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A matter of dispute 

A Democratic Party rift in an otherwise bright election year

This November is set to go well for state and local Democrats. Mecklenburg County voter rolls are swelling, with 55 percent of new voter registrations within the past six months listed as Democrats. Mecklenburg County Democratic Party chairman Joel Ford said it's never been easier to attract volunteers. And the lion's share of the enthusiasm can be attributed to Sen. Barack Obama, whose appeal has given Democrats a fighting — if unlikely — chance of carrying the traditionally red state.

But comments by Michael Lawson, the chairman of the Mecklenburg County African-American Caucus and disputed head of the state caucus, to The Wilmington Journal have set off controversy and highlighted a rift ­-- laid bare by the Nick Mackey debacle -- among some in the party.

Both Lawson and Kevin Smith of Wake County claim to be head of the N.C. Democratic Party African-American Caucus. State party chairman Jerry Meek has recognized Smith as the rightful leader of the caucus. Lawson contends, however, that he has the support of the majority of county caucuses and, moreover, that the caucus is an autonomous auxiliary of the state party; therefore, Meek's recognition doesn't matter.

An angry Lawson sounded off last month to Cash Michaels of The Wilmington Journal. "'They want to play this game?'" Lawson said, referring to Meek and the state party. "'Well, you know what, African-Americans are not going to get out and vote. They will get out and vote for Obama. But you know what the main problem here is? ... White candidates have the problem, because we ain't going to vote for them, because this is bull!'"

Lawson told Creative Loafing that his words were twisted and taken out of context. "It's ludicrous on the face of it. You can ask the candidates who I have worked with, because it's not true," Lawson said, citing as examples gubernatorial candidate Bev Perdue; Kay Hagen, who's running to unseat U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole; and 8th District Congressional candidate Larry Kissell. "We're going to get all these people elected."

Michaels said he took pains to portray Lawson's words accurately. Moreover, he has Lawson's comments recorded. "Not only do we stand by our story, but we can prove it," said Michaels.

Lawson's comments have been denounced by many Democrats, black and white. Bruce Lightner, a member of the state party executive committee who is black, and party chairman Meek, who is white, have condemned the remarks in interviews with The Wilmington Journal, as did Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean.

Meek did not return calls seeking comment.

Mecklenburg Democratic Party chairman Joel Ford had this to say: "When I asked Mr. Lawson about that statement, he denied making that statement, and, more importantly than that, I have not witnessed or heard anything that would lead me to believe that he is conducting an alternative campaign to do as such. And I'll share with you unequivocally that as chair, I would not tolerate that here locally."

According to the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections, more than 48,700 people have registered to vote within the last six months. More than 26,700 of those registered as Democrats; more than 7,300 registered as Republicans. Thirty-eight voters registered as Libertarians. The rest, about 30 percent, remained unaffiliated.

Ford said the situation between Lawson and Smith isn't affecting local organizing. "If you look at the purpose of the African-American Caucus, it was designed to give African-Americans a voice within the party. If you take a look at the local political dynamics, now you have an African-American chair for the first time in 20 years. I bring to the table the diversity here locally," said Ford, who was elected party chairman in March by a comfortable margin. "Plus, Michael Lawson is working here locally to still accomplish the mission of the AAC, and so it's working out, actually in a positive way."

Lawson said he has the majority of support from county African-American Caucus chapters. Of 18 county chapters, six haven't paid dues to the state caucus, two do not side with him, and the remaining ten view him as the rightful head of the state AAC. "We have the bank account; we have the organization," Lawson said. "They have Kevin Smith, who's not even a member of any AAC in the state of North Carolina ... that's just like Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming president of the United States and he wasn't even born here."

Despite the rift, Lawson said the situation won't affect efforts to get out the vote. The state AAC plans to emphasize early voting and is focusing on making sure that people who are incarcerated and haven't committed felonies know they can vote. "We're going to be distributing fliers to that effect throughout the counties," Lawson said.

Come November, will the dispute within between factions of the AAC and the state party matter? Ford said no. Enthusiasm surrounding Obama's candidacy has given the party a chance to spread the word about local candidates, he said.

"We have volunteers that we've never had before; we've had enthusiasm we've never had before," Ford said. "But what we're doing as a party is taking advantage of the momentum. What we're doing is riding the wave all the way down the ballot."

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