Raleigh, N.C. — A plan to make North Carolina civil rights icon Ben Chavis the new executive director of the state Democratic Party is on ice – indefinitely, according to party insiders.
But party Chairman Randy Voller now claims he intended to appoint Chavis as interim executive director, not as a permanent official.
That's news to many Democrats who received an invitation from Voller Monday to "a formal announcement of the return of a North Carolina native and national leader as the next Executive Director" on Wednesday morning. The invitation didn't mention "interim."
That event was canceled late Tuesday night after a contentious teleconference with the party's executive council. The reason given to the media for the cancellation was weather.
"This was not meant to be a permanent hire," Voller said of Chavis during a telephone interview with WRAL News Wednesday. "We needed an interim."
Several executive committee members, speaking on background, pointed out that the party has never before held a press conference to announce an interim director.
"Simple truth is, he knew before last night's meeting that he wouldn't have enough votes to get his guy in, and he decided to fall on his sword," one said.
Asked what Voller was thinking, another member said bluntly, "He wasn't."
Voller said Chavis, whom he befriended during the campaign for a permanent pardon for the Wilmington Ten, wanted to return to his home state. The Wilmington Ten were civil rights activists who were convicted of a 1970s bombing of a grocery store and later cleared.
"I was focused on the fact that he’s a native son, and he’s been through a tremendous amount in his life, and he's a a tremendous civil rights leader," Voller said, adding that he empathizes with the concerns of many Democratic Party faithful that Chavis might not be a good fit for the party's organizer in chief.
Lee Sartain is vice-chairman of the Wake County Democrats. He said he was taken aback by Voller's sudden firing of former Executive Director Robert Dempsey Sunday evening since, by all accounts, party operations were going well and fundraising was returning to normal levels.
Chavis, Sartain said, was a familiar name because of his history as a member of the Wilmington Ten. He was also the main organizer of the Million Man March in 1995.
"OK, this is a guy who's been involved in the civil rights movement. He looks good on paper," Sartain said. "We didn't really know about the rest at that point."
'You can't overlook it'
But once Sartain started looking into Chavis' past, he found a lot of things that made him – and a lot of other Democrats – uncomfortable.
First, there was Chavis' firing as director of the national NAACP in 1994, after he used NAACP funds to settle a sexual harassment case.
In 1997, after joining the Nation of Islam, Chavis told The Los Angeles Times he thought of Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi as "my brother" and said he didn't believe Iran or Libya were terrorist states.
In 2006, Chavis signed another sexual harassment settlement. This one dated from 2000, when he was serving as a Nation of Islam minister at a New York mosque.
In 2008, he was sued for financial mismanagement of the Hip Hop Soda Shop restaurant chain in Florida.
Chavis has not admitted wrongdoing, but Sartain said it doesn't matter.
"He's saying a lot of that didn't happen. Well, the reality is, settlements happened," Sartain said. "Those are irrefutable things, and people are going to see that and associate that with the party, and I think that's something that we have to avoid."
Chavis' supporters are angry about the pushback. They say the controversy disrespects his considerable civil rights legacy and the good he's done in recent years.
Sartain agrees Chavis is a civil rights legend and says Chavis could – and should – have a prominent role in the party's civil rights outreach efforts. But he says the executive director should be an experienced political campaign operative, not a controversial figure.
He's also concerned about Chavis' association with the Nation of Islam's anti-Semitic and homophobic positions. He called that a "taint" that the party's chief organizer and fundraiser can't afford.
"Any kind of sexual misconduct claim, any kind of fiscal mismanagement or anything that would suggest that we're isolating or alienating people in the party – you can't overlook it," said Sartain.
WRAL News requested an interview with Chavis through the party as well as through his publicist, but received no response to those inquiries.
'Where's the actual proof?'
On social media, Democrats opposed to the Chavis nomination have noted that the issues in his past are unfortunately similar to scandals that have dogged the party in recent years.
Former Executive Director Jay Parmley was forced out in 2012 after he was accused of sexual harassment of a staffer. David Parker, chairman at the time, defended Parmley as "a close talker."
In 2013, Voller himself faced criticism after reports that he had charged a recreational weekend trip to Las Vegas to a party-associated credit card. Voller didn't deny using the card, but he pointed out repeatedly that he, not the party, had paid the bill for the trip.
"You're talking about a party that’s been dogged with these things," Voller protested. "People have made those allegations – where’s the actual proof?"
Wood demands refund
There was apparently enough proof to prompt State Auditor Beth Wood to speak out against Voller's leadership – not once, but twice.
Tuesday night, she sent a letter to members of the Executive Council, asking them not to approve Voller's Plan-B nomination of his second-in-command, Casey Mann, as interim director.
"We will NEVER be able to raise money as long as there is no confidence in the handling of contributors' moneys," Wood wrote to the committee. "I am reaching out tonight to ask you to please make sure you make the right choice for interim director. ... It should be someone who is outside Goodwin House. It is NOT a good idea for the people signing checks and approving payments to be closely tied."
Wood also sent an email to Voller, asking for an immediate refund of her $500 contribution to the party.
"I am doing so because I have no confidence that my contribution (or anyone else's) will be spent to elect Democrats to local, State and federal office," the email reads. "[I]t is apparent to me that there is no intent to put checks and balances in place that are necessary for financial accountability and fiscal responsibility. As a CPA and the NC State Auditor, I know what fiscal accountability looks like and what it doesn't."
Voller responded that his administration has been "more transparent" about finances than any of his predecessors'.
"We invite the auditor to come in here and work with the compliance staff, or come in and review what's going on, any time she likes," Voller told WRAL News.
There's likely to be plenty of work space available. Since Voller's firing of Dempsey, two other key party figures have resigned abruptly – communications director Micah Brooks Beasley and head fundraiser Tiffany Reynolds-Richardson. Sources within the party say they were forced out, but Voller denied that.
He said the departures won't affect the party's effectiveness. "We’re up and running, and we’re focused on the 2014 election."
Wake Democratic Party Chairman Dan Blue III is skeptical about that. He called the controversy "an unfortunate distraction" in a year featuring what's likely to be a slugfest over Democrat Kay Hagan's U.S. Senate seat.
"The more time we spend talking about the internal politics of the party, the less time we spend talking about real issues, like DHHS, DENR and our slate of candidates," Blue told WRAL News.