History of Henderson County Democratic Party
During the late 1940’s and early 1950’s the Democratic Party in Henderson County was controlled by the powerful and influential Whitmire and Redden families. The late M.M. Redden Sr. was a Congressman and the late Boyce Whitmire was a State Senator. It was not uncommon for decisions to be made in “smoke filled back rooms” and Freeman’s Newsstand on Church Street was the political center for several decades.
Through redistricting, an influx of new people, and the loss of the old time party bosses, the party lost strength and control to a better organized opposition party. Throughout the 60’s, the Democratic Party became more fragmented and lost more strength and organization. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and desegregation, many Democrats defected. Although the Democratic Party began reorganizing in the 70’s, electing a Democrat became increasingly difficult.
In the late 1970’s Royce “Bo” Thomas took an active part in politics running for Congress twice but losing both times to Lamar Gudger. Later Bo Thomas ran for the NC Senate, won, and served with distinction for nine years (1980-1989). During those same nine years he was the Chairman of the 11th Congressional District. During Thomas’ tenure he donated space to the Henderson County Democratic Party for a full time Democratic headquarters.
Mae Alexander ran for the NC House of Representatives in the early 1980’s but lost by 184 votes. In 1984 Alexander ran for chair of the Henderson County Democratic Party against Jim Toms and won by 0.62 of a vote-evidence of the value of one vote. Because both were so admired, everyone came together as a united body and elected Toms 1st Vice Chair. With active chairs in the 80’s and 90’s the Party was energized but increasingly outnumbered by the influx of Republican retirees. This led to some stagnation beginning in the mid 90’s.
In 1999, an energetic and experienced former political professional, Paul Donahue retired and moved into the county. Donahue worked tirelessly, along with Alexander, to reenergize, modernize, and reestablish the Henderson County Democratic Party. Donahue became Chairman of the Party in 2001 and was able to organize every precinct in the county and instituted party dues to raise significant funds. Donahue reintroduced a periodic newsletter, the Teen Democrats and Young Democrats clubs, and started the Dem Men’s club. Donahue, with the help of the Democratic Women’s organization, opened a full time Headquarters’ at 622 North Main Street in 2002. Democratic political activity rebounded dramatically. In 2005, Donahue received the well deserved “Mountain Democrat of the Year” award from the 11th Congressional District of Western North Carolina.
In 2005, Eva Ritchie, an issues-oriented leader, was elected chair. Ritchie began a modernization program bringing computers into the office and developing a Party website. In the fall of 2005 the Party moved its office to 105 1st Ave. West. Ritchie ran for a County Commissioner seat in 2006, but lost. In 2007, Doug Freeman was elected chair. Under his leadership the county saw another push in organization, participation, and modernization. In 2008, high-speed internet was brought into the office and a modernized website was developed. When Freeman stepped down at the end of 2010, Rich Brinegar, first vice-chair, became chair.
Rich Brinegar was elected chair in early 2011 but family matters soon took him out of state and Shelly Kingsley, first vice-chair, became chair. In 2011, the Party office moved to its current location at 905 S, Greenville Highway. Also, in 2011, a monthly breakfast at the office was instituted.
By the fall of 2012, for the presidential elections, the number of registered Democrats and Republicans had remained nearly steady since 2010 at just under 19,000 Democrats and just over 32,000 Republicans. The number of Unaffiliated registrants had increased to just under 28,000 and the number of Libertarians had more than doubled since 2010 to over 220.
In early 2013, Kingsley stepped down and first vice-chair, Donald Reid, became chair. Blair Jenkins was elected chair at the County Convention in the spring of 2013. Jenkins stepped down mid-summer of that year and Clay Eddleman was elected chair soon thereafter.
The dynamic progress of the last decade continues and a new spirit of pride and empowerment has returned to the Henderson County Democratic Party. Once again, the Democratic ideal that “everybody is somebody” is being heard throughout Henderson County.
The history of our leadership is rich but records are few and memories are fading. The list below is correct to the best of collective recollection, memory, and frayed documents. With that said, the dates listed below are thought to be accurate or, at least, within a year.
Henderson County Democratic Party Chairs Through the Years
- E. W. “Wit” Ewbank
- Monroe M. Redden, Sr.
- L. Benjamin “Ben” Prince
- Monroe M. Redden, Jr.
- Robert “Bob” L. Whitmire, Jr.
- Arthur Redden
- Judge O. B. Crowell
- Robert “Bob” Livingston
- Harley Stepp
- Edwin “Ed” Groce
- Samuel “Sam” Neill
- Boyd “Buddy” Massagee, Jr.
- Mae Alexander
- Wick Haynes
- James “Jim” Toms
- Kathleen Carland
- Jonathan “Jon” Parce
- Bill Stepp
- Paul Donahue
- Eva Ritchie
- Doug Freeman
- Rich Brinegar
- Shelly Kingsley
- Donald Reid
- Blair Jenkins
- Clay Eddleman
- Mark Case
Registered Voters 1970’s Through Today
Prior to the mid 70’s, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans. The number of Unaffiliated registrants was negligible. The total number of registered voters in Henderson County in 1975 was under 25,000.
In the early 80’s, the number of registered Democrats and Republicans was nearly equal at 15,000. From the late 70’s to the early 80’s the number of Unaffiliated registrants remained steady at around 1,500. By the mid 80’s there were more than a 1,000 more Republicans than Democrats and the number of Unaffiliateds had begun to rise. The total number of registered voters in 1985 was close to 33,000.
By 1996, the number of registered Democrats was approaching 19,000. The number of Republicans had pushed over 27,000 and Unaffiliateds had increased to over 9,000. The total number registered voters were now over 55,000. The number of Democrats peaked at over 19,00 a year later before dropping back and settling around 18,000 by the end of the decade, while the number of Republicans and Unaffiliated voters enjoyed steady increases.
Through the mid-2000’s, the number of registered Democrats remained around 18,000. Registered Republicans had risen to around 32,000 but their increases had leveled off, while the number of Unaffiliated voters had risen to over 20,000 and continued to climb. There were only a handful of people registered as Libertarian. For the 2008 presidential election the number of registered Democrats approached 19,000 but feel back off to near 18,000 a year later.
By 2010, the numbered of registered Democrats had risen back up to around 19,000, while the number of Republicans had remained nearly steady just below 32,000. The number of Unaffiliated registrants had risen to over 26,000 and the number of Libertarians had grown to over 100. By the time the 2012 presidential election rolled around there had been little change in the number of Democrats and Republicans, while the number of Unaffiliated voters had risen to close to 28,000.