Growing up in Person County, Anderson Clayton was told she needed to leave to pursue her dreams.
The 2015 Roxboro Community School graduate went off to Appalachian State University and worked on large campaigns for Kamala Harris in Iowa and Amy McGrath in Kentucky.
Now, she has come back to North Carolina and is using those experiences in a campaign for state chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party.
“Person County had always told me, ‘Anderson, you need to get out of here because you’ve got too many big ideas for Person County. You’re going places,’” Clayton said. “I don’t feel like any young, rural person should have to feel like that – like they have to leave their hometown or that they’re not worth of being invested in because they come from places that are small on the map. They’re not small to the people in those communities.”
The State Executive Committee – around 600 people statewide in a variety of local positions will vote to elect the state party chair, first, second and third vice chairs and party secretary at its 2023 Winter Meeting Feb. 11.
Each county is allocated votes based on the votes the governor got in that county in the last cycle. Person County gets two votes.
During the past few months, Clayton has traveled the state, speaking at local Democratic party meetings in metropolitan areas and small towns.
Her campaign work in other rural areas made Clayton recognize what she had at home.
“It made me believe that regardless of where you are, rural places have people in them who genuinely care about their communities and want them to be better and more inclusive and make space for everyone,” Clayton said. “I had always felt that that was not the case and it made me really believe that local organizing is what matters and it’s what will actually drive people and if you have people in communities that actually care about the people who are in them who represent the Democratic Party, it is possible to change the party. It took getting out of rural North Carolina and being dropped in a place that looked just like Roxboro for me to realize, Roxboro is a place I can come back to. I thought for a long time that when you grow up here, it can be hard if you’ve got big ideas or if you grow up part of the LGBT+ community or if you are in an interracial relationship. These are hard things that we don’t necessarily talk about, but people do talk about them and they say it without saying it. It is a part of our culture here to sometimes not be as inclusive and as good as we can be and we want to be. For me, it’s about sharing that message across rural North Carolina and everywhere else too – that everyone has a place in this party and everybody has a place in these communities.”
‘There is a Democratic Party in Person County’
After finishing her work on national campaigns, Clayton returned to Roxboro in 2021 and found herself the local Democratic party chair – accidentally.
“I was on the county convention call and Charles [Harvey] said he would not be running for chair again and everyone was surprised and didn’t know what to do,” Clayton said. “And I just said, ‘I would love to be party chair’ and [N.C. State senator] Mike Woodard was on that call and endorsed me then. And everyone agreed. Sometimes young people across the state who have tried to get involved in their local parties and tried to take them over ask how I did it – on accident. There was nobody else that wanted to do it and the investment was not there from the state party to care about what is going on in Person County. It was on accident, but it was the most exciting thing I’ve ever had and it was my opportunity to take the party and make it what I think it should be. It was the first time I ever felt power in the party. I was working for campaign after campaign and I was so disheartened because the ideas I had got pushed down and I felt like I knew how to organize a rural area. I thought I could make this party something people could take to and respect and say, ‘not all Democrats are bad because I know Anderson Clayton.’ And I think that’s what we’ve done. I really think over the last two years, we have been able to take something with no energy and motivation and make it something people can say, ‘there is a Democratic Party in Person County. Anderson and her band here are always on the job.’”
In 2021, Clayton and the local Democratic Party got involved in the local non-partisan race for Roxboro City Council that ended with three party-endorsed candidates, Cynthia Petty, Shaina Outlaw and Peter Baker, taking a majority on the board and becoming the city’s first minority-majority council, a method she wanted to share with others.
With that momentum, Clayton was elected chair of the state Association of Democratic County Chairs.
“It showed the power of people being able to vote and that is the job of the party - to encourage civic engagement and getting people active and involved in their local politics. That’s the job of the local party and we were not doing our job,”Clayton said.
“The [association chair] said he was trying to find someone young to take it over and I wanted it,” Clayton said. “It was a really big responsibility to try to take on the needs of all the different needs of the counties of North Carolina – especially when you get into the different geographies and urban, suburban, exurban and rural communities and what they all need. What I saw was a real lack of coordination from the top down on assisting county parties and getting them the support they needed and actually seeing them as valuable and worth being active in and having strong county parties be the backbone of the state party. That was not something I felt like the people in the executive-level of our party felt like was valuable and worthwhile. County party chairs are unpaid laborers for the party who are doing this because they see the value and the difference the party can make in a community and they want to be the leaders of that and help bring everybody else into the fold. They’re trying their best with the limited resources they have. I want to make sure the people on the ground everyday have what they need and that’s really why I decided to run for this. Right now, people in our party do not feel like they have a voice – including people who do not call themselves Democrats, that is unaffiliated people who vote Democrat.”
To have that presence, Clayton said the party and, if elected, she will need to fund raise to hire additional staff, but added that a change in priorities at the top of the party is free.
“It takes a mindset shift in the top of our party to realize that urbanization is not going to save the Democratic Party in North Carolina,” Clayton said. “The Democratic Party of North Carolina is going to help communities become better. It is going to be active in them and support them and help them thrive and survive from here on out and that should have always been our message.”
Setting a goal
Clayton fell into being the local party chair, but she had a plan heading into the upcoming state chair race – get a Democrat elected in Person County – a goal that was not met.
“For me, it started in September of 2022 when people started saying my name was coming up in conversations about state party chair. It was surprising,” Clayton said. “I told myself if I can get a county commissioner elected or Ray Jeffers elected to the state House, I would have done something and we would have built this county into something. On election night, we didn’t win a county commission seat and Ray Jeffers lost Person County. He won the election, but he lost Person County and I tell people that often – the root cause of Ray Jeffers becoming a state House representative is gerrymandering and districts that got redrawn that Republicans decided to give to Democrats. That is how he is a state representative. Equally though, that is why I want this position – because people in Raleigh are not working for people in North Carolina. They are working for politics and partisanship and everything else but people.”
Those losses hit Clayton hard.
“I am crying on election night and sobbing in the corner at Palace Pointe and people were just telling me, ‘if the only thing we do in this county is make Republicans have to run for office, that’s fine.’ It was the first time I didn’t feel like I was by myself doing everything for the last two years,” she said. “Suddenly, I had all these people who wanted to go out and do it again after we lost this election. Maybe that’s what it takes – not a win, but a loss to make people realize what they put in and taking that and amplifying it. After that election, I just got mad and realized I needed to figure out what I needed to do. People were saying I needed to decide [about the race for party chair]. Someone said I need to remember my why – why I’m doing this. It’s because I felt like young people have not been taken seriously in this party. I feel like county party chairs have been disrespected. I feel like people across the board in this party have not been valued and heard and listened to. I am running because people feel disrespected, undervalued and unresponsive to.”
Clayton is running against current state party chair Dr. Bobbie Richardson of Franklin County, Eric Terashima of Brunswick County, Eva Lee of Wake County and LeVon Barnes of Alamance County.
The difference-maker between the candidates?
Age, Clayton says.
“Right now, we are losing younger voters in our state,” Clayton said. “We didn’t have them in this last election cycle and younger voters are the ones who were producing election wins across the state and country. We need someone who will bring young people back to this party. What better way to show young people that we value them and want to hear what they have to say than putting a 25-year-old in charge of this party right now? Someone with experience of building the infrastructure in a rural county – that’s what we could do right now. I’m not doing this to be the youngest, I’m doing this to be the best. I want to be the best party chair we’ve ever had when it comes to energizing our base, encouraging new people to join our party and getting to the issues that people actually care about and, at the end of the day, making people’s lives easier and better.”
That emphasis goes hand-in-hand with a national generational shift in politics, Clayton says.
“We need to push younger people to run for office and to be in charge of things and move this country forward,” Clayton said. “We need to ask communities what moving forward looks like to them. I believe the Democratic Party is the one to do that.”
Part of her vision if she is elected is a focus on the rural communities like the one she was told she should leave.
“For me, the vision I have for the future of the Democratic Party is diversifying where people live and are able to live,” Clayton said. “People in rural areas often have a better quality of life. Seventy percent of people in rural communities say they have someone they rely on to do something for them other than a family member. You can’t say that a lot of in some other places. There is a value to maintaining rural areas and helping people to live in them and move to them if they want to. Broadband access is a major point in that. I talk about remote work so much because rural areas are dying off and there aren’t enough opportunities for young people and they’re being forced to leave their rural communities – not always because they want to, but because they have to. To me, the party has a responsibility to show young folks they can stay in those areas and there are opportunities and economic prosperity that we will provide because we believe in it.”
To build up rural areas, Clayton said the party needs candidates with visions for their communities.
“If we do that, the Democratic Party can fix its own brand at the local level from the bottom up rather than having the eternal problem of the message being given from the top down,” Clayton said. “Right now, the message comes in a holistic, monolithic way and every community is North Carolina is different and needs different messaging and different ideas and a different pathway forward sometimes.”
On the whole, Clayton’s vision is one that has a chorus of voices from and a presence in every part of the state.
“It would be a party where everybody can feel like their voice is valued and heard,” Clayton said. “It looks like a party where people can feel the change from the party in their community and can feel the party active in their community again. That comes from having the local infrastructure. I want to be able to do that through the county parties, but I want to say the Democratic Party shows up everywhere and the Democratic Party has roots in communities that are there to help them thrive rather than just survive and that its a party where anybody can get involved. That starts with young people because they are the ones who believe in change and believe it is possible. People ask why I believe I can be state party chair at 25 and I tell them, ‘it’s because I am 25 that I believe I can be state party chair.’ I think young people have an undying belief that better is possible, that our communities deserve to survive and live and it’s time we put one in charge of the party.”
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