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Democrats consider dropping Jefferson and Jackson from fundraising dinners

For some Democrats, Jefferson & Jackson are out; Kennedy & King are in.

Democratic clubs in Maryland are considering changing the name of annual fundraising dinners amid a broader push to disavow the slave-owning legacies of presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.

Democratic organizations across the country have held "Jefferson-Jackson" dinners for years. But as the nation debates its past — and how to honor it — many are moving to erase the names of the party's forefathers from the invitations.

"There's a lot of concern about the antebellum issues of race and slavery," said Pat Murray, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party. "Certainly we've heard concerns about the fact that these two founders of the party had values that don't really align with the modern party's values of inclusiveness and diversity."

In recent months, Democrats in Iowa, Georgia, Connecticut and Missouri are among those who have dropped the Jefferson-Jackson title from local events.

Anne Arundel Democrats are expected to decide at their October meeting whether to keep the name for the county Central Committee's annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, a May event that's among the group's largest fundraisers.

"When you look at Anne Arundel County and you have Jefferson-Jackson, you don't consider that to be inclusive of all of Anne Arundel County," said Christine Davenport, chairwoman of the county's Democratic Central Committee.

Democrats in Carroll and Howard counties are also reconsidering the name of their Jefferson-Jackson Dinners, both held annually in May.

Modern Democrats consider Jefferson and Jackson among the party's most influential founders. Jefferson was principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the nation's third president, from 1801 to 1809. Jackson was a major general in the War of 1812 and served as the country's seventh president, from 1829 to 1837.

But both were slave owners, and an increasing number of Democratic leaders are uncomfortable with celebrating their lives by naming key events after them. Jackson also has the dubious distinction of authorizing the Indian Removal Act, which forced many Native Americans to migrate west on what is now known as the "Trail of Tears."

Davenport said the topic was raised at a meeting last week, and she charged members with asking fellow Democrats and political club members for their thoughts and ideas for new names. She said no one can exactly recall why the dinner has been named for Jefferson and Jackson or how long it's been that way.

"If there's a rich history of why it's put there, then we'll have to think before we change that," Davenport said.

The name debate is taking place during a larger national assessment of monuments to historical figures — many whose views or practices may no longer be considered acceptable.

This summer, Baltimore County officials announced their desire to rename the city-owned Robert E. Lee Park, and last week Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake named a commission to research and engage public conversation about the city's Confederate monuments and other historical assets.

Those measures came after the shooting of nine black members of a South Carolina church by a white man photographed with the Confederate battle flag. He reportedly said he wanted to start a "race war."

Maryland's statewide Democratic Party doesn't have a position on using the Jefferson and Jackson names at fundraising dinners, but Murray said state party Chairman D. Bruce Poole "has encouraged county parties to take a look in the mirror and ask if Jackson and Jefferson are really the best embodiment of the modern Democratic Party values."

Democratic Party fundraisers have a variety of names in Maryland.

For example, Maryland's statewide Democratic celebration is called the Maryland Democratic Party Gala. Prince George's County has a Ploughman and Fisherman Unity Breakfast — named for symbols on the state seal. In Calvert County, the dinner is named for late Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein.

Republicans also hold annual events, some honoring former presidents. The state GOP event is a Red, White and Blue Dinner, while several counties name events after presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.

Howard County Democrats have had preliminary talks about changing the name of their annual dinner.

Abby Hendrix, the county Central Committee chairwoman, said they are doing so "mostly because of the current knowledge that we have about the names that are behind the dinner — maybe trying to find more current names to celebrate to make sure that we are recognizing that not everybody may be comfortable naming the dinner after specific presidents based on their past behaviors."

Hendrix said committee members who organize the dinner are leading the discussion and may ask for feedback on whether the dinner should honor presidents, local leaders or the party's more broad ideals.

"Sometimes it's time to turn the page and start a new tradition," she said.

Don West, Carroll County's Central Committee chairman, said changing the name has been discussed and is on the agenda for discussion at Thursday's meeting.

The committee's discussions "predate the most recent turmoil as far as the Confederate flag and slave issues," West said. "There was a push to move it at least into the 20th century and honor more recent Democrats rather than old-timers."

West said the name should be culturally appropriate and relevant to party members.

"With current events the way they have been with some of the racial tensions, and Black Lives Matter and the Confederate flag issue, those issues are coming home to roost for some of us, and I think that's what's driving those committees that are changing it now," he said.

In Harford County, the Central Committee holds one or two Unity Breakfast events each year. In October, they'll host U.S. Rep. Donna F. Edwards, who is running for the U.S. Senate. In March, they'll follow up with her opponent, U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen.

Russell Kovach, Harford's Central Committee chairman, said the local party has considered holding a dinner and kicked around the idea of calling it a King-Kennedy Dinner — in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy.

"While certainly the beginnings of what would become the Democratic Party were seen with both presidents Jefferson and Jackson, the modern party is the party of FDR and JFK, and has been strongly guided by the teachings of Dr. King," Kovach said.

Baltimore City's Central Committee has only occasional fundraisers, and has never put a name to them. If they ever do, the committee recently decided on Obama-Marshall — recognizing President Barack Obama, the first black president, and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black member of the high court.

"It's more meaningful for us as a city made up of predominantly African-Americans that we name it something that we can relate to," said Scherod Barnes, chairman of the city's Central Committee.

Barnes said he suspects Democrats in the counties use Jefferson and Jackson simply out of tradition.

"For whatever reason, those who had Jefferson-Jackson Dinners, probably that name stuck 10, 15, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago," he said.

Baltimore County Democrats have been holding an annual fundraising dinner for nine years. At first, it was a Victory Dinner; the name was later changed to the Unity Dinner, said Robert Leonard, chairman of the Central Committee.

"I've heard stories about Jefferson-Jackson dinners changing their names throughout the country," Leonard said. "That's never been our situation in Baltimore County."

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Wiley Hayes contributed to this article.

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