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Democrats admit long road ahead

Jackson County Democrats, who now number only a third of local voters, admit they have lost their way in recent years. But they vow to stage a comeback.

Previous changes in leadership have left the party adrift, said Bill Layton, chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Central Committee. Several of us a year and a half ago saw the drift and decided to come on board.

Problems at the local level mirror the difficulties Democrats have experienced nationally with the rise of conservatism following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The most important thing we have to counteract is many years of the Rush Limbaugh type of individuals who say government doesn't make a difference ' that government is too big, said Layton.

Democrats have lost political ground in Jackson County, numbering only 34 percent of voters today compared to 40 percent in 1992. Republicans represent 42 percent of the electorate, compared to 40 percent 10 years ago.

Our attention this coming year will be to work at the grass-roots level, he said. It's a long process.

Ashland Democrats are well organized, he said, but Medford, with a large proportion of Republicans, will require much work to stimulate voter interest in the party.

Democrats also hope to attract the 22 percent of voters who aren't affiliated with any party in Jackson County.

Medford has lost a lot of Democrats with the decline of the timber industry, said Layton. We've also had a bunch of retired people moving in. My knowledge is that most are Republicans.

In some precincts in Medford, Republicans outnumber Democrats 2 to 1, according to data compiled by the Democratic Party.

It irritates me that a number of lower income people in this country, and particularly in Jackson County, think that the Bush approach is going to make them happier, Layton said. They only have to take a look at the big tax breaks for the rich to see that isn't the case.

Democratic committee leaders are looking at ways they can drum up interest by stimulating a stronger grass-roots campaign, becoming more visible in the media and making greater inroads into Republican-dominated communities like Medford.

A club for young Democrats has been set up at Southern Oregon University to help attract this segment of voters.

Still, Layton said, We've got a long way to go to get the young people involved.

Another Democrat, Leon Guild, assistant newsletter editor for the Jackson County Democrats, said Democrats have had difficulty fitting into the post-Sept. 11 world, now dominated by the Bush administration's campaign for a war with Iraq.

Pluralism ' one of the core themes of the party ' is also another problem because it tries to balance liberal and progressive views while simultaneously appealing to more moderate factions. It's hard to get all your ducks in a row and in the right direction, he said.

Democrats, he said, need to bring the focus back to a discussion of the deterioration of middle class buying power over the past 20 years.

In Jackson County, working families are really struggling, said Guild. They struggle with such things as childcare every day.

While these issues have been central to the Democratic ideology, he said the party has been struggling to come up with the right way to present its case.

In Jackson County, Democrats often have found their efforts thwarted because they have had to defend former President Bill Clinton's actions, which still rankle many conservatives.

It's one of those things that stops the other messages from getting through, said Guild.

State Rep. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, said, Many of us feel we need to move ourselves more toward the center.

As the only Democratic representative from Jackson County in the Legislature, Bates said he will be working to strengthen the local party.

We are going to be bringing in business people and others who don't feel that the far right agenda is the right way to go, said Bates.

While Democrats are pushing for a more centrist platform, Bates said some of the core values of the party such as the environment and pro-choice can't be abandoned.

We are not going to walk away from public education, he said. We will demand more accountability. A person can retire with excessive PERS benefits and come back and work for a school district. It may be legal, but it's not right.

The public also has been duped into thinking the Democratic Party is not working for the best interests of the people, Bates said.

The public has frankly been poisoned by far-right talk show hosts, he said.

Betty McClendon, precinct development chairwoman for the Jackson County Democratic Central Committee, said that for the time being, the local party probably will remain fairly quiet as it organizes.

The time will come when we have a good issue and then we'll rally, she said.

One of the big difficulties for the party not only in Jackson County but throughout the country has been a sharp swing to the political right.

The whole country has become much more church-oriented conservative, she said.

But she predicts the tide will turn and the public will tire of the policies promoted by the Bush administration.

I think Mr. Bush will help us, she said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail