Raleigh, N.C. — Members of the North Carolina Republican Party's nearly 600-member member executive committee voted Saturday to remove Hasan Harnett as chairman, ending a months-long leadership struggle that focused GOP establishment on its own internal drama rather than campaigning against Democrats.
Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse made the announcement shortly after 5 p.m., saying that the proceedings had been "somber." The committee found that Harnett was responsible for violating the party's plan of organization and "gross inefficiency."
Harnett did not attend the meeting, and close allies said he was traveling out of the country. They insisted the timing of the meeting was deliberate because Harnett had given notice months ago of the impending business trip.
"I'm not allowed to say anything about that," said Jim Womack, vice chairman of the Lee County Republican Party, who defended Harnett during the proceedings. "They've got us on lockdown."
Shortly after voting to remove Harnett, the committee selected former Congressman Robin Hayes, a past state chairman, to serve in Harnett's place. Hayes' immediate job will be smoothing over hurt feelings and firing up the party faithful next weekend when Republicans meet in Greensboro for their annual state convention.
"The only people who are happy we're here today are Roy Cooper, what's her name – (Deborah) Ross – Josh Stein," Hayes said, ticking off a list of statewide Democratic candidates who might look to take advantage of chaos within the GOP. "It breaks my heart that we're here today, but sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do."
Only a portion of the meeting was open to the public, and it was contentious from the start. Members rose to call points of order as soon as North Carolina Vice Chairwoman Michele Nix rose to call the gathering to order.
"I know this is not an ideal situation, however, we are going to proceed, and we're going to follow the rules as they are going to be laid out," Nix said, as she fended off questions about whether the agenda for the day's meeting had been properly adopted or the meeting itself had been properly called.
Nothing about Harnett's situation was directly addressed before reporters and other members of the public were asked to leave the room.
Several of those who participated in the meeting described the mood as "quiet" and "somber." At one point, Harnett supporters emerged from the meeting after being stopped from handing out packets detailing his defense by the sergeant-at-arms.
After Harnett's removal, members of the committee nominated Hayes, Beaufort County Republican Party Chairman Keith Kidwell and party activist Jack Brosch to take his place.
Kidwell mainly played up his own credentials. Brosch, however, blasted Hayes as too close to the establishment that led the charge against Harnett.
"If Robin Hayes is elected, you will lose the grassroots in North Carolina. You will lose the tea party in North Carolina," Brosch said
Hayes fired back, pointing to his record in 2012, a successful election year for Republicans.
"How did the people in this room get the office they hold? Through the grassroots," Hayes declared. "I did not come down here today to run for this office, but I can compete. You don't win by being a patsy."
Grassroots suspicious of 'elites'
Former party chairmen, state legislators and elected party apparatchiks filed into the McKimmon Center on North Carolina State University's campus around 10 a.m. to settle drama that began almost as soon as Harnett was elected last summer. Top party leaders supported another candidate for the job, and those divisions appear to have festered ever since.
Many who attended Saturday's gathering said they were putting up with the morass of accusations and parliamentary minutia grudgingly, coming only because the party needed to settle a dispute that threatens to distract from campaign efforts.
A party chairman has little raw political power, although he or she does make some appointments to state boards and commissions, such as the State Board of Elections. Parties generally serve as clearinghouses for campaign fundraising and organization and often deliver biting commentary that candidates can't, or wont', put their name to. By and large, the party organizations strive not to be the focus of news stories, and the chairman focuses on behind-the-scenes work and supporting all of the party's candidates.
That said, it's not unheard of for parties to devolve into drama.
Harnett is the state GOP's first African-American chairman and was propelled to office by a grassroots movement that is both very conservative and suspicious of those who serve in positions of power in Raleigh and Washington, D.C. He ran on a platform to make the GOP more responsive to the activist base.
Early in Harnett's tenure, there was a battle over choosing an executive director of the party, with executive committee members eventually settling on Woodhouse, a former broadcaster and longtime operative for Americans for Prosperity and North Carolina Rising, both nonprofit groups that have played active roles in North Carolina elections.
Early on, Woodhouse and Harnett seemed to smooth over intra-party tensions, including a disagreement about how money raised by lawmakers for legislative campaigns would be handled.
But conflict erupted earlier this year over what many saw as Harnett's lackluster fundraising performance, fees for the state convention and allegations that Harnett tried to wrest control of party finances from the proper channels by enlisting someone to hack the party's online computer portals. Those are all charges that Harnett and his supporters have repeatedly denied, saying they were trumped up by a Raleigh-based elite unhappy with Harnett's leadership style.
Members of the party's central committee, a small group of top leaders, voted in March to censure the chairman and ban him from party headquarters. Soon after, a call for Saturday's meeting and a petition to remove Harnett circulated among the executive committee. While former party leaders piled on to the criticism in recent weeks, Gov. Pat McCrory and the state's two Republican U.S. senators have been largely quiet about the controversy, and even normally outspoken state lawmakers have been cautious in their remarks.
Bringing the party together
Harnett is traveling over seas for business and did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment. Neither did Daniel Rufty, an executive committee member who attended today's meeting but left before Hayes was elected.
While nobody who spent more than eight hours debating the future of the party leadership appeared particularly pleased at the end of the day, Harnett supporters were particularly disappointed. They complained throughout the day that the process used to call the meeting and dispose Harnett were unfair.
"We just wanted to be here to support Hasan Harnett, our conservative, Christian GOP leader who has been maligned by the establishment," said Lisa Baldwin, an executive committee member from Asheville. "The process itself was – I don't know what to say – it was unfair. There were a lot of problems with the process. I feel like the plan of organization for the Republican Party was pretty much thrown out the window."
Asked if Harnett supporters like her would be able to come together to back other Republican candidates, Baldwin declined to comment.
Elected officials seems more relieved to have the day behind them than anything else.
"Honestly, I would have been more worried if we had not come out of today with some consensus and a new chairman," said Rep. Jason Saine, R-Lincoln. "We have someone who can bring the party together. I'm confident that there's enough time, Chairman Hayes will do a good job, and bring us all together."
Challenged as to whether there really was consensus, Saine acknowledged that there was division in the room.
Harnett, he said, had some "passionate supporters and no one likes to lose. This is politics. It's a contact sport. The reality is sometimes you win sometimes you lose. Today Chairman Hayes prevailed. It will now be his bring everyone together."
Executive committee members said they were largely prohibited by party rules from discussion what went on during the parts of the meeting where evidence regarding Harnett's behavior was presented and decisions about his future made. Many, like Saine, described it as "a thoughtful process" and said that ultimately members voted the way they had to.
For his part, Hayes descried Harnett as "a gifted individual" and "great speaker," but said he lacked the organizational chops to lead the party.
"He did not have the background, the experience and the leadership skills that come from being immersed in the process over a number of years. The person who was speaking on his behalf said that in the beginning (of the meeting). I'm just repeating what is own people said," Hayes said. "That's not an indictment. It's just too bad it didn't work out. But again, out of these sorts situations can come healing and victory."