‘The people must see us’: NC Democrats’ first Black chair on how to move party forward

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Julian Shen-Berro
·5 min read
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The North Carolina Democratic Party elected Bobbie Richardson, a former state legislator and educator, to serve as the new party chair Saturday.

Richardson is North Carolina Democrats’ first Black chair, a spokeswoman for the party said.

In an interview with The News & Observer on Sunday, Richardson reflected on her career in politics, and spoke about where she hoped to take Democrats.

“I’ve always believed that politics are an avenue for voices to be heard,” she said. “It is not about me... it is about the constituents — that I have pledged my voice to be their voice.”

Richardson succeeds Wayne Goodwin, who has chaired the party since 2017 and chose not to seek reelection. She defeated three other candidates on the ballot to win the position.

“With her at the helm, North Carolina Democrats’ best days are ahead,” Goodwin said in a statement announcing the new party leadership. “Together, we will carry the fight forward for a brighter future for our state.”

Richardson’s path to NC Democratic chair

Richardson says she first heard about politics at the dinner table growing up in Franklin County, where her father would tell her about what he’d read in the paper.

She described him as “an avid follower of politics” and “a believer in the democratic process,” crediting her parents and her family for instilling values that persist today.

After graduating from North Carolina Central University in Durham, she eventually found her way into the education sector, where she would work as an educator and administrator for more than 30 years.

She was later recruited to become involved in grassroots politics, working on campaigns for former Durham County Commissioner Joe Bowser and former Durham Mayor Bill Bell.

“That was when I got the fever,” Richardson said of working on political campaigns. She moved back to Franklin County in 1998, and ran for school board. She lost the election, but was later approached to serve as the county party chair — a position she assumed in 2002.

Richardson moved to the N.C. House of Representatives in 2013, replacing the former state Rep. Angela Bryant after she moved to the state Senate. During her time in the state House, Richardson represented House District 7, which contained portions of Franklin and Nash counties.

She won reelection in 2014 and 2016 before losing her bid in 2018 to Republican Lisa Barnes of Nash County, who now serves in the state Senate.

After her 2018 loss, Richardson ran for first vice-chair of the N.C. Democratic Party — the position she held until her election to party chair on Saturday.

Where NC Democrats go from here

Richardson’s election comes on the heels of what many Democrats have considered a disappointing election cycle in North Carolina. Though Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper won reelection, former President Donald Trump won North Carolina and Democrats lost a majority of statewide elections, including for U.S. Senate. Republicans also maintained control over both chambers of the General Assembly.

“The losses hurt,” Richardson said. “But let’s not lose sight of the fact that we have been steadily gaining ground.”

She emphasized high voter turnout, and maintaining enough seats in the General Assembly to stop Republicans from overriding Cooper’s vetoes — as well as the national Democratic sweep of the presidency and both chambers of the U.S. Congress — as bright spots in the 2020 election.

Still, Richardson said there are lessons to be learned from the wins and the losses of 2020.

She pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic as the largest factor inhibiting Democratic efforts in the lead-up to the election. “We had no blueprint,” she said of campaigning during a pandemic, adding that while they focused heavily on phone banking and other digital efforts, there was not enough face-to-face organizing, knocking on doors, or registering of new voters.

“We also believed that the Republican Party had done such a poor job of serving the people, that more people would have been disenchanted with the party,” she said. But she notes that Trump and his surrogates made many trips to the state, spreading their message to voters at large venues.

“The people must see us,” Richardson said. “They must be able to talk to us, and must be able to believe that we are listening to them.”

The party is already looking ahead to the 2022 midterm elections, and to the 2024 election after it, Richardson said.

“We’ve just got to organize much better,” she said. “We’ve got to have a 100-county effort, and we’ve got to tailor our strategies to the different regions — because what will work in Durham, may not even work in Wake County.”

She emphasized getting organizers outside of Raleigh and other urban areas, and having more of a presence in the central, southern and western parts of the state. Richardson added the party is looking to the examples of Virginia, Wisconsin and Georgia — all of which turned out for Democrats in 2020.

When asked about becoming the first African American woman to lead the party, Richardson emphasized she would serve as a chair for all members of the party — but added that she would continue to advocate for the African American community and other communities of color.

“I will fight for them,” Richardson said. “Because I think our communities are very much the backbone of the Democratic Party, but too often are not given the mantle to carry the party forward.”

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