Generation gap

Mirroring a potential presidential contest, local Democrats turn a page

OLD GUARD<br>Oroville resident Doris Smith, who is now 91, has been running the Democratic Party in Butte County since 1993.

Oroville resident Doris Smith, who is now 91, has been running the Democratic Party in Butte County since 1993.

Photo by Karen O'Neill

What is a central committee?
The two major political parties in California both have county central committees made up of local people who are elected to serve, as well as partisan-level candidates and elected officials. They are in charge of partisan campaigns in the county, under the direction of the state party.

“The times they are a-changin'.” Local Democratic Party activist Doris Smith was 48 years old when Bob Dylan first sang those words, in 1964. Dylan’s lyrics seemed portentous and prophetic back then, and they seem equally and urgently apt now, as the nation bears witness to an election that is defining itself as a battle of youth vs. age.

That scenario is in rehearsal as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton squabble over the relative merits of change vs. experience, but those themes are certain to become even more starkly defined if 46-year-old Obama emerges as the Democratic Party standard-bearer, contending in the general election against 71-year-old John McCain.

In a mini-drama played out last week here at the local level, youth and age squared off in a shakeup at the Butte County Democratic Central Committee that saw Smith, that group’s longtime chairwoman, replaced by a man nearly 70 years her junior.

Last Wednesday evening (March 12), the Central Committee met in the Chico City Council building. It was youth vs. age, change vs. experience, and déjà vu all over again as Justin Meyers, 23, took over as the group’s chairman, replacing Smith in a post she’s held since 1993.

Change almost never happens without resistance, and this was no exception. There was an underlying air of tension in the room as about 40 of Butte County’s more active Democrats gathered to wrangle about the manner in which Smith had been replaced at the group’s previous meeting. Mike Worley, a Smith partisan, sought to block the change on procedural grounds, but his efforts failed, and he left the meeting in a huff, saying, “I feel hoodwinked. I had a whole list of irregularities about the process.”

But an increasing number of the Central Committee members had come to see Smith’s advancing age as a liability.

“I have absolute respect for her service,” said one member who asked to remain anonymous, “but she’s just no longer effective in that post. Meetings have become disorganized and ineffective.”

Smith sat in the front row, just a few feet away from Meyers, who chaired the gathering. “The doctor told me not to come to this meeting at all,” she said, “but I’m here.”

In a move clearly meant to take the sting out of her removal, a motion was made to make Smith chairwoman emeritus for life.

YOUNG GUN<br>In a controversial move, the Central Committee recently replaced Doris Smith with 23-year-old Justin Meyers.

Photo by Karen O'Neill

“It’s a nice gesture,” Smith said, “but I don’t want it.”

Nonetheless, the motion passed unanimously. A member suggested that the group stand in acclamation, and they did, with all present offering the reluctant recipient a standing ovation.

Woodrow Wilson was president the year Doris Smith was born. The United States had just entered World War I, and American women had not yet won the right to vote. Buffalo Bill Cody was still alive, and so was Wyatt Earp. Adolph Hitler was a young soldier in the German army, and future U.S. president Harry S. Truman was a young soldier in the American Expeditionary Force in France.

Doris Smith cast her first vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression of the 1930s; Justin Meyers cast his first vote for John Kerry (and against George W. Bush) four years into this new century. He is now the youngest county central committee chairperson in the state of California.

“Doris has been a huge asset to Butte County politics,” Meyers said. “She’s had a lot to offer. I’ve heard stories of her work going back to the times when she was getting people out for John Kennedy when he was making whistle-stop tours through California.”

Changing of the guard or passing of the torch—pick the cliché, but whatever the words, there was real emotion going on at that meeting, and what it meant at the personal and human level was lost on no one.

“It needed to happen,” said one longtime Democrat, “but it’s still sad for a person of Doris’ stature to go out like this. People who supported keeping her in that post think we’re gleeful about her removal, but we’re not. She’s done wonderful work, and she’s had a great ride, but the time comes for all of us to have to step aside. The acclamation and the applause were heartfelt, though I doubt she could see it that way.”

As if to underscore the idea of torches being passed, the assembled Democrats also heard from three men who are vying to be the Democratic candidate to take on Republican Wally Herger for his long-held 2nd District congressional seat.

One of those men, John Jacobson, is a youthful-looking 51-year-old with an impressive r#&233;sum#&233; in both the private and public sectors. Jeff Morris, who serves on the Trinity County Board of Supervisors, has a long family history in Democratic Party politics. The third candidate, AJ Sekhon, a veteran of the first Gulf War, opposed Herger unsuccessfully in a bid for the seat two years ago.

A half-dozen young Democrats from Chico State had turned up for the meeting, Central Committee Treasurer Gary Shallenberger said. “I’m excited about the number of young people who are starting to show up at these meetings. Those of us with gray hair, we’re wearing out, so it’s good to see these young faces.”

For all the talk of change, some things remain the same. Back when Doris Smith was a young woman, Will Rogers said: “I’m not a member of any organized political party; I’m a Democrat.” Anywhere Democrats gather, there is usually an element of discord and disagreement. Youth vs. age, change vs. experience: The contest is eternal, but the outcome is never in doubt.