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The Democratic Party: A Brief Primer

By David Jennings 

In 1992 Arthur Schlesinger Jr., scholar and former aide to President Kennedy, wrote, “Faithful most of its life to its Jeffersonian and Jacksonian roots, the Democratic Party remains after 200 years the oldest political party in continuous existence anywhere in the world.”  The intellectual heritage of the party can be traced to the 1790s. The modern structure of the party with its permanent committees at the local, state and national level emerged during the age of Andrew Jackson. In 1832, Democrats became the first party to hold a national convention to nominate a presidential candidate.

According to historian Gordon Dodds, Democrats are also Oregon’s oldest political party. Oregon’s first territorial governor who took office in 1849 was Democrat Joseph Lane. He was appointed by Democratic President James Polk. The Oregon Democratic Party was first organized at a Salem convention in 1852 – 7 years before statehood.  

The modern Coos County Democratic Party was born after World War II. At that time the South Coast still had vast tracts of old growth timber. Coos Bay was then known as the “Lumber Capitol of the World.”  As late as 1980, seven out of 10 jobs in the area were timber related.

OSU historian William Robbins writes, “Unskilled and skilled workers in the Coos Bay area have always out-numbered mid-level management and professional people.”  He also says, “Southwestern Oregon residents have always been proud of their working class traditions, a heritage that has been rich with struggle in one of the most volatile sections of the American economy.”

Before, mid-twentieth century timber workers were poorly paid and their jobs were extremely dangerous. Unionization raised wages and improved safety. South Coast unionization was made possible by New Deal labor reforms enacted by a Democratic congress and authored by Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt.  Most South Coast union workers, their families, and their friends understood that the Democratic Party was on their side. Local union leaders were often active Democratic precinct people.  

Based in the working class, the Democratic Party dominated Coos County from the mid-1950s until the end of the century. From 1956 until 2000, no Republican running for President ever received a majority of Coos County votes cast in a general election. In 1972 Coos was one of only three Oregon counties won by Democrat George McGovern in his landslide defeat.  

In 1984, Ronald Reagan was re-elected by a landslide nationally and in Oregon. In Coos County he beat Walter Mondale by 55 votes out of over 27,000 cast with a victory margin of .02%. Reagan received just under 50% of the Coos County vote. In 1988 Democrat Michael Dukakis won 56.4% of the Coos County vote. In 1992 and 1996 Bill Clinton won a plurality of Coos County voters. However, in 2000 George W Bush won Coos County and GOP Presidential candidates have carried the county ever since.  

Coos County now votes mostly Republican. In 2016 Hillary Clinton won only the Bandon precinct. However, Coos Bay and North Bend still often vote Democrat. Two Bay Area Democrats, State Senator Arnie Roblan and State Representative Caddy McKeown, represent the North County and a large area up the coast.  

The decrease in Coos County party supporters corresponds with the decline of organized labor on the South Coast.  Like our fellow Democrats in much of the rust belt and across rural America, we are rebuilding a new progressive coalition.  

Join us, won't you?

Jen Shafer