Watt: Dems must talk race, diversity

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Mark Wineka
Salisbury Post
Looking ahead to Barack Obama’s being the likely Democratic presidential nominee, U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., says his party should not shy away from a hard discussion about diversity, race and differences among Americans “and how we value those differences.”
Talking about race and diversity in America will be uncomfortable, Watt predicted Saturday, but at the end of the process the nation will be stronger, especially in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Democrats must show that they value diversity, embrace it and are not afraid to talk about it, Watt said.
The 2008 election can be used as a medium to unite citizens and “define ourselves as a nation,” Watt said.
Without putting that discussion at the center, he also warned, voters and candidates will be marginalized.
The first step in this important dialogue, Watt noted, may have been Obama’s speech several weeks ago in relation to his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
“I’m excited about this election,” Watt said at the 12th District Democratic Convention, held Saturday at Isenberg Elementary School in Salisbury.
Across the state Saturday, Democrats elected delegates to their national convention.
As evidence of the considerable interest in the presidential election and Obama’s campaign, the 12th District had 35 candidates ó 24 female and 11 male ó for six available delegate spots. The six delegates elected had to be three men and three women.
“We’re seeing that all over the place,” Watt said of the interest. “People want to be involved.”
Watt, who has represented the 12th District in the U.S. House since 1992, said the district had the second highest voter turnout among the 13 congressional districts in the May 6 Democratic Primary.
Only the 4th District had more Democratic voters ó 147,000 to 127,000 in the 12th.
In the 12th District, 78.34 percent voted for Obama in the May 6 primary, and his margin of victory over Hillary Clinton was 13 points higher than any other district in North Carolina, Watt said.
Statistics in other districts also bode well for Democrats, Watt said.
In the 8th District, now represented by Republican Robin Hayes, there was a record turnout of Democrats, and Obama had 57 percent of the vote.
“If I were Robin Hayes,” Watt said, “I’d be real concerned.”
Watt himself will be facing Republican Ty Cobb of Rowan County in the general election.
“I’m taking it very, very seriously,” Watt said. “If you see the name of a baseball player (on the ballot), it’s not him. He’s dead.”
State Sen. Kay Hagan, the Democratic nominee for the seat currently held by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., also spoke briefly to the 12th District Democrats.
Hagan made it clear, as she did during her victory speech after the May 6 primary, that she will be challenging Dole’s effectiveness, her stand on the war in Iraq, her overall support of President Bush and her positions on issues such as the minimum wage, health care and veterans benefits.
“Liddy Dole has got to be taken out,”” Hagan said in Dole’s hometown. “… I pledge to do things very, very differently.”
Hagan, of Greensboro, said she is different from Dole in two distinct ways: “I live in North Carolina, and my husband can vote for me.”
It was a jab at Dole’s longtime residence in Washington, although she maintains a house in Salisbury and stays here when she’s in the area. Dole’s husband, Bob, is a former U.S. senator from Kansas.
Hagan said she would like voters to give Dole ruby red slippers so she can click her heels three times and go home with her husband to Kansas.
Hagan referred Saturday to recent polls that show her close in the contest and suggested that a Dole campaign staff change showed the incumbent was worried.
Dole admits her campaign to seek a second term in the Senate won’t be an easy one.
In a blog posting on her new campaign Web site launched Friday, Dole wrote that “modern campaigns have become a contact sport.”
Dole anticipates she’ll be the subject of personal attacks and votes or issues that are taken out of context. But she said she’ll defend her record in the months ahead.
Dole didn’t mention Hagan by name on the Web site.
Dole has made a change at the top of her campaign staff.
J. Sam Daniels, the campaign manager, has been shifted into the role of a top fundraiser, to be replaced by Marty Ryall.
Ryall ran the gubernatorial campaign of Salisbury’s Bill Graham, who lost in the May 6 primary.
The Associated Press contributed to this story. Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mwineka@salisburypost.com.