With their party on the wrong side of Republican super-majorities in the N.C. General Assembly, growing numbers of Democrats are looking for relevance and success where the party found it before – in the center.
Last week, three more House Democrats, including Reps. Becky Carney and Beverly Earle of Charlotte, joined the Main Street Democrats, a fledgling group that bills itself as centrist and pro-business.
“We’re going to have to meet people where they are, which is more in the center,” said Rep. Ken Goodman of Rockingham, the group’s founder. “Whether it’s center-right or center-left, we need to at least move in that direction.”
The group counts 21 of the General Assembly’s 61 Democrats as members. Its advisory board includes moderate Democrats such as Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter and David Hoyle of Gastonia, a former state senator and Revenue Department secretary.
For at least some members, the new group is an implicit recognition that their party has lost the ability to connect with the voters who kept it in power for more than a century.
Goodman says he modeled the group after the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist group that helped former President Bill Clinton build the coalitions that twice got him elected to the White House.
The Main Street group emphasizes bedrock issues such as jobs, economic development and education as well as bipartisanship.
Goodman says part of the group’s purpose is to remain relevant in a legislature where they’re badly outnumbered. More than in the past, they’ve been willing to join Republicans on some legislation.
In the Senate, Joel Ford of Charlotte was one of two Democrats who initially voted to allow magistrates to recuse themselves from marriages on religious grounds, though he later voted to sustain Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto of the Republican bill. In the House, all but one of the Main Street members joined Republicans in passing a $22.2 billion budget.
Because the Main Street group agreed to vote for the budget early, Republicans “were a lot more amenable to passing Democratic amendments,” Goodman says.
Another goal is to elect more Democrats.
A CNN exit poll in last year’s U.S. Senate race showed that 49 percent of self-described independent voters cast ballots for Republican Thom Tillis and 42 percent for Democrat Kay Hagan.
“We’re not going to win elections until we move to the center, and this is designed to help us move to the center,” says longtime Democratic consultant Brad Crone, who’s advising the Main Street group.
Political scientist Michael Bitzer of Catawba College says that’s the right move.
“For Democrats to be competitive in this state, they have to pull from the middle,” he says. “They can’t just pull from the left side of their party.”
Goodman, son of the late Sheriff Raymond Goodman of Richmond County, an institution in the Democratic Party, says the Main Street group adheres to party principles. But, he adds, “somewhere along the way, we’ve lost trust with people. We need to do something different.”
“You’ve got to understand what the play is,” Ford adds. “The play is to be competitive in non-Democratic districts. We believe we can do that by focusing on Main Street issues.”
State GOP spokesman Ricky Diaz says “even some Democrats recognize that the Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton-Roy Cooper-Moral Monday agenda pushed by some in the Democrat Party these days is too extreme and radical for North Carolina.”
House Minority Leader Larry Hall of Durham says while he welcomes anybody committed to electing more Democrats, he believes the regular party has done just fine recruiting centrist candidates. He points to the net gain of three House seats the party made last year.
“We’ve shown results, and we feel confident we’ll continue to be successful based on the record,” Hall says.
Carney says she sees the new group as a way to broaden her party’s appeal. “I don’t look at this as dividing anything,” she says. “I look at it as bringing more people under the tent as Democrats.”
Main Street Democrats are forming a political action committee in order to have a say in next year’s elections. Crone, the consultant, invokes the names of former governors in describing what the group is trying to do.
“If the party says it’s a ‘big tent’ party, there needs to be a place for the pro-business, middle-of-the-road Democrats – the Jim Hunt, Terry Sanford and Bob Scott Democrats.”
Charlotte-area Main Streeters
Rep. Kelly Alexander, Charlotte
Rep. Becky Carney, Charlotte
Rep. Tricia Cotham, Matthews
Rep. Beverly Earle, Charlotte
Sen. Joel Ford, Charlotte
Rep. Rodney Moore, Charlotte
Board of Advisers
Mayor Dan Clodfelter, Charlotte
Former Sen. David Hoyle, Gastonia
Former Rep. Cullie Tarleton, Boone