GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – Anderson Clayton is busy. She’s on the go. She has a long to-do list, and this is her first week on a new job. She has people to see, people to inspire, heads she wants to turn.
Maybe you’ve heard that Clayton, a native of Roxboro who turned 25 in January, was elected last Saturday to be the chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party. That’s right, 25. Move over, Erin Matson, you’ve got company in the limelight of young women in leadership.
But unlike the goals being scored and the tradition being upheld by the 22-year-old Matson as the superstar-turned-coach of North Carolina’s famed field hockey team – “I’m going to have to write her a little note. That’s so cool,” Clayton said – she’s taking over a struggling team that was beaten pretty badly statewide in the 2022 elections.
Clayton won her job by defeating incumbent Bobbie Richardson, 73, the first Black woman to lead the party, in an election of the NCDP state executive committee. That victory was despite Richardson’s having been endorsed by every high-ranking Democrat in the state, including Gov. Roy Cooper, one of the men who wants to replace him, Attorney General Josh Stein and all seven Democrats representing the state in Congress.
“Definitely surprised. I think anybody would be,” she said in a Zoom interview from a car – she wasn’t driving – while zipping between events in Chapel Hill. “I think we had a campaign that just wanted to organize everywhere. And I think that’s what we did with the SEC [committee]. To make sure that every voter heard from me either in person or talked over the phone. To see the things I would bring to the party. … Making sure that folks knew there are a lot of voices in the Democratic party right now and that everybody had a place to put that.”
Any member of the party can run for chair. It’s like any other election in that candidates campaign and tout their experiences and ideas. Clayton was aggressive in reaching potential voters, even building a sophisticated website that is superior to those used by some candidates for federal office.
She, Richardson, LeVon Barnes, a precinct chair and party official from Mebane and Brunswick County Democratic Party Chair Eric Terashima were on the ballot. Members of the NCDP’s executive council – which includes about 500-600 delegates who are apportioned by county membership – who attend the meeting either in person or by Zoom can vote. They also can send approved proxies.
The vote really came down to Clayton and Richardson in a sort of ranked-choice process. The News & Observer reported that Clayton earned 46% to lead the first ballot, with Richardson second. In their runoff, Clayton won with about 55% of the more than 500 votes cast.
That brought a spirited change of tune from among the highest level of those who had campaigned for the other candidate.
“Congratulations to Anderson Clayton and the other officers elected today. All the elected Democratic officials look forward to working together to make NC Blue in 2024,” Cooper tweeted on Saturday afternoon.
Said Stein in offering congratulations: “I look forward to working with her over the next 2 years to elect Democrats up and down the ballot.”
6th Congressional District Rep. Kathy Manning (D-Greensboro) posted congrats and thanked Richardson and said she looks “forward to working with everyone to elect Democrats up and down the ballot in ’24.”
4th District Rep. Valerie Foushee (D-Durham): “I’m looking forward to working with you to flip North Carolina blue.”
The face you will see
The chair of the NCDP is its face, its voice, its most available presence on strategies of both action and reaction. There is an executive director who runs an office of maybe a dozen employees – Lillian Taylor is serving that role in an interim basis – but Clayton most often will be the person in front of the cameras, on Zoom, with attributed words about the ebb and flow of the political pendulum.
By 4:30 p.m. on Monday she had sent out a statewide email to introduce herself, offer a little about her background, describe a “bold new message” and challenge members with a classic “ya’ll” at the end. She also included that most important link: a path to making a donation.
Anderson Clayton – her first name comes from a generational tradition in her family to name a child Anderson, and her mother decided it would be a girl this time, she said – graduated from Appalachian State in 2019 with degrees in journalism and political science.
She went to Iowa and helped with now Vice President Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign. When that ended, she did the same for Sen. Elizabeth Warren. She then worked for Amy McGrath, the former fighter pilot who tried to gun down Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s re-election in Kentucky.
Then she came home to Person County, to Roxboro, a city of slightly more than 8,000 that’s northeast of Greensboro, along the Virginia border. You won’t find the limelight there, but it wasn’t Clayton’s stoplight, either. She used Person County to make her name by getting Democrats elected to City Council.
“We ran candidates that were representative of the population of Roxboro,” she said. “The city of Roxboro had never seen Black representation on the City Council before. The city is 51% Black. People see themselves and talk about issues important to them. Affordable housing, sidewalks outside schools, clean water in the city. They ran on issues that were close to home to people. And we knocked on doors.”
‘Energetic’ and ‘hard-working’
Clayton speaks with confidence and exuberance that is obvious, and she speaks the doctrine of getting candidates on ballots and in front of voters as the essence of her mission in all 100 counties. Democrats in November lost ground in the state Senate (it’s a GOP supermajority), in the state House (it nearly is) and more astoundingly on the state Supreme Court, which for the first time swung to a Republican majority of 5-2. Republican Ted Budd beat a more well-funded Cheri Beasley for the U.S. Senate.
You get the picture. The job won’t be easy. She has support from those on the ground in North Carolina who say they see her potential to flip some of that momentum.
State Sen. Michael Garrett (D-Greensboro) didn’t attend the committee meeting, but he said he met Clayton a couple of years ago at the White House during an event about rural broadband. “Very energetic, passionate and thoughtful. In my opinion,” he said.
“I think we had two incredible candidates, and either way the party would be well served. It was clear people wanted a change, and they organized to realize the change they wanted. Grassroots at its best.”
One person who did vote for Clayton is Kevin Farmer, the chair (at least until April) of the Forsyth County Democratic Party.
“I supported the election of a hard-working, smart candidate for party chair, a candidate with a proven track record of success, as well as someone who understands old-school relationship building AND data-driven, modern campaigning,” Farmer wrote in an email to WGHP.
Is it grassroots?
Some have cited Clayton’s work in Roxboro and on the ground in Iowa and Kentucky and called her approach “grassroots,” and she does speak in terms of growing candidates and voters out of nothing, planting approaches and ideas that might take both bloom and root.
Clayton’s full-time job – or at least it was full-time – is as a broadband analyst for Rural Innovation Strategies, which purports to develop economic prosperity in rural America” through “inclusive tech economy ecosystems.” That sounds like high-tech grassroots, too.
“I’m not looking at this as grassroots/top-down conflict,” said Farmer, who said he commands a “volunteer universe” of maybe 2,500 in Forsyth. “The most top-down organization ever in NC politics was Obama for America. They were also the smartest, and the most successful. If we were winning, nobody would be complaining about a top-down state party.
“Just as many bad ideas come from the grassroots as from the Raleigh consultant crowd. The difference is that the grassroots doesn’t have millions of dollars to turn bad ideas into disasters.
“In terms of the grassroots, I think the Democratic Party could use a grassroots, period. In ten years, most of our core activists will either be dead or too tired to care. Young people are not joining up. Even people in their 40s and 50s are not joining up.
“I think it will stay that way until we do the hard work of building a strong multiclass, multiracial, multicultural coalition, which means we might win some elections from time to time, but transformative change will not be possible. And transformative change is what is needed, in my opinion. It’s almost too late.”
Said Kathy Kirkpatrick, his counterpart in Guilford County: “I absolutely support Anderson Clayton, as well as all our party officers. I appreciate Anderson’s knowledge and support of year-round, grass-roots organizing, and it is needed in Guilford. Our turnout in the last election was not as robust as it needed to be.”
Optimistic and energetic
Clayton has new cohorts at the top of the party. Jonah Gibson, Kimberly Hardy and Elijah King were elected first, second and third vice-chairs. Melvin Williams is the new secretary. They are young and diverse. They have changed the face of the party.
“With so much at stake in 2023 and 2024, we are proud to have Anderson lead the NCDP team,” Taylor said in a statement released by NCDP. “We look forward to getting back to work with Democrats across the state to strengthen our party infrastructure and elect candidates who will stand up for our shared values.”
Said Farmer: “Stories are inspiring, and Anderson (as well as the rest of the new board) has an inspiring story that will hopefully motivate more people to get involved.”
Clayton describes herself as “eternally optimistic … extremely energetic … as someone that really believes in making things better for people across our state and across America and rural America.”
‘Make them bat’
She said there were “myriad different reasons” that Democrats lost so many elections in 2022.
“We did not have the coordination that we needed to. We needed more investment,” she said. “The actual infrastructure that we needed just wasn’t there in the last cycle, and it’s definitely going to be there in this cycle.
“Because what we are doing right now is to organize precincts and get counties ready to make sure we have folks running in municipal races in 2023. And in 2024 ensuring that we have somebody running for every seat because Democrats across the state deserve somebody to vote for.
“Republicans for a long time have not had to run races, in my opinion, especially in rural North Carolina. They’ve been not playing ball for a long time. So I want to make sure to get them up to the plate and make them bat.”
She said that takes finding candidates who relate to people. She also promises to seek out unaffiliated voters.
“What I want to be able to do is encourage folks, especially unaffiliated voters, that the party is here for them,” Clayton said. “We want them to register as Democrats in order to be able to run for office and actually have the backing and the support of the party behind them. Especially in places where we haven’t had them before. … Unaffiliated voters, to me a lot of those folks are young folks in particular who are kind of tired of the partisan bickering of both parties right now.
“I think they just want to see what party cares about actually making things happen for them. That’s what I’m excited to show this year, that we are the party that’s doing that. That we put a young person in charge to be able to show them that even more.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified Forsyth County Democratic Chair Kevin Farmer.