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Democratic chairman expected to pick Ben Chavis for top post

A day after ousting the executive director, the chairman of the N.C. Democratic Party appears poised to nominate former civil rights and Nation of Islam leader Benjamin Chavis to the post, a contentious pick that may not earn support from party leaders.

Democratic Chairman Randy Voller said Monday he would name an executive director Wednesday who is a “North Carolina native and national leader.” The party’s First Vice Chairwoman Patsy Keever said Voller intends to name Chavis, who also served as executive director of the NAACP before being ousted nearly two decades ago amid a sexual harassment scandal.

“That is Randy’s intention,” she said.

Party attorney David Harris refused to offer details about the announcement. Over the weekend, a Twitter account in Chavis’ name posted: “I am now preparing to return to North Carolina. I want Democrats to win big: 2014 in NC & across America.” Voller promptly re-tweeted it.

If Voller selects Chavis, the state’s executive council must vote to confirm the pick.

Voller, the former Pittsboro mayor, abruptly fired the party’s day-to-day manager, Robert Dempsey, on Sunday, throwing the party into turmoil just as it sought to regain footing after falling from power and enduring months of questions surrounding its own sexual harassment complaint.

Dempsey joined the party at the end of May after working for a California congressional campaign and serving as former executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party.

And the upheaval continued Monday evening as party communications director Micah Beasley suddenly resigned citing “recent events.”

The change at the party headquarters came without the support of Voller’s entire leadership team, and his statement Monday seemed aimed at reassuring the party faithful that the organization was not in disarray.

“At 9 o’clock this morning, the doors of the North Carolina Democratic Party’s headquarters at Goodwin House opened as usual for the business of electing Democrats to serve the people of North Carolina,” Voller wrote.

But the potential successor is raising more questions.

Chavis is a longtime civil rights advocate who was jailed for four years in 1970s as a member of the Wilmington 10, a group convicted but later cleared in a fire bombing that spurred a race riot in the city.

He became leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1993 but served less than 17 months after being ousted for striking a secret deal to pay an employee $332,400 to settle her sexual harassment claim.

Chavis, an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ, later converted to Islam, taking the name Benjamin Muhammed. In 1997, he became second-in-command to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, leading the organization’s East Coast ministry, according to reports at the time.

Three years later, a woman connected to the Nation of Islam alleged in a lawsuit he sexually harassed her. It was settled in 2006, and the woman received $135,000 from the temple. Chavis did not pay any sum to settle the case, and he made no admission of liability.

Chavis did not respond to emailed questions.

Keever, a former state lawmaker and congressional candidate, said she didn’t know if Voller was aware of Chavis’ background. “I think that’s an important thing for us to look at,” she said.

Grace Galloway, the party’s chairwoman in the 8th Congressional District, supports Voller. “I am absolutely thrilled Dr. Ben Chavis is coming in,” she said. “He is from North Carolina. That’s what absolutely makes it all. Dempsey is a nice guy, but he’s just not from North Carolina.”

As for the criticism of Chavis, Galloway said she isn’t concerned it will hurt his chances. “Personally,” she said, “I think if you have never gotten into trouble you haven’t done a thing.”

The state’s top Democrats have remained silent on the firing and potential Chavis selection. Attorney General Roy Cooper and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall declined to comment Monday about what they knew of the situation. State Treasurer Janet Cowell, Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin and State Auditor Beth Wood did not return calls seeking comment.

For now, State Director Casey Mann is serving as the party’s interim executive director.

Staff writer Caitlin Owens contributed to this report.

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