Henry Vandermeir: Not Your Old-Time Democrat

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For Henry Vandermeir, the days before President Obama’s inauguration were a Charles Dickens sort of week: both the best of times and the worst of times.

On Jan. 14 he was elected chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County (DPOC). The next day he came down with what he told me was “the worst flu I’ve had in my life.”

By the time we met up at a Corner Bakery in Irvine, Vandermeir was again ambulatory and ready to talk about how he came to his new role in the political life of Orange County. If you wonder at the changing political demographics of the county and what they might portend, he’s worth getting to know.

Vandermeir grew up an Army brat, moving between his father’s postings in Europe and the U.S. Politics was rarely discussed among the military back then. He began work on his B.S. degree in Business Administration at the University of Maryland’s overseas campus in Munich, Germany, where his met his wife, Lori, and earned a master’s degree in Computer Information Systems from Boston University. He later returned to Munich to teach before beginning a career in computer training. In those days he recalls himself as “a typical four-year Democrat: I cast my vote and that was pretty much it.” Then Bill Clinton’s campaign of 1992 caught his interest, and he began to volunteer.

In 2000, he attended his first meeting of the South Orange County Democratic Club and was impressed; he emerged as vice chair. “I caught the bug,” he says. “From then on I never looked back.”

A few years later, the Vandermeirs were ready to leave the corporate world. “It’s amazing what corporations try to pull on you – it’s disenchanting,” he says. “The money was good, but the job satisfaction wasn’t there.”

They feel good about trying to make a difference through politics.

Vandermeir wants to get local Democrats “out of the closet.” “We’ve been outnumbered for quite a while, and haven’t had a significant presence or visibility. Once people hear that we’re everywhere, that’s it’s OK – there’s half a million of us in Orange County – then they don’t feel like they’re the only Democrat in town.” Vandermeir likens it to running a successful business through advertising and marketing. So he’ll be reaching out to progressive not-for-profits and other organizations.

Vandermeir will not be contacting voters once every four years, when the national campaign needs their vote, money, and volunteer efforts. “That doesn’t build loyalty,” he says. “So we’ll be getting to know the Democrats in town, organizing events and having some fun – fun and being an Orange County Democrat having seldom appeared in the same sentence.”

He also seeks better dialogue with the other side. “I don’t remember that kind of animosity, the name-calling…. All some people have to hear is what party you’re in and you’re out of their circle. I hope that party of politics will change.”

The timing of Henry Vandermeir’s rise to chair of the DPOC seems to me propitious. As Richard Blanco read his splendid inaugural poem, “One Today,” I was reminded of Walt Whitman’s 150-year-old poem “Leaves of Grass,” which also celebrates this country’s diversity and vitality. Then I recalled that Whitman was reputed to be homosexual and was vilified for it; Blanco is out-of-the-closet gay. That’s just one of the great cultural changes this country is experiencing. Whitman was Anglo-American; Blanco is Cuban-American. The inauguration reflected that change, too: The entertainer Beyoncé (of African, French, Native-American, and Irish roots) sang (or lip-synced) “The Star Spangled Banner.” Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (Puerto Rican) gave the oath of office to old white guy Vice President Joe Biden. Even God was brought into the ceremony in fresh ways: For the first time, a woman, Myrlie Evers-Williams (African-American) gave the invocation; Episcopal priest Luis Leon (Cuban-American) gave the benediction.

Orange County, too, has begun to reflect this diversity. In 1996, Republicans enjoyed a 52-32 percent registration margin over Democrats; in 2012, Republicans had slipped to 41 percent of the county’s registration. Last November the formerly red City of Irvine went for Obama, again; and Fullerton mayor Sharon Quirk-Silva (Latina) unseated rock-ribbed conservative Chris Norby in the 65th Assembly District.

On Jan. 28 Henry Vandermeir will chair his first meeting of the DPOC Central Committee. He relishes working with them to continue the trend.

Jean is a local author, editor and writing instructor. She can be reached at [email protected].

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