Out of power and embroiled in turmoil once again, the state Democratic Party is seeking to fill a leadership void this weekend as it struggles to remain influential in a key election year.
The party’s internal battles – fraught with disputes about strategy and spending – broke open a month ago with the firing of its executive director. The ouster prompted a top elected Democratic official to request a refund for her donation to the party, saying she had lost confidence.
Democratic Party leaders will gather Sunday in Greensboro to discuss hiring a new leader to restore its tarnished image.
But the upheaval is forcing U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan’s campaign to distance itself from the N.C. Democratic Party.
Instead of creating a joint campaign committee through the state party, the standard practice, Hagan’s camp acknowledged Friday it would partner with the Wake County Democratic Party. The county party will serve as the hub for an operation that will raise millions to elect Democrats and more than a hundred staffers to get out the vote.
Through the coordinated campaign, known for now as Forward North Carolina, the county party is establishing a federal election committee. The move allows wealthy donors who give the $5,200 maximum to Hagan’s campaign to also donate to the coordinated effort. Both political parties operate such accounts.
Cory Warfield, an experienced national Democratic organizer who is leading Forward North Carolina, said the separate entity will allow the state party to “focus on their internal operations.”
“We are laser-focused on working in partnership with Democrats across the state to build one of the largest, savviest field operation and turnout efforts in history to elect Democrats across North Carolina,” he said.
All state political parties are facing questions about their role in an era of big-dollar independent political organizations, but the problems North Carolina Democrats are confronting are more acute as they sit essentially powerless – having lost both the governor’s mansion and statehouse for the first time in more than a century.
“We’ve never been in this situation,” said state party Chairman Randy Voller. “Part of the issue we are dealing with is nobody knows where the center of gravity is.”
Much of the scrutiny is focused on Voller. The former Pittsboro mayor and real estate developer won the post in 2013 by 11 votes against another candidate who did not actively seek the job. He replaced David Parker, whose tenure was tainted by his handling of a sexual harassment complaint between party staffers that led to demands for him to step down.
Calls for Voller’s resignation came within months of his election, as he found himself mired in questions about personnel decisions, misspending and the $286,000 he owed in unpaid taxes. (Since then, he said he has settled his state tax debt but still owes the federal government $230,000.)
A different vision
Voller, 45, represents the activist flank of the Democratic Party and rejects the traditional role of a chairman as a figurehead fundraiser.
He moved his party’s stance further to the left, endorsing the “Moral Monday” protests that ended in mass arrests and pushing for legislation legalizing medical marijuana – positions that put elected officials in a tough spot.
“I want to be out here pushing our values and let the chips fall as they may,” Voller said in a recent interview at party headquarters.
His tactics conflicted with the strategy of the Hagan campaign and the party’s executive director, which helped lead to Robert Dempsey’s firing as the day-to-day leader Feb. 9. Casey Mann was named interim director.
Longtime party officials wanted the chairman “to just raise money, spend money and stay as neutral as possible on all the issues because they don’t want to annoy any unaffiliated voters,” said Jesse Goslen, a party district chairman from Raleigh and Voller supporter. “I come from the wing of the party that thinks the party ought to stand for something.”
“Randy’s made some mistakes and stuck his foot in his mouth sometimes,” he added, “but all-in-all, I support him.”
Another underlying issue is how money is distributed at the state party. A new Republican-approved law to end tax “check off” funds to political parties meant district-level leaders didn’t get money for local campaigns, and Goslen said Dempsey opposed a move to funnel party contributions to their coffers. Dempsey has declined to comment.
Frustrated by Dempsey’s firing and other internal party issues, Democratic State Auditor Beth Wood recently asked for a refund of the $500 she contributed to the party.
“I am doing so because I have no confidence that my contribution (or anyone else’s) will be spent to elect Democrats to local, state and federal office,” she wrote in an email to Voller in February. “It is apparent to me that there is no intent to put checks and balances in place that are necessary for financial accountability and fiscal responsibility. As a CPA and the N.C. State Auditor, I know what fiscal accountability looks like and what it doesn’t.”
Controversy over Chavis
Voller sparked another sharp reaction days later when he named his pick for executive director: Benjamin Chavis, a prominent civil rights leader, North Carolina native and member of the Wilmington 10.
Chavis’ controversial past, first as the ousted NAACP leader who struck a secret agreement to settle a sexual harassment claim and then as a deputy to Louis Farrakhan at the Nation of Islam in which another sexual harassment claim arose, soon became an issue, and Voller backed down.
In a statement, Chavis confirmed he was invited to attend the party’s executive council meeting Sunday but would not say whether he is seeking the position. Top party leaders and even some of Voller’s allies oppose the nomination.
The council is expected to vote on a new executive director at the meeting, a spokesman said Friday, though some party leaders say too many questions surround the process to proceed. Three people applied for the job, but the party would not provide names.
In the interview, Voller said he prefers the next party leader to be a minority and North Carolina native. He criticized the last search process that led to an all-white and all-male list of out-of-state finalists. Voller declined to say whether he would nominate Chavis.
State Senate Democratic leader Dan Blue said he wants to see the job filled by someone with experience running campaigns and managing an organization.
“I don’t care what color or ethnicity or race (they are),” he said. “I don’t care as long as they can do the job.”