Election Day marked the start of a critical countdown: We’ve got one year to get George W. Bush out of the White House. And this past Saturday night marked as good a launch and pep rally as you could hope for. More than 300 supporters of the Institute for Southern Studies, Southern Exposure magazine, and Democracy North Carolina assembled at the Hayti Heritage Center, in the magnificent sanctuary of the renovated old St. Joseph’s Church in Durham, to hear the searing words of populist Jim Hightower and honor investigative inspiration Bob Hall.

Hall was honored for his work over more than 30 years, mostly behind the scenes at the Institute for Southern Studies and Democracy South, making them leaders in battles on social issues in general and campaign finance reform in particular. He was hailed as a key resource for reporters and activists around the region who need to figure out how to wade through the paper trails and digital labyrinths of state campaign finance records, and figure out who is truly paying for (and buying?) elections.

And it was a time for a little optimism, a glimmer of hope that change may be in the air after three years of George W. Bush’s lies and manipulations on Iraq, his radical turn toward the unilateral exercise of power and away from international cooperation, his brazen support for the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle classes, his dismantling of environmental protections, and his failure to address the nation’s economic crisis while running up billions in deficits.

The tone was set by former Durham City Council member and U.S. Senate candidate Cynthia Brown, in a rousing opening homily in that stained-glass space.

“People feel like their voices aren’t heard, that big money matters more than votes, and as a result, we’re seeing public policy that benefits the few rather than the many… People are losing faith in our election process, with good reason, and the few are becoming even more powerful as fewer voters exercise their right to vote. North Carolina ranks 44th in the country in terms of voter participation, and over a million North Carolinians aren’t even registered to vote,” she said.

“In a time like this,” she reminded us, “it’s critical that we come to celebrate the successes we’ve had and the movement we comprise together, and to recharge our batteries so we can all keep doing this work which is critically important.”

She was referring to the work being done by the Durham-based Institute for Southern Studies on topics such as war profiteering and predatory lending, and Carrboro-based Democracy South (and its local branch, Democracy North Carolina) on big money elections and voting rights. But in everyone’s minds were the war and George W. Bush. We’re back where we were on Election Day 2000, 50-50 for and against. With the post-invasion plan in shambles and Americans and Iraqis dying every day, with unemployment still high and more people recognizing their civil liberties are under siege, many who believed in the war and the President may be losing faith. It is time for Democrats to find the candidate who best expresses those concerns, unite around that person, not tear each other apart in the process, and defeat the most dangerous president in our lifetime.

Hightower warned against liberal “Wobblycrats” as much as “Bushites” and “Kleptocrats” who keep stealing money from the people. And he told the story of a person he met last year in Vermont “wearing the best button I’ve ever seen. It said, ‘Wearing a Button Is Not Enough.’”

We’ve got a year to do more than that.