This year’s contest for Buncombe County Democratic Party chair attracted much more attention than usual, with various candidates jumping in and bowing out of the race. In the end, however, Asheville attorney (and local party activist) Emmet Carney emerged as the unanimous choice, selected by acclamation at the party's April 9 convention.
And though the Democrats dominated the local elections last year, they're now a minority in both houses of the General Assembly for the first time in more than a century. Carney spoke with Xpress recently about the Democratic Party, his new job and why he thinks the Republicans’ postelection approach in Raleigh is unifying Democrats more than ever. Here’s what he had to say.
Mountain Xpress: Why did you get involved in the Democratic Party?
Emmet Carney: Well, my parents were liberals — Jesuit Catholic liberals — and they were very active in immigrant causes and really involved with the poor. They were very service-oriented; they weren't just talking about it. A few years ago, I got involved with the Young Democrats, and found that I liked it so much that I've been with the party ever since.
What do you see as the Democratic Party’s core principles these days?
Public education, long-term debt relief and job creation.
What are the biggest challenges facing the Buncombe County Democratic Party?
The results of redistricting. As far as challenges, we've got a ton of very different, terrific Democrats in this area: I can't picture a challenge they can't rise to. But certainly the biggest challenge will be whatever redistricting gives us.
You've got a primary race shaping up between Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell and Rep. Heath Shuler — two very different ends of the Democratic Party. Are you anticipating any disputes between different party factions going into the 2012 elections?
My role will be to ensure fairness and access to all the Democratic primary candidates until we get the primary done, at which point my job is to get that Democrat elected.
Do I anticipate any problems? No; if I just stick to my mission of keeping it clean, then I really don't see one. A vigorous debate at this point in the electoral cycle is welcome — it helps us define ourselves.
On the organizational and tactical level, what are some changes you'll be bringing to the local Democratic Party? That's a question I'll have to defer until the districting. With regard to tactics, they will be what the map gives us.
Certainly, it's a presidential election: We will be trying to re-energize the young voters who came out for Obama last time; we'll try to maximize our youth vote. But with regard to specific tactics, we'll have to see the map.
Your predecessor, Charles Carter, served as chair for two years and was very well-liked by many party members. What are things you've taken from him, and what will you do differently as chair?
Charles is a very cool customer; I've admired him for a very long time. I've learned how to address large rooms of angry — I mean animated [laughs] — people. I've learned from Mr. Carter how to keep my cool and how earnest honesty really works.
What challenges do you see the local Republican Party, which also has a new chair, posing?
Gosh, I keep hearing every day about this freshman representative, and he's making things real interesting.
That's the one. I hear about him all day, every day, from Democrats and Republicans. It may be a challenge, or it might be an incredible windfall. People are motivated; they're hot and they're incredibly involved.
Why do you think that is in this particular case?
There’s a heavy-handedness in the way all these matters have been handled. It's not for me to say, but I imagine it doesn't appeal to Republican voters either, the way this has all been centralized in Raleigh; the way this has been handed to us with no discussion. I know it's vexed some of the Republican politicians here in the community. They haven't been consulted either.
As far as problems from the Republican Party, they need to come up with a candidate [laughs]. I know people are pretty hopping mad at Moffitt. Besides that, I think the Republican Party needs to come up with a presidential candidate. I did not see that person in the [May 5] debate.
Traditionally, the Buncombe Democratic Party has focused very heavily on organization. Is that something you're seeking to maintain?
That positively has to be my job: I have to get as many voters as I possibly can activated, and keep them activated. It's a massive organization full of brilliant, talented people, and we've just got to keep the train going in the right direction.
It's not my role to be the head of this thing — I'm not the ringmaster or anything. My job is to facilitate these people, and organization is our priority. I feel that Buncombe County citizens in general are very well-versed on the issues, and therefore organization is important.
What else has been on your mind as you've assumed your new duties?
I've really enjoyed the process. It's only been about a month, but I've been particularly struck by how experienced, intelligent and motivated our party faithful are. I got the impression, before I was sitting where I am today, that there was significant strife in the party, due to things I was reading on email and comments.
The so-called “flame war” is vastly overstated in the Democratic Party. With regard to our fundamental and core issues, I can find almost no differences, truly. We believe in the same things. The flame wars have not been particularly productive, but they’re not part of any larger problem. The party is unified and is getting more unified with each new act that comes out of Raleigh.
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at email@example.com.