What does it mean that Jerry Meek, the Fayetteville trial lawyer, is the new Democratic State Party chair, and not Gov. Mike Easley’s choice, Raleigh attorney-lobbyist Ed Turlington? When Meek’s victory was announced on Saturday at the party’s executive committee meeting, by a vote of 271-242, party activist Chris Lizak literally leaped out of his chair to exclaim, “History was made here today!” Progressives had won, he said, and the “Clintonistas”–as he called them–had lost. “Now, they can’t unite the party their way,” Lizak declared. “They have to unite the party our way.” Also beaming, ex-Wake County legislator Bob Hensley put it in simpler, if less majestic terms. “You can report,” he said, “that the people have won.”

OK, won what?

For starters, it’ll be a long time before the Democrats nominate someone as conservative as Erskine Bowles again for a U.S. Senate seat without his even having to win a primary. Meek’s election is all about building the party from the bottom up, precinct by precinct, instead of from the country club down. A strong grassroots party would hardly have accepted the wealthy but colorless Bowles, fresh from his ’02 loss to Liddy Dole, without raising up some other, more progressive candidates for Democratic voters’ consideration.

This was the point state Insurance Commissioner Jim Long seemed to be making when he placed Meek’s name in nomination. Meek, a 34-year-old wunderkind, represents “fresh leadership and fresh ideas,” said Long, the only elected state official who bucked Easley. And the main idea Meek represents, Long added, is that while money is important in winning elections, it’s “more important to create strong networks of supporters at the precinct and local levels.”

Long never mentioned Bowles, or Easley for that matter, but the alternative he had in mind was clear: Without local party networks, Democrats have to take what the country-club crowd gives them.

In addition to more candidates, grassroots organization promises to give Democrats a way to lift up more issues for public consumption, which should help those elected officials already sticking out their necks for progressive causes while pressuring the ones who don’t. For example, Gov. Mike Easley, when he presents his 2005-06 budget this week, reportedly will propose keeping the sales-tax surcharge on ordinary folks while dumping the income-tax surcharge on the rich. A Democratic Party that takes seriously its platform-adoption process surely would’ve discussed whether state taxes are too progressive or regressive, presumably coming out in favor of the former.

Meek, campaigning for chair, took no position on specific issues per se. What he did promise was to help the party faithful study issues themselves and come to their own conclusions; he also pledged to let them voice their positions, once adopted, and speak up for those positions himself even if they differ from their Democratic governor’s views. By contrast, former party chair Barbara Allen–installed by Easley–hasn’t even convened a platform meeting since 2002.

In 2003, Meek challenged Allen briefly, withdrawing before the vote after he was handed the seemingly powerless position of first vice chair. It was understood, however, that she would serve only one term more, and that he’d be back again in ’05 vying for the top prize.

In the interim, Meek threw himself into his self-appointed job of county- and precinct-level organizing, jumping in his car–or his plane–at the least suggestion that he might be needed out in the hinterlands. “He came to the west so many times,” said Doug Jones, chair of the Buncombe County Young Democrats, “that we came to think of him as part of our local organizing team.”

Thus, Meek was in a position to both ride the wave of local activism that swelled up in opposition to the Bush administration over the last two years and harness it to his own work of local party-building all over North Carolina. This while Easley was pointedly ignoring the Kerry-Edwards ticket, dodging party events and winning re-election for himself with a big-money TV campaign that portrayed him as a conservative, pro-business governor.

Easley was blowing off the grassroots activists, that is, at the very same time Meek was organizing them and winning them over to his side. In that respect, Saturday’s result was as much about what had gone before as a harbinger of things to come, although it was that, too. In short, Meek had earned the job, and as much as Turlington, bless his heart, tried to say “me, too–I’ll organize local stuff, too,” he couldn’t shake the notion that his candidacy was being promoted by the insiders to thwart the will of the people–the outsiders. Or, as Meek told the delegates Saturday, “I could’ve spent my time [as vice chair] hobnobbing at receptions. But I decided I was going to spend my time with y’all.”

Was Easley the loser on Saturday? Yes, and all the more so because he was–once again–a no-show at an important party event. Former Gov. Jim Hunt was there, working the floor for Turlington (who ran his ’96 re-election campaign). Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and Treasurer Richard Moore, gubernatorial wannabees, were there too, also working for Turlington. Even Sen. Janet Cowell, D-Wake, though she had no vote, was on hand to tell folks she was backing her fellow Raleigh resident Turlington.

But no Easley. Having put Turlington in the race, he couldn’t be bothered to stand with him in a losing cause.

And it was a loser; everybody on Turlington’s side certainly knew that. They’ve all been through enough campaigns to be able to count the votes. Doubtless that’s why Hunt, who nominated Turlington in glowing terms, also took care to say that “however this comes out, folks,” a vigorous battle was “good for our Democratic Party.”

And what of the “Clintonistas”? Lizak’s reference was to Southern Democrats who think the party must move to the right and nominate Southerners like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to regain the national majority.

That view may have been strengthened by Meek’s election, with his pledge to actually reflect the views of rank-and-file Southern Democrats, not just the country-club crowd–that and newly elected Democratic National Chair Howard Dean’s promise that the party will campaign in all 50 states, not just the “blue” ones.

The point, at this stage, isn’t that the rank-and-file are so much more progressive than the Easleys and the Bowleses, though the progressives obviously think they are. It’s that, since they’ve never really been organized, what they’ll come up with as policy is a big unknown.

But Lizak’s right in one respect. If Easley, as Lizak exclaimed, was ever going to be “the poster boy for the Clintonistas,” the poster boy is looking sorry after Saturday.