Before Election Day, Republicans had controlled the county commission of Guilford County, North Carolina, (county seat Greensboro) for eight years. But this year, the balance of power shifted dramatically from 5–4 Republican to 7–2 Democrat. In other words, three of nine seats changed hands, a veritable local political earthquake.
In the aftermath of the 2020 presidential elections, Georgia and Arizona have gotten outsized attention, as these were the only two typically Republican states that President-Elect Joe Biden carried. In North Carolina, Biden came close, but Donald Trump prevailed by a 74,000-vote margin out of 5.54 million votes cast. For some Democrats, there is considerable handwringing about why that occurred.
Yet statewide results can obscure important local developments. Why did Guilford County shift when the state did not? It seemed worthwhile to find out. So NPQ interviewed organizers from the Carolina Federation, a 501c4 that in 2018 began to develop Guilford for All and three other county chapters.
One thing that Guilford County teaches us is a lesson regularly emphasized by the late Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House from 1977 through 1986, who famously noted that “all politics is local.” The phrase is frequently misread as a claim that local issues always supersede national ones. But O’Neill’s point was really that politics, rightly understood, builds on relationships, on knowing and meeting the needs of local constituents.
These days, that idea is central to the concept of “base building.” And by taking a look at Guilford County, we can better understand what base building is, how it works, what are challenges in the work, and why base-building requires a long-term investment of time and resources—not short-term mobilization.
A Bet on Leadership Development
The approach employed by the Carolina Federation is a base-building model. Sendolo Diaminah, co-director of the federation, notes that “We have the orientation to building grassroots power of the ongoing base building work, the competency of everyday folks in our community.” This means developing leaders for the long haul, rather than a sole focus on election mobilization.
For the Carolina Federation, planning began in 2018, with a formal launch in early 2019. Diaminah adds that the organization “built through that year, and that was essential for what was possible in 2020. We built a large field program because we built those deep roots.” As a result, Diaminah notes, many of the field organizers hired for the campaign were “hired out of our membership, rather than fly-by night or parachute operations.”
There are other consequences of this “go deep” approach. One is geography. The Carolina Federation may be statewide in name, but North Carolina has 100 counties. The Carolina Federation chose to focus on four of them—New Hanover (county seat Wilmington), Guilford, Forsyth (county seat Winston-Salem), and Durham.
Even with its four-county focus however, Diaminah points out that the organization had “the largest volunteer-driven field organization for the state,” involving an estimated 2,000 volunteers who performed 5,000 shifts and had conversations with about 85,000 people, well above their original goal of 30,000 conversations.
Theo Luebke, who codirects the federation with Diaminah, describes the process required to build the volunteer team. “We started training and pulling together a group of people in early 2019 in dozens and dozens of one-on-one conversations. It was a six-month intensive process of talking to people, and asking them, ‘What is your vision? Is this the type of thing you’re willing to step into to make possible?’ Out of that we had a series of intensive trainings in the fall of 2019.”
Volunteer steering committees were formed in the four focus counties afterward. As a result, when COVID arrived in early 2020, there was already “a crew of folks who are connected and done relational work and are resourced to respond.”
COVID, Luebke notes, made it very difficult to do initial conversations. The Carolina Federation has paused on forming new chapters until the pandemic passes, but they were able to use Zoom to maintain connections with those already mobilized. Individual organizers could opt to make contacts in person or by phone, with those going in-person provided with personal protective equipment. All told, Luebke estimates t