Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina Democratic Party leaders installed Robert Dempsey as their executive director in May.
Before coming to North Carolina, he managed the campaign of now-Congressman Scott Peters, a California Democrat. Dempsey, 38, has also been executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party and worked for a U.S. Senate committee as well as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
He has taken the helm at a party that was badly beaten in the 2012 election, losing the Executive Mansion for the first time in 20 years and watching Republicans take a super-majority of both the House and Senate. The party organization itself has also been troubled in recent years, with the prior chairman and executive director weathering a sexual harassment scandal and the current chairman having faced questions about his use of party resources.
In an interview this week, Dempsey talked about politics, political strategy and the road to a political comeback. The following are excerpts from that conversation.
Q: What possessed you to come to North Carolina?
A: What piqued my interest about North Carolina specifically is the importance electorally of the state. I worked in Ohio for several cycles ... I see a lot of similarities from what I saw when I worked there in 1999, 2004, 2006. What I see here in North Carolina is a very similar scenario unfolding, where electorally it's just going to gain in importance. Certainly, the numbers of Democratic elected officials and the legislature is concerning. However, the main thing is control of the United States Senate is coming through North Carolina, and it is absolutely imperative for the president to maintain control of the U.S. Senate, and that starts and ends with re-electing Kay Hagan. That's job 1.
Q: What's the sales pitch for Hagan? Why should Democrats and others be excited about backing her?
A: I think it's important for folks to realize that, if they support the president, they need to support Kay. That's going to be part of our message to a certain section of our voters. And to another section, we're going to be making sure that they understand the legislative accomplishments Sen. Hagan has achieved in her five years in the Senate and just making sure what a Democratic majority, quite frankly working in tandem with the president, actually can afford them.
Q: Right now, state House Speaker Thom Tillis is the best known Republican to announce he will run to challenge Hagan. Does the party's message change based on whether Tillis gets the Republican nomination or someone else does?
A: It's a little difficult to lay down a solid strategy. Campaigns are a living, breathing organism, if you will. Ultimately, it's always about making sure you have an effective strategy. To do that, compare and contrast against your opponent. So certainly, who they nominate will determine the overall strategy. But again, I would just point to the senator's legislative accomplishments, and again, I think that's strong enough to run on. We're not running a campaign of 'someone's bad, vote for Kay.' It's 'support the senator, she's done a fantastic job.'
Q: Given the party's internal problems over the past two years, did you have reservations about taking this job?
A: I hate to call the Republicans at the legislature a gift, but they have really launched an attack on the middle-class and the working families of the state of North Carolina. So, it's given us an ample opportunity to say, 'What has happened has happened.' And we just need to move on and focus on what happens when you don't have Democratic leadership represented adequately down on Jones Street. No excuses for the sins of the past. I wasn't here for any of that, and it's not my job to dwell on that. I've been mending the bridges I need to mend. I've been repairing relationships as best as I can. But really, our greatest campaigner right now is this Republican legislature.
Q: Given that your candidates are now stuck running in legislative districts drawn to favor Republicans, how quickly do you think Democrats can be in position to take a shot at controlling one chamber or the other?
A: It's my job to run the day-to-day but also be the top cheerleader. So, I'm never going to say anything is impossible. What I will tell you is we right now in this state have 14 legislative districts where we won or lost by 5 (percentage) points, and we only one one of those five seats. ... They weren't all nail-biters, but I believe we have enough to build upon moving forward into these elections to make significant gains. Whether or not we will be able to flip either chamber – I tend to be a pragmatist – that's sort of a difficult thing. What I think we'll do, working with the House and Senate leadership, is identify those key targeted seats and work to elect as many Democrats as possible. And then, in November of 2014, we'll see where we are. Lightning in a bottle? Certainly, the slide that allowed (Republicans) to take these majorities happened pretty quickly. ... There is a precedent for a flip. However, 2010 was a very difficult year for Democrats around the country, and there was no exception to that here. So, to think that we'll have an inverse of that here – probably not. However, it's our job to be prepared to support our candidates as best we can.