RAEFORD — On Friday night in this quiet southeastern North Carolina town, a team of college students went door-to-door, asking people to sign a petition to put a third political party on the ballot.
Wearing matching "Bring Jobs to North Carolina" T-shirts, Donnell Smith of Fayetteville and Shelitia Brooks of Raeford told people they were trying to create better jobs and more affordable health care.
What they didn't say is they're also trying to throw 8th District Democratic Congressman Larry Kissell out of office.
The conservative-leaning tea party movement is not the only backlash to emerge from the national health care debate. The health care fracas also created a reaction from the left.
The debate spawned a union-backed, $1 million effort to create a third political party in North Carolina. The immediate goal is to punish three Democratic congressmen who voted against the new health care law - Heath Shuler of Bryson City, Mike McIntyre of Lumberton and most especially Kissell.
The organizers say they to hope create a long-term party apparatus that will compete with the Democratic and Republican parties in the state.
The effort is being funded by the 55,000-member State Employees Association of North Carolina and its national parent, the Service Employees International Union, a 2.2 million-member group that is the nation's fastest-growing union.
Much of the group's efforts have been aimed at Kissell, the freshman Democrat who voted against the health care bill last year citing concerns about whether it would result in cuts in Medicare, the government-run health care program for the elderly.
"During the campaign, he [Kissell] went to our members and promised them he would vote for health reform," said Dana Cope, SEANC's executive director. "Once he was elected, he did the exact opposite. He had all kinds of excuses that sound good on paper, but the bottom line is he gave his votes to those interests that are protecting everyone else but the working state employees."
Kissell's office did not respond Friday to a request for comment.
But Democratic officials take a dim view of a powerful union trying to oust their congressmen for political apostasy.
"I think the effort is unfortunate and misplaced," said Andrew Whalen, executive director of the state Democratic Party. "I say that as a former member of the SEIU."
"For the national SEIU to look at one specific issue and put that out as a reason to attempt to defeat several members of Congress who have a history of standing up for working families is counterproductive," Whalen said.
The new party, called North Carolina First, was announced April 8, when an effort started to qualify for a place on the ballot. North Carolina has one of the most restrictive ballot access laws in the country. To qualify, a party must gather signatures equal to 2 percent of the total votes cast in the last governor's race - in this case 84,600 signatures.
Armed with the deep pockets of the SEIU, the group hired 120 workers to collect signatures, hired a political consultant and opened offices in Charlotte, Fayetteville and Raleigh, although the office in Raleigh has since been closed. The Fayetteville office is a storefront operation that was formerly a tattoo parlor.
SEIU has committed $1 million to the project, according to Cope, who is also on SEIU's governing board.
The party had gathered close to 86,000 signatures late last week, according to Greg Rideout, a consultant for the party. Although the deadline for submitting the signatures to the State Board of Elections is June 1, the signatures have to be submitted to county boards of elections by Monday for verification.
The party backers will decide this weekend whether they feel they have enough signatures to submit their petitions to county boards. They estimate they'll need a 20 percent cushion in case some signatures are thrown out.
"I am not sure we're going to make the threshold for 84,000 signatures," Cope said last week.
If the group does not meet the deadline, Cope said, it will consider recruiting people to run as independent candidates against Kissell and perhaps other candidates in the fall.
Regardless, North Carolina First intends to hold its first state convention sometime this summer. It will either be a nomination convention or a constituting convention and it will probably be held in Kissell's district, Rideout said.
But Cope said the third party effort is much larger than challenging the three congressmen. North Carolina First will likely back candidates for other offices in future years, he said.
If the party fails to get on the ballot for the 2010 elections, Cope said, the effort would continue for 2012.
He said the two major parties don't have the best interests of working families at heart.
"You have Republicans, who, in my opinion, are all about lining the pockets of themselves and big business and industry," he said. "And then you have what I would consider Republican-lite like the business Democrats who are in control of the Senate right now who are slightly different but along the same lines. They are going to reward those high political donors, people who keep them in office and who keep the campaign cash flowing. So we are trying to build an alternative to that."
Third parties have had limited success in North Carolina. The Libertarian Party has sometimes gotten on the ballot, but its candidates have been unable to break double digits at the ballot box. In 1968, the third party presidential candidacy of Alabama Gov. George Wallace outpolled Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey in North Carolina.
Perhaps the most successful third party effort in North Carolina occurred in the 1890s when a coalition between the Populists and the Republicans helped wrest political control of the state away from the Democrats.
Cope said the effort is part of a larger push by SEANC and the SEIU to become more politically active in North Carolina, traditionally one of the least-unionized states in the country. The unions were major players in the 2008 elections and were very visible in lobbying for passage of the health care legislation.
"The state employees association over the last five to 10 years is building a political machine that is, in my opinion," Cope said, "going to rival the party structures in North Carolina."
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