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Howard Democrats consider renaming Jefferson-Jackson Dinner

Local Democrats consider distancing themselves from the slave-owning legacies of two presidents.

A national trend to pivot away from the slave-owning legacies of two founders of the Democratic Party, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, has made its way to the Democratic Central Committee of Howard County.

The committee is considering changing the name of its annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, one of many fundraising dinners throughout the country, this June. The name will be selected from a pool of five from suggestions submitted by the public and narrowed down by the committee, and the choices include an option to retain the current name.

New names being considered for the dinner are: the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Annual Dinner, the Howard County Democratic Unity Dinner, the Kennedy-Obama Dinner and the Obama-Mikulski Dinner.

The committee will announce the name with the most votes from the public at the dinner next month.

While Jefferson and Jackson made specific contributions, "their pasts both question the ideology and ideas that the Democratic Party embodies today," said Abby Hendrix, chairwoman of the county's central committee. "Personally, I think its time for a change"

The move typifies a fundamental shift over the last several decades in the Democratic Party from a union-powered party to one molded by racial and sexual identities. Despite penning "all men are created equal," Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves during his life. Jackson, also a slave owner, pushed thousands of Native Americans from their homes in the south to the west on an often deadly journey known as the Trail of Tears.

"The Republican Party is not the party of Lincoln anymore. The Democratic Party is not the party of Andrew Jackson anymore," said Josh Friedman, president of the Columbia Democratic Club. "One of the benefits of time is looking back at the legacy of our leaders. Simply because a particular historic figure had the word Democrat in their name doesn't mean their values are in line with ours."

Throughout the country, local and statewide Democratic activists have pushed to drop symbols linked to slavery and the Civil War from titles of dinners and other emblematic traditions. The move was partly prompted by the mass shooting of black churchgoers by a white gunman in Charleston, S.C., which pushed South Carolina leaders to remove the Confederate flag from its state house grounds in June last year.

In a September letter to local committee chairs, the Maryland Democratic Party urged local committees to consider whether or not the Jefferson-Jackson name "embodies modern Democratic values" and reflects a "modern commitment … to civil rights, equality and inclusion."

"The timing on this is really part of a broader national conversation that has rippled across the country," said Pat Murray, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party. "It's a great opportunity to engage people in a discussion about what our values are."

The county's central committee received a name change request from the Ellicott City and Western Howard County Democratic Club several months ago, prompting the committee to take action. The committee used the opportunity to engage stakeholders in a democratic process by putting the name change decision in the hands of the public, said Hendrix. The committee narrowed down options from a list of more than 30 suggestions from the public, which included names like "We the People" dinner.

For Daniel Medinger, president of the Ellicott City and Western Howard County Democratic Club, introspection is pushed by "heightened sensitivities."

"There is a saying that the only people who pay attention to history are those abused by it," said Medinger. "We need to be inclusive and recognize the strength of our diversity."

Friedman agreed.

"Social values have changed and will change without fail," he said. "We've finally gotten to the point where we have to become more reflective."

To vote, go to http://bit.ly/1rCATW5. The winner will be announced at the dinner on June 7.

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