GCDP’s Unsung Heroes of 2020

2020 was a difficult year in many ways. And certainly a tough election cycle with normal methods of campaigning and supporting candidates largely unavailable due to the pandemic. So many people stepped up to help – not only in our elections, but in the campaign for Georgia just recently successfully concluded (Yay, Jon and Rev. Warnock!). We’ve selected a dozen volunteers who were with us through thick and thin to represent our appreciation for all our volunteers.

Linda DerectorGlenda Morrison Fair
Kinard JohnsonLeigh Learing
Stacey MarsElaine McGrath
Evelyn NocellaDani Norman
Hugh OwensKirsten Pruitt
Susie SmithWhitney Wright

Linda Derector

From the nominator:  Linda brings passion to everything she does and so it was with her idea for a fundraising campaign. The  20.20 vision campaign contributed significantly to our successful efforts to increase online donations. Linda also answered the call of precinct leadership, worked with local campaigns, registered voters with the League of Women Voters, donated to campaigns, made phone calls and wrote postcards. So, yeah, everything. 

Moving to Greenville four years ago, Linda Derector was a lifelong Manhattanite who worked in the city’s fashion culture. Moving here, she and her partner, Sonia Coi, knew no one. No problem. A self-described “people person”, Linda, who had never been active in politics before, found Democratic Women, then the League of Women Voters, then the GCDP. 

“I made my way here through the Democratic Party,” she says. “That’s how I met everyone I am friends with now. I am grateful for that.”

But Linda wasn’t just trying to make friends. She was trying to make a difference. Like so many of us, Trump’s election inspired her to get involved. “He woke people up to realize what was at stake,” she notes. “When things are going well, you don’t think much about it. This awakened people to value what we have here as a democracy. America was fighting for her life.”

And Linda joined the army. She plays down her efforts. “I did what I could,” she demures. That included volunteering, writing postcards, phone banking and making donations for Jaime Harrison, Kim Nelson, and Samantha Wallace, being an active member of the Rock Hill precinct and making calls and writing more postcards to connect with them, making a lot of donations, registering voters with the LWV. And, of course, joining the GCDP fundraising team.

“I am someone who just wants to do what I can. I am a team player, and want to continue to do that.” 

— Laura Haight

Glenda Morrison Fair

From the nominator: Glenda has been a true public servant for Greenville County residents.  Her ability to be present, responsive, and understand the needs of our families and students during the pandemic has been amazing to watch.  She is fighting for our future and for the betterment of our education system.  We are blessed to have her leadership on the Greenville County School Board. 

Glenda Morrison-Fair was elected in 2008 to represent District 23 on the Greenville County Schools Board of Trustees, succeeding Rev. Grady Butler.  Glenda is a native Greenvillian who graduated in the second to last class from Sterling High School.  She attended and graduated from Hampton University.  While studying at Hampton, she worked for the head of student affairs and it was that experience that planted the seed for activism and grassroots advocacy.

After graduation, she and her husband lived in the Boston area for five years and then moved to and lived in Kansas City for the next 31 years.  Glenda worked in the IT field and eventually earned her teaching certificate from Park University and taught high school in Kansas City.  She loved teaching and living in the Kansas City area with one exception.  There’s no ocean in Missouri – or Kansas – and she missed the beach.  So, to get a little closer to the beach she returned to her hometown of Greenville in 2003.

Rev. Butler convinced her to run for the Board of Trustees saying that you have to do three things, “be willing to work with people, to listen and be available.”  To that end, as a School Board Trustee, she has worked tirelessly to engage with the 19 neighborhood associations in her district. 

In the age of Covid-19 where personal interaction is limited, Glenda has become a Zoom expert.  More important, she has worked with parents and teachers to navigate how best to educate our kids and keep them safe at the same time.  She understands the stress and anxiety that teachers, parents and kids are experiencing.  When some parents have been reluctant to let their children out of the house and back to school, Glenda has worked with others to make sure that lunches were delivered to those homes in place of the regular school lunch.  In addition, she has delivered meals to seniors in our local food deserts and where there are shortages in food delivery services.   Glenda’s service to our community may be “unsung.”  It’s also inspirational.

— Steve Evered

Kinard Johnson

From the nominator: Kinard is truly an unsung hero for the GCDP.  If you were to look up the definition of “Jack of All Trades” you would see a picture of Kinard. He is critical to so many things happening that many of us don’t even know is transpiring.  From coordinating our Office Volunteers as an inspiring leader or helping us with all of the renovations as we updated the office, Kinard is someone who does what it takes to move our Party forward.  

Upstate native Kinard Johnson, currently serves as the manager of Greenville County Democratic headquarters. Kinard graduated from Georgetown and received his law degree from the University of South Carolina. He had the good fortune to marry his wife Carol McKinney in 1966, they have two grown children and four perfect grandchildren.

Kinard served as a SC family court judge from 1982 until his retirement in 2010. During his years as a State judge, Kinard was legally prohibited from being active in politics. He was a closeted Democrat and relished his opportunity to vote by secret ballot. After retirement he was free at last to be openly political. Kinard has been volunteering as manager of the GCDP HQ for several years and hopes to continue supporting our Democratic Party, as it represents the ideals and policies he supports. 

The year 2020 was memorable for many disastrous reasons, primarily the COVID-19 pandemic and the last year of Donald Trump’s destructive presidency. The upside of Trump’s term in office was a surge of reactive response from many people who had not previously been active in politics. Kinard was encouraged by this response and has enjoyed his exposure to many diverse people through his volunteer time at the Greenville County Democratic Party office. 

— Roxanne Cordonier

Leigh Learing

From the nominator: Leigh is someone who makes tremendous things happen for our Party and consistently steps up for us when we need it. She was the driving force in our Precinct Reorganization, taking the lead and making it happen despite a growing pandemic concern. Leigh will be an integral part of our growth in 2021 as she spearheads the Precinct Development Committee to action through community outreach. We are lucky to have her on the team.

Leigh Learing is a Greenville native who left the area after high school to attend the University of Alabama.  From there, she spent the next 15 years in Florida.  Her political activism began there when she became involved with the local League of Women Voters working on a nonpartisan approach to gerrymandering.

Five years ago, Leigh, along with her husband and two daughters, returned to Greenville.  Of course, the Greenville she returned to was vastly different than the one she left.  She became active in the GCDP in the hopes of matching Greenville’s transformation with a more forward looking, progressive and problem solving brand of politics. 

Building and organizing precincts is the blocking and tackling of politics.  Her work in the precinct reorganization in the midst of a pandemic was a significant achievement.  Leigh is quick to attribute what was accomplished to the teamwork displayed by her colleagues such as Lisa Carlson, Kate Franch, Gay Gibson, Laura Haight, Cathy Kerechanin, Anita LeBold and Ruth Todd.  While that’s true, it is also true that Leigh’s leadership, dedication, perseverance and ability to work well with others are a foundation upon which the GCDP will grow and succeed in the future.  We are fortunate that she will continue to serve the GCDP as chair of the Precinct Development Committee.      

— Steve Evered

Stacey Mars

From the nominator: Stacey is a natural organizer.  She always comes in with a smile on her face and ready to work for the betterment of our community.  As she stepped into the Volunteer Coordinator role in 2020, she has been crucial in providing support, guidance, and leadership with our most important resource:  PEOPLE.  She is willing to do whatever we need her to do and is a great teammate because she serves with humility and grace, hallmarks of the character she possesses. 

After the 2016 general election, Stacy Mars was disappointed in herself for not working to support Democrats in that election.  With that disappointment in mind, when she attended a Kamala Harris rally during the primaries for the 2020 election, she signed up to volunteer for the vice president elect’s campaign.  “I didn’t really know if they would even call me,” Stacy laughed, when we recently spoke.  Stacy did get a call, and she worked the phone banks throughout Harris’ primary campaign.  Her enthusiasm and competence impressed Paul Merlot (sp???), who asked her to join the Greenville County Democratic Party as Volunteer Coordinator in January 2020.  Stacy accepted the invitation, and spent the past year working for both the party as a whole and for 3 candidates for state office. 

Her greatest challenge during that year?  Just getting people to show up.  Stacy shared that it’s much easier to recruit volunteers for national candidates like Jaime Harrison, than to inspire fellow citizens to work for candidates in local races.  The flipside of this challenge was the great reward Stacy found in helping people learn about local offices and the importance of supporting local candidates.  Covid made it more difficult to have the face to face conversations where that sort of learning could take place.  Stacy especially appreciated the chances to talk with and influence voters before Covid, when she worked for Harris.  She did not hesitate, however, to prioritize keeping volunteers and other citizens safe once Covid reached the Upstate.  Instead of canvassing, she and her volunteer teams focused on doing literature drops. 

As we head into a new year, with a new President and a new U.S. Senate majority leader, Stacy feels rested and ready to go, ready to start working for the 2022 mid-terms.  She is excited to help volunteers gain a richer understanding of the importance of local elections, so that they can share this knowledge with constituents.  While she hopes someday to run for office, she has no desire to leave local organizing, at least for some time to come.  When asked to share her advice to any would-be volunteers for the Greenville Democratic Party, she offered simple directions: just go to the party’s website and click on volunteer.  Don’t for a moment wonder if someone will contact you, Stacy advised.  She WILL call. 

— Elise Filpot

Elaine McGrath

From the nominator: Elaine is relatively new to Greenville, but she hit the ground running and immediately became a fixture in our office. A natural leader, she immediately took ownership of organizing political sign distribution and helping to implement digital tools into our primarily analog environment. As Election Day approached, she took on the job of organizing our rides-to-the-polls program, organizing drivers, making schedules, and managing critical communications. Where there was a need, Elaine saw it and filled it. 

When asked, Elaine McGrath says that she doesn’t think that she’s done anything as a GCDP volunteer that’s especially noteworthy. Maybe such modesty is common among those who contribute their time and brain power to support Democratic candidates and causes without any expectation of recognition.

Or maybe Elaine is the kind of person who sees a need and doesn’t wait to be asked to do something about it. The Douglass (NJ) College French major recently retired from the food industry (“It’s amazing all the things you can do with a liberal arts degree!” she confides), including a stint at Feeding America, the umbrella organization that includes food banks like Greenville’s Harvest Hope. Elaine had lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Miami before discovering Greenville as a retirement destination. She’d barely unpacked her boxes and begun her first course at OLLI when she started volunteering with GCDP. “I’m so passionate about the issues,” she says, “and there are such good people to work with.”

During an election cycle when the COVID pandemic changed everything about how traditional campaign activities could be done, Elaine brought her exceptional organizational skills to GCDP headquarters, matching the “overwhelming” number of volunteers to assignments, fielding requests for candidate yard signs, and masterfully arranging rides to polling places during early voting and on Election Day. Elaine persevered after a painful personal loss, the death of her sister in New Jersey, returning to Greenville on the eve of the election to continue her valuable work with GCDP. The quiet commitment and contributions of volunteers like Elaine are a reminder of the growing grassroots strength of the GCDP and cause for optimism about a more progressive future for our region.

— Mike Roosevelt

Evelyn Nocella

From the nominator: Evelyn stepped up by becoming a Precinct President and Cluster Lead  She also volunteered to canvass for several candidates as well as participate in voter registration activities. Now she will lead the North Greenville County Democrats as their Chair for 2021.

Politics was not always top of mind for Evelyn Nocella. “My parents were Democrats. I voted for Democrats,” but she recalls, “I wasn’t very politically active.” That changed when she moved to the Upstate in 1990 so her husband could do graduate study at Clemson. For the native New Yorker,  transplanted Philadelphian, who came to the US with her immigrant parents when she was 6, the South was “so foreign.” 

It was Barack Obama’s candidacy that first triggered Evelyn, who canvassed for the campaign and worked as a runner and driver on Election Day. Her inauguration celebration – a formal bonfire (you’ll have to get the details from her!) – remains legendary. Next up, she signed on to the Vincent Sheneen 2010 campaign for governor. And, in 2016, the Clinton campaign.

“I knew I had to be more active at the local level, but I didn’t know how,” she remembers. She and a neighbor went to Paris Mountain Precinct reorganization in 2016. They walked in having no idea what it was about and walked out as president (Evelyn) and executive committee member.  Evelyn credits former GCDP Chair Kate Franch with teaching her the ins and outs of local elections. 

Today, it is Evelyn who is both observer and leader. She seems to love talking about politics, but less about individual candidates and more about what it means to be a Democrat and the future of the Democratic Party in this bright red county in a bright red state. “I feel the momentum with the GCDP,” she explains, pointing to more younger people and greater diversity getting involved with the party. “It’s exciting. 

“Time,” she thinks, “is on our side. Younger people are tending toward more liberal, multi cultural outlooks.” That plays into the path she sees for the Party: “We have to create a Democratic identity to challenge the Republican one. Good Christians, law abiding, patriotic.. We have to show that these are the kind of people who are Democrats.”

— Laura Haight

Dani Norman

From the nominator: Dani joined the fundraising committee, led by Regina Waldrep,  facing a difficult year. Dani came up with Trivia Tuesday, an innovative idea to raise some money, attract younger Dems, and potentially bring in new people not currently connected with the party. From conception to completion, she took ownership of the project and turned it into a fun, revenue-producing reality. 

If you look up “irrepressible” in the dictionary, don’t be shocked if you find a picture of Dani Norman, who brings energy and enthusiasm to everything she touches. When she returned to her native South Carolina with her husband Will and newborn son Grayson a little over a year ago after a career in New York’s fashion industry, Dani intended to explore new job opportunities, take advantage of attractions like the Swamp Rabbit Trail, and indulge in Greenville’s foodie culture. She also was determined to get involved in the community and support progressive causes. Within weeks she had joined the GCDP fundraising committee, and soon after that brought her can-do approach to the challenge of fundraising during a pandemic.

When COVID restrictions made in-person fundraising events off-limits, Dani suggested an online spin on popular bar trivia contests, and the concept of Trivia Tuesdays was born. “I didn’t know what to expect,” she said, “but it just became my baby.” Dani took ownership of the project, developing the game format, using Will as her “questions guinea pig,” and even hosting the events, which occurred weekly between Labor Day and Election Day. She quickly gives credit to fellow committee members Jonathon Sweeney and Ashley Newton, who helped publicize Trivia Tuesdays and were regular participants.

Trivia Tuesdays raised nearly $700 – not a fortune, but proof that the online format could work, even with what Dani laughingly admitted was “lots of user error” on her part. Most important, Dani said, the joy she got from interacting with others in a fun way during a challenging time was its own reward. She’s already thinking about follow-ups to Trivia Tuesdays, noting that such small, fun events can keep people connected while generating interest in the Democratic Party. Whatever she does, it undoubtedly will come with a large dose of irrepressible.

– Mike Roosevelt

Hugh Owens

From the nominator: Hugh has worked on just about every campaign run in the last three years. He’s quiet and does not seek recognition. But he’s always there to help with the task at hand. He knocks on doors, phonebanks, hosts fundraisers and donates money. He protests with the Tuesday group out on Main St every week. Hugh is the very incarnation of an unsung hero and deserves our gratitude and recognition.

Hugh Owens has been a fixture in Democratic politics and activism since 2017. A native of Massachusetts, Hugh’s been a lifelong Democrat. He even has a childhood memory of seeing John F. Kennedy at rallies he attended with his Dad. 

His eclectic career resume includes a stint in the Army, electronics and IT, working in a number of restaurants as a cook, and has carried him to California and Florida. He and his wife moved to South Carolina about 15 years ago where he worked for BMW for 10 years before retiring a few years ago.

Until 2017,  his political activism was generally relegated to voting. “Like a lot of people, I was busy. And being a voter was enough. The mindset was to vote and let them govern.” All that changed when Donald Trump was elected. “I was just dumbfounded,” he recalls. 

With the Blue Wave midterm ahead, Hugh knew Michael McCord, who also worked at BMW. He got Hugh connected with Lee Turner’s campaign for Congress. 2017-18 was a busy cycle for Hugh, who phone banked for Lee, got connected with the North Greenville Democrats and Judy Buckley. Through that campaign he got geeked by canvassing. “I like talking to people and I always felt like I was getting better at it,” Hugh says. Now he’s taking on the role of president of the Sandy Flat precinct and doing everything he can to get Democrats elected.

As a member of Tell ‘Em Tuesday, a group of protesters that has held its ground in Downtown Greenville every Tuesday for more than four years, Hugh is sensing some changes. “Overall,” he says, “we see more positive reactions.” At the same time, though, “there’s still a lot of anger” on both sides of the placards. 

With Democrats holding the White House, House and Senate, he isn’t sure what the future of the Tuesday group will be. But, for Hugh it was an affirming activity: “It felt good going down there and being part of something.”

Despite significant wins at the national level, 2020 was a disappointment for Democrats watching the state and local races. And Hugh is poised to continue his activism and leadership. “I’m very passionate about helping on my own level,” he professes.

— Laura Haight

Kirsten Pruitt

From the nominator (Erica Edmondson): She stepped up as both Treasurer and Secretary of Young Dems this past year, and she was constantly there when I needed help. She took on a ton of additional tasks, helped organize projects, and kept me sane throughout the year. She also manned a few tables and helped with volunteer opportunities with other groups when we needed someone.

Kirsten Pruitt is proof positive that young Democrats are not to be underestimated. The seeds of political activism were planted when Kirsten was young. She grew up outside of Detroit, MI, in a Democratic family and community where people were politically informed and “fired up” about their involvement in the party. Kirsten graduated from Oakland University and moved to South Carolina shortly after to live with her aunt, who offered to help Kirsten out until she found her footing. Seven years after relocating to the Palmetto State, Kirsten is settled in the Upstate with husband Justin and their five pets, and she has become a mainstay in the Young Democrats of Greenville County. 

Like many, Kirsten’s political involvement began in earnest after the shock of the 2016 presidential election. Pod Save America, one of the many political podcasts that Kirsten listens to, encourages its listeners to find ways to contribute at the local, state, and federal levels. Kirsten took this advice to heart. Nationally, she worked on Elizabeth Warren’s campaign until Warren withdrew from the race in March of 2020. Then, Kirsten turned to local opportunities and found the Young Democrats. Not one to hold back, she dove in headfirst, ran for treasurer in the next election, and won. Later in the year, she also took on the role of secretary when there was a vacancy.

Kirsten’s contributions to the Young Democrats’ efforts in 2020 helped keep the organization running smoothly. Past Chair Erica Edmondson says Kirsten “kept me sane throughout the year.” Some of Kirsten’s efforts included helping to organize a back-to-school drive, collecting school supplies for students beginning e-learning; working on a co-sponsored Meet Us in the Middle Rally, which raised awareness around local racial, economic, and social inequities; service as Vice Chair of the Rules Committee; acting as a liaison between the Young Dems and several presidential candidates’ campaigns, soliciting help from Young Dems members to meet the needs of the candidates; working on local voter engagement initiatives; and moderating a town hall with three candidates for state senate. 

One might think Kirsten is ready for a much-deserved break, but she remains energized to do the hard work that political activism requires. Says Kirsten, “The local level is where things happen, things that affect you every single day.” In the short term, Kirsten remains committed to fostering growth in the Young Democrats both locally and at the state level. Long term, she hopes to run for public office. Clearly, Kirsten is willing to walk the walk when she says “If nobody steps up, nothing’s going to happen.”

— Erin Basinger

Susie Smith

From the nominator: Susie was incredibly helpful leading up to the election, volunteering to help out with whatever was needed.  She helped us put together packets for all the poll watchers, and then served herself as a poll watcher on election day.  She also created a quiet space at HQ the night before the election for anyone who needed it.  I appreciated having her help!  Her willingness to serve in whatever capacity was needed truly reflects the “all in” mentality that was the heart of this past election.  

Susie Smith chuckles warmly as she says that she’s been active in local politics “longer than most people have been alive,” but the retired minister known affectionately as “Reverend Susie” has been a Democratic Party stalwart since volunteering for George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. The Marietta, GA., native originally came to Greenville to study in Furman’s Religion Department and, despite taking a few detours on her journey, keeps finding her way back to Greenville and the GCDP. An eternal optimist, Susie credits the chaos of the Trump presidency with energizing a range of communities who have come together in partnership with Democrats on issues like immigration policy, religious discrimination, gun violence, and racism. “I’m so proud of the Greenville community for becoming more aware of these issues while avoiding the violence” that some other cities have experienced, she says.

During the recent election cycle, COVID prevented Reverend Susie from doing what she most enjoys – meeting people through canvassing and working with local candidates – so she threw herself into organizing materials for the roughly 75 Democratic poll watchers who spent Election Day at polling places all over the county. She ultimately volunteered to be one herself. “It was a wonderful experience to see so many people coming in to vote,” she says, giving special recognition to “the poll workers, from a couple in their ‘80s to high school and college students, who were such a pleasure to work with.” She also took the initiative to set aside a space at GCDP headquarters on Election Day so stressed candidates and volunteers could retreat for quiet meditation.

Looking forward, Reverend Susie remains optimistic because “the values of my faith align so closely with my values as a Democrat.” As a person of faith with a well-earned reputation for reaching across traditional dividing lines, she compares the connections she’s made through her activism to getting together with far-flung relatives. “Being involved in local politics allows me to get to know people I’d never meet otherwise, and to see things through their eyes,” she says, adding, “Sometimes we argue, but I care about them the same as if they were my own family.”

— Mike Roosevelt

Whitney Wright

From the nominator: Whitney has been integral in the most important part of the Greenville County Democratic Party, our outreach. Her work with the Huddle groups and coming off her leadership as 2nd vice chair is exactly why we are growing as a party.

Whitney Wright has been a tireless worker on behalf of the Greenville County Democratic Party since 2014.  Whitney is from Seneca and holds a degree in education from Southern Wesleyan University and a Masters in Human Resources Management from Thomas Edison State. 

There wasn’t one defining moment that led to her interest in politics and public service.  Rather, it was listening to her parents at the dining room table talk about civil rights, voting rights and what it was like living in South Carolina when the schools were still segregated.  It was in Seneca that she was taught that elected officials should serve the best interests of all their constituents, not just a few.

Whitney became involved with the GCDP Young Democrats and credits Eric Graben, the Party Chair at the time, for his support as she became more active in the Party.  She served as Party 3rd Vice Chair and then was 2nd Vice Chair from 2017 until 2020.  Whitney has worked as the Huddle coordinator and is secretary of the GCDP Black Caucus.

Her mission moving forward, just as it was for the recently completed election cycle, is to reach our minority communities who are eligible to vote but are unregistered, inactive or feel that engaging in the political process doesn’t make any difference.  It’s a tough assignment, but the recent elections in Georgia prove that it can be done.  Whitney will be working to make it happen here.

—  Steve Evered

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