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Pittsboro Mayor Randy Voller: the Dems' next state chair?

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My goodness, the Democratic Party in North Carolina is in a sorrowful state, reduced to a pitiful few in the General Assembly. The governor's a Republican. Lieutenant governor's a Republican. Supreme Court is Republican. And the worst is yet to come.

In short, it's a great time to be chair of the state Democratic Party.

And yet, only one man (other than myself) seems to see it that way. Or perhaps the fact that there's only one candidate for state chair heading into the party elections on Saturday—some 700 members of the party's state executive committee are eligible to vote—is just another indication of how low the party has sunk.

The one, Pittsboro Mayor Randy Voller, was the underdog against Eric Mansfield, a former state senator from Fayetteville. Then last weekend Mansfield dropped out, citing a need to care for his ailing mother.

There's talk from Mansfield's supporters about drafting another candidate—maybe former Congressman Bob Etheridge. But Voller is still unopposed, and is looking like a favorite. He's also looking like he might be pretty good at the job.

I won't belabor how much trouble the Democrats are in, but a few things are worth mentioning.

One is the virtual certainty that the General Assembly will end the state income tax check-off for political parties. That's the system that allows us to assign $3 of our taxes to the state Democrats or the state Republicans. Democrats get far more from it—upward of $600,000 a year and sometimes twice that—while Republicans consider it welfare for politicians. Consider it gone.

Also, the Republicans are shameless about taking contributions from companies and individuals who want something out of state government, the very "pay to play" tactics they denounced when the Democrats were in charge. Expect these "transactional donations," as Voller calls them, to set records on the Republican side but be scarce for Democrats.

Finally, the top elected Democrats, Attorney General Roy Cooper and Treasurer Janet Cowell, are constrained by their offices from leading a partisan charge. A new breed of promising Democrats in the General Assembly includes House Minority Leader Larry Hall of Durham and Sen. Josh Stein of Raleigh. But they'll have their hands full battling the raft of bad Republican bills coming their way.

All of which freights the job of Democratic chair with a giant challenge and opportunity. Whoever gets it will need to build an organizational structure almost from scratch. The key to success: The new chair has an unprecedented chance to step forward as the party's chief spokesman in North Carolina due to the absence of top Democratic leadership.

Delivering the message is step one to recruiting the candidates and volunteers and registering new voters to win future elections.

The knock on Voller is his lack of experience outside of Chatham County. Yes, he's been a popular mayor, elected four times, and he's been a party-builder as chair of the Chatham County Democrats. But Chatham's a small county and Voller, 44, has no other political experience—indeed, until eight years ago, he was an unaffiliated voter.

Voller is also dogged by tax liens placed on his assets by the state and the federal government for $98,801 and $187,715, respectively. Voller, a land developer and consultant, acknowledged the debts on his website at the outset of the race, saying they resulted from the collapse of the real estate market in 2007, which hurt his company and his father's construction business. Voller's father died last year. Voller said he's keeping up with a payment schedule and has reduced the total owed to about $200,000.

Despite the disclosure, Voller complained about a whispering campaign against him by Democrats who supported Mansfield and now want somebody else. "My callers come up against it all the time," he says.

On the plus side, Voller is backed by progressive Democratic leaders and rank-and-file members who blame the party's decline on overpaid consultants and lack of attention to the grassroots. To them, Voller's pledge to put local elections first is a tonic, along with his regular-guy style.

"I've got a gap in my teeth, I'm a little overweight, and I'm not going for the Botox," Voller says. "I know who I am."

Judging by a recent gathering Voller hosted at the Flying Saucer in Raleigh, he's comfortable in a bar speaking in sports terms about how the Democrats can win.

First, he says, they need to play strong—no more "Republican Light." And instead of every Democrat trying to be the star, they have to accept other roles and work as a team.

When he plays basketball, Voller says, "I know how to set screens. I don't have to score 39 points to feel good."

This article appeared in print with the headline "A job nobody wants."

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