While 2008 is shaping up to be a monumental year for Democrats after seven years of sitting on the sidelines, Newton County's own Democratic Party is having a little more trouble getting its ducks in a row as it readies for this year's election season.
In August, the party's chairwoman at the time, Sarah Todd, abruptly resigned after serving only eight months of an elected two year term. With Todd's resignation also came the resignations of the party's secretary, Brian Todd (Sarah's husband), and the party's treasurer, Lois Upham.
The resignations appear to have been prompted by disagreements between some of the party's members who had lived in Newton County for a long time and some of the party's newer arrivals who had recently moved to the county.
"I resigned in August just because I have better things to do with my time," Todd said.
Todd, who has resided in Newton County most of her life and has been involved with the party for close to five years, said her resignation was precipitated by a series of events. Todd said she was disappointed that the party's Meet and Greet, organized with the Rockdale Democratic Party in June, was not the big fundraiser that the party hoped it would be.
Todd said she was also frustrated with the lack of progress made by an appointed committee of volunteers to update the chapter's bylaws to bring them inline with those of the state party. Todd said she had appointed a committee in January to update the bylaws but little progress had been made by August.
"I just wanted to make us current," Todd said. "I just wanted us to be complete and to have a better relationship with the state party."
Todd said since her resignation she understands the bylaws have been updated.
"I was very impressed with the energy of Sarah Todd," said Upham of her decision to resign. "Since I had been working so closely with her I just felt that it would probably be better for both of us to step out of the way."
The party has since replaced the officers who resigned and is looking ahead to the state presidential primary in February as well as the general primary in July and the national elections in November.
Norma Johnson is now the new party chair. A new arrival to the county, Johnson also head's the county's chapter of the NAACP. She is joined by Gerry Childers (a former chair of the party) as first vice chair and Landis Stephens (also a new arrival) as second vice chair according to the party's official Web site. Candace Wagner is the secretary and Reginald Johnson is the acting treasurer.
According to Todd it was Johnson who advised the party to take part in the Meet and Greet in June.
"We were instructed by her that we would probably earn at least $3,000 and it barely made $500," Todd said. "She's an abrasive person. She's one of those it's my way or the highway people."
Johnson declined to discuss the events leading up to Todd's resignation.
"We had to totally reorganize," Johnson said.
At the monthly party meeting last Thursday, Johnson was full of optimism for the coming elections and rallied the approximately 10 people in attendance to prepare for a full year of campaigning.
"We got to be proud," Johnson said. "No more of this 'I'm ashamed I'm a Democrat' We got to come out. Yes we're here and we're alive."
The bravado attitude of Johnson and other new party arrivals has apparently chafed some senior party members who feel that the new arrivals don't understand the subtleties of Newton County politics and don't appreciate the hard times the party has recently experienced.
"I think what really happened is that the newly active folk wanted to take the party in a different direction than they felt was the one we were pursing," Upham said. "I think maybe they wanted a grander scheme. Maybe they felt we were keeping things on too small a scale."
According to Charles Woods, a former Newton County Democratic Party Chair, in recent years the party has seen several elected officials switch from Democrat to Republican affiliation including Board of Commissioners Chairman Aaron Varner, Newton County Superior Court Clerk Linda Hays and Newton County Tax Commissioner Barbara Dingler.
The party switch of these officials as well as a general drop-off in county party membership was typical of what had been experienced by the Democratic Party throughout the state as many socially conservative members made the jump to the Republican Party in the 1990s.
Woods said that when he was chairman of the party in the mid-1990s and later at the beginning of the new century the focus of the party was on getting local officials elected.
"The party was basically in place to support local candidates," Woods said. "We really didn't do anything on the national level."
According to Woods this was largely because the party's membership contained both liberals and conservatives which made it difficult to agree on national candidates to support.
Instead the party focused its energies on the local level, taking part in Oxford's Fourth of July parade, organizing care packages to send troops serving abroad and holding fundraisers.
Both Todd and Upham said they decided to leave the party because they felt their energies would be better suited elsewhere.
"I want to make sure that the effort I put out is going to go in the most productive direction possible," Upham said.
Upham said she is focusing on her volunteer work with the Newton Climate Action Coalition and on Keep Covington/Newton Beautiful.
While Todd said she doesn't see herself joining the party again, she does plan campaign for several local Democrats when they run for office this fall.
The Newton County Dems have moved on as well. The party has formed a platform on several local issues they will be working to draw attention to over the year including greater tax relief, the rate of foreclosures in the county especially at the western end and the need for more traffic lights at busy intersections.
Johnson said the party plans on carrying out several get out the vote efforts in addition to seeing several members accredited in candidate certification by the state. At the Thursday meeting the party also discussed holding additional Meet and Greets to encourage party membership growth.
Johnson said many of the party's efforts go toward just identifying potential Democrats within the county. Johnson said she saw the party's future including both more state activities and local activities.
"I think we need to be in-line with the state Democratic Party because we are mandated by the state and also involved with what's going on with the county," Johnson said.