Greensboro, N.C. — Years of friction between grassroot Democrats and state party leaders erupted during a raucous meeting Saturday that saw the party chairman resign and get voted back in within six hours.
The meeting of the N.C. Democratic State Executive Committee in Greensboro began with David Parker volunteering to step down. Top state and national Democrats had pressured him to resign over his handling of sexual harrassment allegations at the party headquarters.
But Parker's resignation speech sounded more like a campaign rally.
"This is our Democratic party. These are our ideals. It is our shared dream that carries us through the night," he said, then left the room.
Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, the Democratic candidate for governor who had earlier called for Parker's resignation, told the meeting that Parker was prepared to go away without a fight.
"As you know, David is resigning as chairman of the party, and he says he is ready," Dalton said. "This is a very selfless act by David."
The next four hours were chaos as Democrats shouted, booed and cat-called.
Those who wanted Parker to go said it was time for a change. Those who backed Parker accused others of conspiring to get rid of him. Procedural problems left many confused and angry.
Finally, the committee voted 269 to 203 to reject the resignation. Parker returned to the meeting to accept.
"My friends, I resigned this morning, but I abide by the will of the State Executive Committee. I thank you for your vote of support on this day," he said. "This difficulty in the party is going to be resolved regardless of who the chair is ... but you have spoken today. And that's about enough drama. We have business to do, my friends."
Some committee members said they were shocked and incensed by Parker's return. One committee member threw down his unused ballots in the hotel ballroom as Parker announced he would remain chairman. Another complained loudly earlier to 1st Vice Chair Gwen Wilkins about how she handled the vote on Parker, leading him to call her a "Republican." He later apologized.
"This is now about David," said Perry Woods, a Democratic strategist working with Mary-Ann Baldwin, a Raleigh city council member who was prepared to run to succeed Parker. "It's obviously divisive, and he's put himself above the party."
Dalton's campaign spokesman Schorr Johnson said the lieutentant governor was "surprised and disappointed" by Parker's acceptance of the vote in his favor.
"Parker had assured him that he would resign and assist in the smooth transition to a new chair. Clearly, that did not happen," Johnson said.
Committee members backing Parker, a veteran party worker elected chairman in January 2011, said he did nothing wrong in his handling of the harassment allegations. They printed fliers for the meeting asking colleagues not to accept his resignation.
"He's been a good chair, and he hasn't done anything illegal," said committee member Mike Schaul, of Raleigh.
Parker's critics accused him of orchestrating the whole affair to save his job, which he denied. They predicted that his return would divide the state party and make it less effective in this fall's elections.
Republicans said the controversy points to Democratic weaknesses in a battleground state where the party will hold its national convention in September.
"President Obama's chances at winning North Carolina continue to grow smaller by the day, and this vote is further evidence that the president's ground game and national convention are in absolute turmoil in the Tar Heel state," Matt Connelly, regional press secretary for the Republican National Committee, said in a statement.
Parker downplayed Saturday's fracture within the party and called the committee's decision unexpected. "This party will come back together within two or three days," he said.
Gov. Beverly Perdue, Dalton and other top North Carolina and national Democrats had put pressure on Parker, saying he had the state party's confidence over his handling of allegations that its executive director, Jay Parmley, sexually harassed a male staffer. The junior staffer was fired, but Parmley was allowed to continue working.
Parmley denied wrongdoing but resigned when the allegations became public in April. Parker said he followed an attorney's advice to keep the situation confidential.
Parker blamed the media for the controversy of the sexual harrasment scandal. "I honestly believe that this is and was a tempest in a teapot," he said.
District official June Mabry said the vote to keep Parker was a win for the grassroots.
"Our party told David Parker to stand his ground and we would be behind him, and that's what happened today," Mabry said. "The party stood behind a chair that stood behind a party."