NC Democrats roiled by leadership turmoil

Multiple sources say N.C. Democratic Party Chair Randy Voller plans to name former national NAACP president Ben Chavis as executive director. Other Democrats are reeling from the sudden change.

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Randy Voller
RALEIGH, N.C. — Senior North Carolina Democratic Party officials say they were not consulted on the decision to dismiss their executive director or the apparent decision to hire former national NAACP executive director Ben Chavis as the party's new day-to-day head.

Voller has called a news conference for Wednesday. David Harris, a lawyer working with Voller, said the news conference would concern naming a new executive director of the party, but that he was not at liberty to say who that person would be.

However, multiple sources who work in Democratic politics tell WRAL News that Voller plans to name Chavis as the party's executive director. Patsy Keever, the party's first vice chairwoman, said she has not been included in the decision-making process but was told by Voller that he plans to appoint Chavis.

Keever said she objected to Voller's decision to dismiss Robert Dempsey as that party's executive director. Dempsey, a journeyman political operative, has served in the post for the past year.

"It was done inappropriately, and we're trying to work things out," Keever said.

Voller did not return a phone message seeking comment. 

In a news release emailed Monday, Voller wrote that there will be "a formal announcement of the return of a North Carolina native and national leader as the next Executive Director on Wednesday." That description fits Chavis. 

Efforts to reach Chavis directly were unsuccessful Monday. However, on Sunday, Chavis wrote on his Twitter account, "I am now preparing to return to North Carolina. I want Democrats to win big: 2014 in NC & across America."

As elections begin, party leadership in turmoil 

Voller's decision upset several Democratic Party officials as the filing period to run for office this year opened on Monday.

"The chairman made a unilateral decision on this without any kind of consultation," said Andy Ball, an elected official and the party's third vice chairman.

Both Ball and Keever said the party was focused on supporting U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan in her re-election bid and helping other Democrats in their election bids.

But experts say a shakeup in leadership at the start of an election cycle will drive donors and volunteers away from the party.

"I would imagine, at this point, the party is basically done for the fundraising cycle," said Thomas Mills, a consultant who typically works with Democratic candidates and causes. 

Top elected Democrats, such as Attorney General Roy Cooper, a potential candidate for governor in 2016, are not publicly commenting on the fracas at the top of the state party organization.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Kay Hagan, who Republicans view as a potentially vulnerable target, insisted the problems at the state party would not impact her re-election efforts.

"Our campaign will have one of the largest, most effective turnout and field efforts in North Carolina history, and we're laser focused on recruiting the thousands of volunteers we need to make it happen," said Hagan spokeswoman Sadie Weiner.

But consultants and elected officials who spoke on background say Voller has roiled the waters just as the state Democratic organization was regaining its footing in the state.

The party is less than two years removed from a 2012 scandal involving its then-executive director Jay Parmley, and its then-chairman David Parker. Parmley stepped down from his post after being accused of sexually harassing a party employee. Parker came under fire for his handling of the matter. At the time, statewide elected officials, including then-Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, called on Parker to step down, but he survived the episode and remained in office through the end of his term.

When Voller took over, he eventually hired Dempsey, who steadily built a reputation as a solid, competent administrator. 

"Robert Dempsey was restoring the credibility that was lost," Mills said. "That's how you get donors. They need to believe the money is going to be spent properly."

Fundraising is a critical issue for Democrats. Not only are they trying to defend Hagan's seat, they are trying to make inroads in General Assembly races where Republicans hold wide legislative majorities and big fundraising leads. 

Dempsey declined to speak with WRAL News Monday. He referred reporters to his lawyer, Michael Weisel, who frequently works for Democratic causes and candidates.  

It's unclear exactly why Dempsey and Voller parted ways. Multiple sources reported that senior Democratic officials held a meeting on Friday and that Voller was poised to dismiss Dempsey at that point. He backed off that decision, only to follow through on Sunday. 

Chavis' history could be a concern 

Chavis and Voller are long-time friends, according to multiple sources. In January 2013, Chavis endorsed Voller's bid for party chairman. 

Chavis, a native of Oxford, North Carolina, is a civil rights leader and was a member of the Wilmington Ten, a group of young activists who were convicted in 1972 of the fire bombing of a grocery store but were later cleared of the charges and granted pardons by Gov. Bev Perdue.
He went on to be the director and CEO of the national NAACP, but his tenure there ended in 1994 amid controversy. As The Baltimore Sun reported at the time, Chavis agreed to pay $332,400 to avert a lawsuit by a former employee accusing him of sexual harassment "without telling his board or the NAACP general counsel."

Republicans and even some Democratic dissidents could seize upon that history to raise question about how the party will be managed going forward. 

Chavis was also an organizer of the 1995 Million Man March. That march was organized by Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam. Chavis, who was an ordained minister, converted to Islam and in 1997, after taking the name Benjamin Muhammad, took over leadership of the group's Mosque No. 7. There, he was also accused of sexual harassment. Court documents show he settle a suit related to the Nation of Islam case in 2006. Chavis did not admit wrongdoing in the case. 

Voller's authority unclear

This is not Voller's first conflict with fellow party leaders.

Last May, a group of Democratic activists petitioned to remove Voller from his post as party chairman. They accused him of stacking the party's executive council with cronies and paying large sums of money for contracts with consultants Jim Neal and Michael Carmichael without the approval or oversight of the Executive Council. They also accused him of appointing an interim executive director without consulting with key party leaders.

Voller and the activists settled their conflict in June. Among other things, Voller agreed to call an emergency Executive Council meeting if another vacancy in the executive director position arose and agreed to seek "advice and input from a broad cross-section" of the party.

Keever said Monday afternoon that Voller had not called such a meeting. 

"If he doesn't call it, there are officers who will call it," Keever said.

Asked if Voller had the authority to fire Dempsey and hire someone new, Harris, the party lawyer, pointed to the party's "plan of organization," the bylaws by which the state party is run. 

"If you look at section 4.10, that will answer your question," Harris said.

The section reads, "A full-time executive director shall be selected by the state chair with the approval of the state executive council to serve at the pleasure of the state chair. The performance of the executive director shall be subject to annual review by the state chair and the state executive council."

While the state plan is clear on hiring, it's less clear on the mechanism by which a director could be dismissed.

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