© 2024 254 North Front Street, Suite 300, Wilmington, NC 28401 | 910.343.1640
News Classical 91.3 Wilmington 92.7 Wilmington 96.7 Southport
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Boston Democrats adopted Mecklenburg County

Experts say this year's midterm elections could have a big effect on climate policy. But it's mostly not being discussed.
David Boraks
Experts say this year's midterm elections could have a big effect on climate policy. But it's mostly not being discussed.

A version of this news analysis originally appeared in the Inside Politics newsletter, out Fridays. Sign up here to get it first to your inbox.

When Drew Kromer became chair of the Mecklenburg Democratic Party last year, he had ambitious goals.

Raise more money. Register more voters. Increase turnout.

Soon after, Kromer, who is 27, found an unlikely benefactor: Jeff Blum, a 77-year-old New Yorker with Massachusetts ties who is a longtime Democratic Party organizer.

Blum can’t make a difference in the Northeast, where President Biden will win easily. So he looked elsewhere.

In 2020, he did some voter outreach work in North Carolina, such as phone banking. He did that again in 2022.

But Blum said he wanted to zero in on one place in North Carolina instead of spreading his efforts across the state.

“Pretty consistently everyone told me the problem area is Mecklenburg,” he said.

By “problem,” he means low turnout in the county with the state’s most registered Democrats.

In the 2022 U.S. Senate race, for instance, only seven North Carolina counties had lower turnout than Mecklenburg. The state’s second-largest county produces huge margins for Democrats, but there is a belief that Mecklenburg could do even better and that Democrats are leaving 20,000 or so votes on the table.

“We’ve looked at the data: Meck versus the rest of the state, Meck versus Wake,” Blum said. “We had seen all of those numbers. So we said: ‘Let’s create activists on the ground.’ ”

Blum was impressed with North Carolina’s new, young Democratic leaders, such as Kromer and state party chair Anderson Clayton, who is 26.

He decided to, in his words, “adopt” Mecklenburg County.

Volunteers and $$

Blum has helped in two key ways. One is phone banking. The other is money.

Twice a month, Blum’s group — called All In for NC — has volunteers who meet in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a phone bank. They call Democratic voters in Mecklenburg and ask if they want to get engaged. They direct the voters to social events and other meet-ups, hoping they will have fun and want to volunteer in September and October.

Kromer said Blum is responsible for 90% of the new people he’s enlisted in 2024.

“We’re flinging the doors wide open,” Kromer said. “Come see what we are building. Jeff is helping us with that message. The work that Jeff and his team have done has been the jump-start for this.”

He added: “I can have the best turn-out strategy, and if I don’t have the volunteers it will fail.”

When it comes to money, Blum has also helped Kromer raise lots of it.

In the last six months of 2023 — just after Kromer became chair, and connected with Blum — the Mecklenburg Democratic Party raised nearly $431,000 from individuals.

For a county political party, that’s a huge number. (The Wake County Democratic Party raised $64,000 during the same time period.)

A significant number of donors are from New England — part of Blum’s network. And Kromer said that many other out-of-state donors are also connected to Blum.

In fundraising emails to county party members, the Mecklenburg Democratic Party is urging locals to give — in part because it impresses the out-of-state donors.

“Robust fundraising from the base of the party helps us convince major donors from in and out of Mecklenburg to invest in our program,” a February fundraising email said. “If we can show these folks that we, the grassroots, are investing in our plans and programs, it’ll move them to invest as well.”

Compare that $431,000 to what the county party raised during the same six months the year before the 2020 election. Jane Whitley was the chair then, and she didn’t have access to national donors.

In a grassroots effort, she raised a little under $24,000 from individuals.

Blum said he also plans to raise money to help outside groups do work in Mecklenburg County, for things like voter registration.

And he’s tried to get his volunteers to follow North Carolina and Mecklenburg politics so they are invested.

Later this month, for instance, All In for NC is hosting a Zoom virtual call with Democratic legislative candidates, including Nicole Sidman, who is running against Republican Tricia Cotham for a southeast Mecklenburg seat.

“We’re hundreds of people,” Blum said. “We like the sense of being tied to the place and knowing the place.”


How much can money do?

The question, of course, is how important will all the Massachusetts love — and cash — be?

If Democrats are lukewarm about President Biden, can any amount of money overcome that?

The county Democratic Party points to its success in Huntersville, when it ran an extensive voter outreach operation last November. Democrats won every seat on the town council, flipping it from red to blue. (The Huntersville election is officially nonpartisan, meaning political parties do not appear on the ballot next to a candidate’s name.)

But there are signs it’s going to be tough to turn the Mecklenburg aircraft carrier around.

While turnout was low for the 2022 midterms, it was even lower for the March primary. Only three North Carolina counties had a lower percentage of people vote than Mecklenburg.

(Part of that is because this is a heavily Democratic county and Biden was running unopposed. But other Democratic counties like Durham still had higher turnout.)

And there is another factor: voter registration has lagged.

Inside Politics has written about this before, but immediately after the 2020 election, Mecklenburg had just under 798,000 registered voters and Wake County had 766,000.

Today, despite population growth, Mecklenburg has 788,600 and Wake has nearly 822,000.

Someone — the Mecklenburg Democratic Party, the North Carolina Democratic Party, the Biden campaign — needs to scramble and register about 20,000 people just to catch up to where they should be.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.