Raleigh, N.C. — The state Democratic Party has delayed its plan to hire former NAACP Executive Director Ben Chavis to lead the party's day-to-day operations.
Chairman Randy Voller fired Robert Dempsey on Sunday after the career party operative spent less than a year on the job as executive director. On Monday, multiple sources, including the party's first vice chairwoman, said Voller told them that he planned to appoint Chavis.
The party's executive council, a 51-member body that must be consulted before hiring a new director, met via a conference call Tuesday night. Voller did not address Dempsey's firing. However, he did say that he began talking with Chavis when he learned the North Carolina native and civil rights leader was planning to move back to the state.
"Our main concern is to turn anger into action," Voller said, referencing the discontent Democrats and others have displayed through the "Moral Monday" protests. He said Chavis could help the party "win elections from Sen. Kay Hagan on down to county commissioners."
But, he told those on the call, "I'm not submitting his name at this point."
During a sometimes contentious, nearly two-hour conference call, Voller struggled to get the council to approve the appointment of an interim director, Casey Mann, as members talked over one another and the conference call system struggled to determine which line was muted or not.
Mann was finally confirmed, and the meeting was called to a close shortly afterward.
Voller originally said he hoped to have a face-to-face executive council meeting in Greensboro 10 days from now. Later in the call, he and other members said that meeting could take as long as 30 days to organize.
Conflict as campaign season opens
Voller and David Harris, an attorney working for the party, have declined to discuss why Dempsey was fired, saying it was a "personnel matter" that they were prohibited from talking about publicly.
But many Democratic leaders, including several elected officials who spoke privately about the matter, said they believed he was doing a good job and didn't understand the move.
Voller's potential selection of Chavis has also roiled the party's waters just as candidates are filing to run for election this year. Although candidates run their own campaigns, they rely on the party apparatus for fundraising help and get-out-the-vote efforts. The turmoil has led many to worry that donors and backers will shy away from the party.
Chavis, known as a civil rights leader, was a member of the Wilmington 10, a group of young activists who were convicted in 1972 of fire-bombing a grocery store but were later cleared and granted pardons by Gov. Bev Perdue.
Voller told the council he first met Chavis during the push to have Perdue pardon the Wilmington 10. Chavis later endorsed Voller's bid for party chair.
Chavis was a popular leader of the national NAACP, but he left the organization under a cloud, accused of improperly paying a former employee to not come forward with sexual harassment allegations. He then went on to help lead the Million Man March in 1995, a project lead by the Nation of Islam.
He helped lead one of the Nation of Islam's biggest temples in New York but again left that organization amid what court documents showed was another sexual harassment scandal.
Voller said "it does not make me happy" to see members of the party and the executive council discussing those past allegations. Among the material circulated by Chavis' detractors was a newspaper story that detailed a lawsuit in which a former employer said Chavis "strong-armed the company to hire two of his friends and committed the company to a Miami expansion that it could not afford."
A Los Angeles Times story questioned Chavis' activities with the Nation of Islam.
"The 49-year-old minister vigorously defended the Muslim group and (leader Louis) Farrakhan against allegations of anti-Semitism and said he did not believe that Iran or Libya, which have been friendly to Farrakhan, support terrorism, as charged by the Clinton administration," the newspaper reported.
Perception could be a problem
Perry Woods, a Democratic consultant who is not a member of the party executive council, said discussions about those stories were inevitable.
"Even if you believe he was wrongly accused, we're in the perception business," Woods said.
Had Chavis been appointed, Republicans would have honed in his past to attack the party, Woods said, adding, "It would have been a huge mistake for the Democratic Party to appoint Ben Chavis as executive director."
Many in the party believed Voller would try to get the official sign-off he needed in order to install Chavis as executive director in advance of the scheduled Wednesday announcement.
"There's not going to be an announcement if we can help it," said Patsy Keever, a former state lawmaker and the party's first vice-chairwoman. She is among a group of Democrats opposed to Chavis' installation.
In an email after phone meeting, the Democratic Party canceled a planned Wednesday news conference, citing the possibility of inclement weather.
"The truth is Randy (Voller) was rebuffed," Woods said.
The Wake County Democratic Party sent the following message to its members via Facebook Tuesday night: "In the face of previously unknown information regarding his past, Ben Chavis's name has not been entered for the position of Executive Director of the NC Democratic Party."
For his part, Chavis has been quiet about the ruckus within the party. He told The Associated Press this week that "as a native of North Carolina, I strongly support and share the leadership vision of chairman Randy Voller and the N.C. Democratic Party." The AP reported that he did not respond specifically to a question as to whether he would become the next executive director.
On Tuesday, he used Twitter to say, "The truth and facts stand on their own. Let's focus on restoring and revitalizing democracy in North Carolina and across America." In a separate post, he wrote, "I am pleased to return to my home in NC. No personal attacks or false allegations will stop me from helping #NCDP from winning big in 2014."
Differences on display
Tuesday night's phone call seemed to answer some of the questions that have been shooting around Democratic circles in recent days. In particular, Harris said, it was clear that Voller was the only person who had the ability to fire the existing executive director.
"No pre-approval is required by the executive council or officers or any other body of the Democratic Party," Harris said.
Dempsey and his lawyer, Michael Weisel, have declined to discuss the situation.
On the Democrat's call, it's clear there was some confusion.
"Let me go ahead and encapsulate this thing," said council member Dewey Sheffield.
He nominated Mann for the interim director's job but touched off a firestorm of cross-talk when he suggested she should be "strongly considered" for the permanent post.
Eventually, those on the call determined that Mann's term in the job would be limited to 30 days or whenever a permanent replacement was named.
Just getting to that position was not easy. Some members were clearly irritated by the difficulty running the meeting.
"I am a strenuous no. The conduct of this meeting is enough to make me vote no," said Jake Quinn, a council member and national committeeman for the party, when asked for his vote on Mann's nomination.
The resolution leaves the party in a state of flux, and the very public display of differences leaves some worrying that Republicans could use it as a point of attack.
Statewide leaders such as Hagan and Attorney General Roy Cooper have largely been silent on the matter. In fact, the North Carolina Republican Party used the episode to ding the two high-profile Democrats late Tuesday.
"In midst of this debacle, Kay Hagan and Roy Cooper, the NCDP’s two top elected officials, had ample opportunity to speak out against confirming an executive director who have been sued twice for sexual harassment," read an email from party spokeswoman Daniel Keylin. "Instead, they have remained silent."