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Democrats bid Jefferson, Jackson adieu

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The fall social calendar for many New England Democrats may look a little different this year as party leaders in three states move to strike the names of two slave-owning presidents from traditional fund-raising dinners.

Democratic state committees across the country have long hosted annual banquets honoring Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. The two men are often cited as forefathers of the Democratic Party, but they were also among the dozen US presidents who owned slaves — a fact that’s led some Democrats to reconsider using their names to raise money for modern candidates.

In recent weeks, a growing number of states have dropped Jefferson and Jackson from traditional events. The list includes Georgia, Missouri, and, here in New England, Connecticut, where party leaders, encouraged by the state NAACP, plan to announce a new name for their dinner sometime later this year. The New Hampshire Democratic Party is considering a similar change, and Maine party leaders have decided to follow suit.

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“We are beginning the process to make a change to the name. There’s been a lot of national momentum behind this,” said Jeremy Kennedy, executive director of the Maine Democratic Party. “There are a lot of really justified reasons to do so.”

Jefferson-Jackson dinners have been a Democratic Party tradition for decades, serving as venues for raising money, honoring local party leaders, and, in the case of early primary states like New Hampshire, showcasing presidential hopefuls like Paul Tsongas in 1991, John Kerry in 2006, and, in 2013, Martin O’Malley. Last year, the keynote speaker was former president Bill Clinton.

But not all state parties hold events named for Jefferson and Jackson. Democrats in Massachusetts, Vermont, and Rhode Island host major annual events, but none of those galas are named for Jefferson or Jackson. For at least 30 years, Rhode Island Democrats have celebrated (and raised money) at the Hope and Unity dinners. In Vermont, the biggest event of the year is the David W. Curtis Leadership Awards, a ceremony named in honor of a longtime party leader.

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Massachusetts, meanwhile, hosts an awards reception named after Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. (This year’s event took place in April at the Omni Parker House in Boston and honored Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Representative Katherine Clark.)

“It’s nice to reflect on some Democrats who really laid the groundwork for what the party is about now,” said party spokesman Patrick Beaudry.

In Maine, party leaders have just started the renaming process, and Kennedy hopes to find something that highlights the values and work of local Democrats.

“I want the name of our dinner and any event we do to be a cue to the people attending it and hearing about it that this isn’t just a dinner where we’re raising money,” he said. “I welcome these discussions because I think they’re healthy and they keep people engaged and help us stay in touch with where we’re at and who we’re representing.”