford said, makes more sense to him.

So the man who once voted for George W. Bush cast his ballot for Obama in 2008.

“I felt that Obama would be better for America and labor,” Crawford said. “When I ran for delegate, I wanted to express what connects each and every one of us is labor. We all have to work for a living. We have to go to work every day to make ends meet. The super rich – their money makes money for them.”

Crawford said he has good benefits working for a union company. “You’re not an ‘at-will’ employee. If a company fires you or lays you off, they have to prove that you’ve done something wrong. For me, that means a lot,” Crawford said.

Without a union, it is easier for employees to be fired “for no reason at all,” Crawford said.

“I just want people to hear labor’s issues,” Crawford said. “I know I’m a union member, I just want to be a force not only for my union but for working people in general.”

Corey Duvall

Age: 21

Residence: Franklin

Occupation: Senior at Western Carolina University

Duvall is a third-generation Democrat. His grandfather taught him to look after people “ahead of myself.”

“His lessons definitely fit what the Democratic Party stands for,” Duvall said. So he ran to become a delegate to give voice to rural Democrats.

At WCU, he is president of the college Democrats, and at the convention, he intends to stand up for public education, since there are few private schools in rural America. “I want to make sure farmers are heard and that they get the aid they need,” he said.

Duvall said Obama has done “an excellent job. He’s done the best he can with a do-nothing Congress. Until that changes, he really can’t accomplish a whole lot more.”

He said the president needs to – and can – win North Carolina by appealing to college students as he did four years ago. Advocating for affordable federal college loans should help win support. He’s concerned Republican Mitt Romney would threaten federal loans. “If it wasn’t for federal student loans, I’d more than likely be working in a grocery store – like my father – for the rest of my life.”

Olma Echeverri

Age: 60

Residence: Charlotte

Occupation: Customer service representative for Flxon Inc.

The first presidential election in which Echeverri was eligible to vote as a U.S. citizen was President Bill Clinton’s in 1992.

Echeverri’s introduction to politics began at the grass-roots level – she wanted to weigh in on school and other issues in her community – but she eventually became involved with Democratic causes at the state level, and when the party decided to start the Hispanic American Democrats of North Carolina, she wanted to take on that challenge.

Echeverri is now chairwoman of that auxiliary group.

“It was a commitment on my part to give back to this community and this country through civic engagement and politics,” said Echeverri, a native of Colombia who came to North Carolina in 1970 and who considers herself a Charlottean.

“I saw early on that to make institutional changes, you needed to have a seat at the table and get others in the community involved. If they’re eligible, they become citizens, if they’re citizens … they vote. Be productive members of the community, but also give back by volunteering.”

Echeverri said as a Latina, she is honored to represent the growing Hispanic community in North Carolina as a delegate.

Echeverri’s husband, German DeCastro, served as a delegate at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.

Vani Hari

Age: 33

Residence: Charlotte

Occupation: Banking consultant by day, food blogger by night

Hari first became aware of politics at age 9. She remembers standing in line at the voter precinct off Park Road with her father: the only one among his neighbors with a Michael Dukakis button, in support of the 1988 Democratic presidential candidate.

“I remember him out-arguing all the neighbors,” Hari said.

“We bond the most when we talk about politics,” Hari said of her father, who has a doctorate in mechanical engineering. In past presidential election years, her father has accompanied her going door-to-door campaigning for Democratic candidates.

In 2008, Hari took two months off work to campaign for Obama in South Carolina for the primaries. “All of it was volunteer,” Hari said. “I never accepted an official job with the campaign.”

Hari received a personal letter from then-Sen. Obama in early 2008 personally endorsing Hari as a delegate. At the time, there were delegates pledged to then-Sen. Hillary Clinton and those who were uncommitted.

Hari, a lifelong Charlottean who was a delegate in Denver in 2008, said to not be a part of this year’s convention “would have been devastating to me.”

The founder of the Food Babe blog (foodbabe.com), Hari wants to use the exposure during the convention to teach people about food and healthy eating.

“A major issue not addressed by Obama is the issue of genetically modified ingredients,” Hari said. “Genetically modified ingredients are fundamental to all the things happening in health care. ... Companies deceive people about their foods,” Hari said. “People need to know and make an informed decision” about what they eat, she said.

Hari, who said she only eats organic, probably won’t eat anything at the delegates’ breakfasts, she said.

“Europe, Australia all require labeling of genetically modified foods,” Hari said. “Why are we behind the curve on this?”

Matty Lazo-Chadderton

Age: 65

Residence: Cary

Occupation: Public affairs for consul general of Mexico in Raleigh

Lazo-Chadderton likes to tell people that her story has unfolded little by little.

She came to the United States from her native Peru as a young child when her father studied at the University of Chicago, but she returned home, bounced to Venezuela for 10 years and lived in Florida before making it in 1987 to the Triangle, which has been her home since.

This is her second time as a delegate. She was in Boston in 2004 when John Kerry accepted his party’s nomination.

“My dad used to tell me when I was a kid that America was the land of promise and opportunity, and that it always opens the door to everyone who wants to work,” she said. “I want this election to be an example to the whole world that we still are.”

In her view, that hinges on the re-election of Obama, so he can lead economic recovery and focus on issues like immigration and education, which she said need to become a central focus.

“So many of these issues are connected, and we need Obama because the president has to see the whole picture,” she said.

Elaine and Robert “Bob” McCollum

Residence: Franklin

Elaine’s age and occupation: 63, retired teacher

Bob’s age and occupation: 57, federal employee

When Elaine met Bob at a Super Bowl party in 1989, she immediately wanted to know whether he was a Democrat.

Had Bob McCollum been a Republican, “I don’t think I would have bothered. Thank goodness he said ‘yes,’ because he was a wonderful man. I’m hard core,” Elaine explained. “If I was married to someone who believed the exact opposite, it would be a life of fussing and arguing the whole time.”

The couple, who live in Macon County, and who have been involved in state and county Democratic politics, both ran and were elected delegates in May.

“We’ve encouraged each other in our political activities,” Bob said.

“I have tried to hold it together; I am to the point of jumping up and down,” Elaine said of being a delegate. “Bob may have to sedate me – I am so excited about it. … It’s a high point in my life. It’s one of those bucket-list things.”

Elaine said the couple wanted to be delegates in 2008, but couldn’t afford airplane tickets to Denver, where the convention was held that year.

“We thought it would be a little cheaper for us” to go to a convention in North Carolina, Bob said. “We are very big supporters of President Obama and his initiatives. We wanted, if at all possible, to reinforce our platform,” he added.

Being a Democrat is hereditary for Bob.

“I was raised in a very political family. I would attend precinct meetings with my father,” Bob said. “Later on, as I learned the Democrats were responsible for the GI Bill, and education legislation, it confirmed my upbringing,” he said. “I do not like the idea of increasing the hardship of lower and middle-income families while the people who can afford to help the country out are given more breaks and don’t use those breaks to help the country,” Bob added.

For Elaine, this year’s convention comes full circle to when she began voting in 1968. That year, she voted Democrat because she was against the Vietnam War and in favor of women’s and civil rights.

“At that age, I saw my friends going off to die and going to Canada to avoid the draft. I also had a very close friend in college who … had an abortion that was botched. She was not able to have children again,” Elaine said. “I have never in my life thought there would be an argument over birth control again – our priority stands for a woman’s right to choose, and it’s more in danger right now than it has ever been.” Elaine said that what started with civil and women’s rights has spread to her support of same-sex marriage.

Elizabeth Redenbaugh

Age: 44

Residence: Wilmington

Occupation: Attorney

Redenbaugh got involved in her community the way a lot of parents do – through her children’s schools. That led her to run for the New Hanover County school board in 2008. She’d been a Republican since her 18th birthday. But on the school board, she stood up against the creation of neighborhood schools, concerned they’d lead to “re-segregation.” Suddenly she experienced the dark side of politics.

“I lost friendships; people wouldn’t look me in the eye,” said the Charlotte-born Redenbaugh, who voted as a Republican for Obama in 2008. “I was somewhat threatened. I was yelled at. Screamed at. And called multiple names.”

Unable to attend a county Republican convention, word soon got back to her that a vote had been taken and “I would not be permitted to represent them again. I began questioning, ‘Do I want to remain in the Republican Party? Is this who I am?’”

In May 2011, Redenbaugh received a JFK Profile in Courage Award for her work to keep schools diverse. Two months later, she left the Republican Party and became a Democrat.

She continues her fervent support of Obama and hopes the DNC will energize supporters to work for his re-election. “He continues to stand up for the average American through his health care reforms, and he’s been a leader in foreign affairs,” she said. “He needs another four years to finish his job.”

Keylin Rivera

Age: 21

Occupation: Senior at UNC Greensboro

It has been only two years since Rivera has become politically active. But in that time, she has already met President Obama and recently introduced the first lady at a political event in the state.

“I keep forgetting that they’re human,” Rivera said. “These are just regular people ... they show anybody can make it, anything is possible,” she said about meeting the first couple on different occasions.

When she met President Obama last October, Rivera said she remembers only that she was “full of excitement and emotions,” and she cried afterwards.

Rivera called it “humbling and really motivational” to meet Michelle Obama, whom she introduced at an event this summer.

“She was just reassuring me that I was going to do a good job, like how a mom reassured her kids,” Rivera said. “She was so humble. She’s so full of life and energetic. … I was so excited. I was just worried about passing out.”

The first election in which Rivera was eligible to vote was the midterm election in 2010, and she became more involved with the college and statewide N.C. Democratic Party around that time. Her school had proposed cuts to programs that help low-income students with financial aid. “My goal was to empower young people,” Rivera said. “We can’t let stuff like this happen. This is affecting our generation.”

In addition to being a delegate, Rivera is now a summer fellow for Obama for America and president of the College Democrats of North Carolina.

“Before 2010, I really didn’t understand that I could actually make a difference. You don’t think a young Latina in the South can make a difference,” said Rivera, who was born in Long Island, N.Y., and moved to Gastonia at 15. “Now I have a place here,” she said. “The Democratic Party … is giving people like myself an opportunity to participate in this process,” said Rivera, who majors in political science and Spanish and aspires to become an immigration attorney.

Kevin Smith

Age: 35

Residence: Garner

Occupation: Works for state government

Smith learned what makes a good leader on the gridiron.

The former Wake Forest University linebacker says good leaders deal with adversity, react positively to unexpected change, work with people they don’t like, and never avoid hard work. Smith saw those traits in people like Jim Caldwell, his coach while playing for the Demon Deacons from 1995 to 1999.

Smith is a first-time delegate firmly behind Obama. Smith said he believes the president has been tested and shown the traits of a great leader.

Republicans haven’t been tripping over each other to work with the president, and adversity abounds, Smith said, but the president is still hard at work.

“Some people think (Obama) is too calm, too cool, but to me that’s a good thing,” Smith said. “You have to remain calm in the middle of chaos and stay open to hear ideas, and that’s what he does.”

Smith said he considers access to quality education one of the most important issues facing the country, and he expects that to be addressed under a second Obama term.

Jeff Thigpen

Age: 41

Residence: Greensboro

Occupation: Guilford County register of deeds

At 27, Thigpen became the youngest county commissioner not only in Guilford County, but in North Carolina.

Most recently, Thigpen wrote the book, “On Point: Voices and Values of Young Elected Officials.” In it, he profiles 16 center-left young elected officials around the country who were all under 35 when he started writing the book more than two years ago. The officials represent a diverse group of religions and ethnic and social backgrounds.

“I wanted to go back and recapture what I had learned as a young elected official, but I wanted to do it in a way that was emotionally compelling,” Thigpen said.

“It was like a field of dreams for me: They had a lot of ideas and a lot of hope. Unfortunately, the political system doesn’t lend itself to young people,” he said.

Earlier this year, Thigpen was a guest on The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC after his county office took more than two dozen banks and mortgage companies to court after accusing them of falsifying loan documents and deeds.

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