Fatimah Waseem- Howard County Times
Howard Democrats dropped the legacies of two slave-owning presidents from the title of their annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner this year.
Instead, they stood behind the wide parasol of the "Democratic Unity Dinner" — a broad pivot local Democrats said embodies their party's spirit and will carry their party forward ahead of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this month.
The presidential election is unprecedented, said Courtney Watson, an elected Howard delegate and former councilwoman who officially represents the state's Hillary Clinton campaign and is helping lead the delegation to the convention.
"In my lifetime, this is by far the race that has the most at stake," Watson said. "Trump isn't unifying the Democratic party. He's scaring the hell out of us. It's critical that we defeat Trump. We've just never had a candidate that has alienated so many different groups of people."
Clinton emerged at a pivotal moment in the country's history, said Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty
"I don't think we've ever had a person step up and run for president at precisely the right moment," Sigaty said. "She's been at the forefront to help our country and world build strategic alliances, defuse areas that could potentially be damaging to not only us but others."
Both parties are weathering through "growing pains," said Byron Macfarlane, a representative for the county's Clinton campaign group and the county's Register of Wills. Macfarlane has been a lifelong Clinton fan. The 33-year-old met Clinton at a book signing in college where he was struck by her "electrifying personality."
"It's a testament to our party and to Hillary that we are coming together in a united way," Macfarlane said.
While Bernie Sanders pushed the party to embrace a more progressive platform, local Democrats said Donald Trump — who this week became the Republican nominee for president — is not the Democratic party's great unifier.
"He's not a great uniter of anything," said Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, who supported Sanders in the primary and will vote for Clinton in November. "I wouldn't dare give him that much credit."
Abby Hendrix, chairwoman of the local Democratic central committee, agreed.
"I find the state of politics related to Trump as a very sad time in history where the United States was supposed to be united and have respect for all," Hendrix said. "He puts Democrats in a much better place."
Unity is already built into the foundational principles of the Democratic party, said County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, also an elected delegate.
"Our party is one that is focused on united values," said Ball.
At 25, Dylan Goldberg is a self-described political junkie and one of the youngest at-large delegates headed to the convention. As a child, Goldberg ran home from school to watch C-SPAN. A Sanders poster has been in his room for the last decade alongside other leaders like John F. Kennedy.
"To be 25 years old and live in a time where I could have seen the election of the first African American [president] and getting to nominate the most qualified president — who is a female — is amazing," said Goldberg, who led local Clinton campaign efforts in the primary. "Donald Trump has been fanning flames that have been simmering in the form of racism and prejudice. Republicans thought that was building excitement. It was really a wildfire that is now completely out of control."
Sigaty said Sanders tapped into issues people care about, but was unable to put those yearnings into action.
"For Bernie, life was black and white. This world is most decidedly not black and white," she said.
Some local Democrats slammed the elected Republican officials for failing to publicly and progressively come out against Trump. Local elected Republicans staked varying positions on Trump; Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman said he won't vote for Trump or Clinton, for example. Others stood by their party's nominee despite voicing concerns.
"Howard County values are centered around diversity and shared prosperity. Donald Trump does not represent those values. Republicans, Democrats, Independents, whoever you are — no one should want to be affiliated in any shape or way," said Macfarlane.
Watson said Republicans should take a firm stance against Trump's "damaging rhetoric."
"This guy would be a disaster for our democracy. It's a cop-out to say you're choosing the lesser of two evils," she said.
When asked how Democrats would respond to a Trump-like figure in their party, Macfarlane said a Trump candidacy could never happen in the Democratic Party. "Trump is the culmination of years of simmering issues in the Republican party," he said.
Hendrix said she feels confident about the Democratic Party's overall position, adding that concerns about Clinton's emails are based more on "innuendo and rumor" than pure facts.