Voller not seeking another term as NC Dems mend fences

Democratic Party Chairman Randy Voller says he won't seek another term, saying he takes responsibility for U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan's loss in North Carolina. Democratic leaders say they must chart a less fractious course of the party.

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Mark Binker
PITTSBORO, N.C. — North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Randy Voller said Saturday that he will not seek another term when the party's next leader is chosen on Feb. 7. Contrasting the wins in state appellate court races and for county commissioner seats against the stinging loss in U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan's re-election campaign, Voller said the party needs a fresh start. 

"I believe that our Democrats had a successful election," Voller told his party's State Executive Committee. "However, I personally judge myself on the loss of this U.S. Senate seat, and I will take responsibility as party leader for that loss. I didn't run the campaign, but ultimately, the buck stops with me. We didn't win it. So consequently, I'm not going to run for re-election because I believe I need to take responsibility for that loss." 

The meeting, held in a high school auditorium, was a sometimes contradictory mix of organizational meeting, pep rally and damage assessment. Democrats lost the most important and highest-profile races that were on the ballot this year. In addition to Hagan's defeat by state House Speaker Thom Tillis, 10 of 13 congressional districts are now held by the GOP as Republicans picked up a seat once held by 7th District Congressman Mike McIntyre, who chose not to run for re-election. 

Voller and other party leaders eager to put a positive spin on the elections pointed out that the three Democrats who ran for state Supreme Court all won their races and that Democratic candidates picked up wins in four state House seats currently held by Republicans. However, Democrats lost one House seat their party had held and lost a seat in the state Senate, leaving Republicans with veto-proof super-majorities in both legislative chambers.

As well, the party has struggled to recover financially from the loss of tax checkoff funding that had been a source of steady operational income. 

So, despite the attempt at an upbeat tone for the meeting, Voller and others said the party needs to change, starting with the executive committee itself. The 700-plus member State Executive Committee is supposed to set policy for the party, but the group is unwieldy, and meetings can get bogged down in the minutia of party platform positions and points of order rather than organizing for elections. 

With the exception of Cheri Beasely, a state Supreme Court justice facing a potential recount in her narrow victory, state Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson* and Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin, no federal or statewide elected officials attended the meeting, and only a handful of state legislators did.

"We are fighting today's war with a mindset and a strategy that is decades old," Voller said, proposing that the party streamline its decision making and tying affiliated groups, such as the state House and Senate caucus operations that support lawmakers, more closely to the party's central organization.

It's unclear how readily those recommendations will be accepted. 

"I don't think that is necessarily the best way to do that," said House Minority Leader Larry Hall, who heads the Democrats' House caucus operations. Citing what he described as a "great success" on Election Day, Hall, D-Durham, said donors may be less likely to give if they knew their money went toward general Democratic efforts rather than explicitly to help state House candidates.

That said, Hall added, "There's a lot of coordination that happen that's not written down officially." 

Burying the hatchet

Voller said that one reason he would not seek re-election is to give the sometimes fractious party's grassroots volunteers a chance to unite behind a new leader.

For the past several years, Democratic Party politics has been marked by turmoil in its top leadership. In February, Voller abruptly fired executive director Robert Dempsey and apparently pushed a plan to hire controversial civil rights leader Ben Chavis as the party's new day-to-day leader. 

The episode touched off a public feud within the party. Questions about Voller's handling of party finances and operations soaked up public attention at a time when candidates were beginning their 2014 runs for office. State Auditor Beth Wood publicly demanded a refund of a $500 contribution to the party, and the Hagan campaign distanced itself from the state organization.

Hagan eventually forged a formal agreement with the Wake County Democratic Party to handle certain bookkeeping and get-out-the-vote operations, shutting the state party off from one of the highest-profile races in the state and creating a fault line withing Democratic politics.

Dan Blue III, the son of state senator and the head of the Wake County Democratic Party, was critical of Voller during that turmoil but told those gathered on Saturday that the past year of bad blood needs to be forgotten. 

"This is civil war within our party, and I think most of you recognize and agree it has to stop," Blue said, adding that he would not run for the party's top organizational leadership position.

Currently, the only announced candidate for the top job is Patsy Keever, a vice chairman and former county commissioner, state lawmaker and congressional candidate. Keever offered only a short greeting to members Saturday and did not address her plans with the committee. 

Voller took over as the party's top leader after a sexual harassment scandal led to the resignation of a high-profile executive director and embroiled former chairman, David Parker, in a seemingly endless conflict over his tenure. 

Democrats had hoped Voller would help settle the party, but personal financial troubles and occasionally errant comments sometimes drew unwanted attention. For example, in May 2013, he likened state Republican policies to rape, although quickly apologized for the remark.

On his way out of office, he had at least one more flame-throwing quote to offer. He told those gathered at the committee meeting that he had started to pass a kidney stone.

"I told some people that I've nicknamed this kidney stone Speaker Tillis, Thom Tillis," he said. "It's painful. It's obstructionistic. I don't know why it's there. It needs to go, but it's still with me.'"


*Hudson's appearance was omitted from the original version of this report. 


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