Enough. After a stormy year as state Democratic Party chair, Randy Voller should step down for the sake of his party's candidates and North Carolina. I say this knowing that he won't, because Voller sees himself as a visionary leader—but he can't see that he's hurting Democratic prospects for 2014.
When he was mayor of Pittsboro, Voller said Thursday, his first two years were "hell" as his adversaries tested him and allies stood by. But he endured and in six more years either won people over or at least got them to listen. "Time is a great equalizer for perspective," Voller remarked.
Voller fired his executive director, Robert Dempsey, on Feb. 9 and sought to replace him with a surprise choice, the Rev. Dr. Ben Chavis. Voller scheduled a press conference for Feb. 12 to introduce Chavis, but later canceled it, ostensibly because of snow but also because Voller failed to muster support for Chavis during a contentious conference call on Feb. 11 with members of the party's 51-member executive council.
It was a fiasco for three reasons. First, Dempsey was dumped without justification. Second, Chavis was miscast as his replacement. And third, even if you agree with Voller's contention that Chavis is just what the Democrats need to spark turnout this year in African-American and Latino communities, springing him on the executive council in a hastily scheduled call was exactly the kind of rash, arrogant act that's become Voller's trademark.
Predictably, Dempsey's defenders—Voller's critics—attacked Chavis, quickly digging up the fact that he was fired as national director of the NAACP in 1994 and, after joining the Nation of Islam and serving as second-in-command to its leader, the notorious Louis Farrakhan, left that position under a cloud too. In each job, a female associate accused Chavis of sexual harassment. Chavis denied their charges, but each woman was paid—by the NAACP and NOI—to settle her claims.
You may recall that in 2012, the state party's executive director resigned after a staffer accused him of sexual harassment—and David Parker, Voller's predecessor, was forced out after it was revealed that he'd negotiated a confidential settlement with the staffer.
In short, the Democrats don't need more headlines about sexual harassment.
Chavis is a North Carolina native and is best-known here as a leader of the Wilmington Ten, civil rights protesters who were falsely convicted of conspiracy and assault in connection with the firebombing of a Wilmington grocery in 1971. In 2012, former Gov. Bev Perdue granted them formal pardons of innocence. Chavis is a fiery advocate for racial justice, whatever else he may or may not be.
If there was a case to be made for Chavis as a state Democratic staffer, however, Voller never made it—he was in too much of a rush. And the upshot was a disaster.
Furious that Voller seemed determined to shove Chavis down their throats before there was any time for debate, Voller's opponents trashed Chavis and forced Voller, who suddenly realized he might lose, to pull back. Instead of Chavis, Voller nominated Casey Mann, already on his staff, to be interim director, a move the executive council approved.
The whole mess infuriated Cash Michaels, Raleigh's foremost African-American journalist, who wrote that Chavis deserved far better than he got from Voller's opponents but also ripped Voller for a "badly mishandled nomination."
Voller admits that he could've handled things better. But he's also determined to rewrite the story to say that he always intended to nominate Chavis for interim director while party members discussed whether Chavis was right for the permanent job or a different role to "get out the vote."
If that's true, a lot of people went into that conference call misinformed.
Let's review. Voller, a self-styled progressive reformer, was elected chair when the candidate backed by "establishment Democrats"—the centrists and major contributors—unexpectedly withdrew. Even at that, Voller barely won, defeating a last-minute substitute.
Rather than make peace with the other side, however, Voller started a war, firing staffers his opponents liked while packing party committees with his own people, generally grassroots volunteers. Party professionals, including consultants who run campaigns for candidates, reviled him as a bully.
After a series of public skirmishes, Voller and four of his critics signed a cease-fire agreement, and Voller brought in Dempsey, a seasoned political operative, to run party operations. According to my best information, Dempsey succeeded in tamping down the animosities while raising enough money to keep the cash-strapped party in business.
But Voller doesn't like not being in the spotlight. So as the 2014 election filing season opened, and the day after the state NAACP-led Moral March on Raleigh grabbed public attention across North Carolina, Voller struck—firing Dempsey.
Why? He still won't say. But Voller's supporters complain that Dempsey was spending too much time helping U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan's re-election staff and not paying enough attention to Voller.
Too much helping Hagan? Not possible. As Hagan goes at the top of the ticket, so go Democratic candidates on down the line—and if Democrats hope to put a dent in the right-wing Republican majorities in the General Assembly this year, they should be telling their party to go all in for Hagan.
On Monday, Hagan filed for re-election in Raleigh and said proudly that the National Journal named her "the most moderate" member of the Senate.
And Voller? He calls himself "a transformational leader," pushing the party to be more progressive—not so moderate.
Well, yes, that's what a party chair might do between elections. But in election years, the job is to elect candidates—not be the story instead of them.
This article appeared in print with the headline "State Dems divided again."