Politics & Government

N.C. Democratic chairman defends controversial choice of Ben Chavis

Despite a firestorm of criticism, North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Randy Voller Wednesday left open the possibility of hiring civil rights leader Ben Chavis to run the party.

Voller canceled a morning news conference at which he was expected to name Chavis as party executive director. Instead, the party has an interim director, days after Voller fired Robert Dempsey from the post.

The decision came after what was described as a contentious conference call Tuesday night with more than 100 party leaders.

Many Democrats objected to Chavis, an Oxford native who has been a high-profile civil rights figure. He was a member of the so-called Wilmington 10 and went on to lead the national NAACP. He later was a lieutenant to controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

But he left the NAACP after a $332,000 settlement in a sexual harassment case.

“Mr. Chavis has not been exactly kind to ladies,” said Geneal Gregory, a party and NAACP activist from Charlotte. “I don’t feel like he would be right for this particular job.”

Gregory was among many Democrats who lobbied against the appointment of Chavis. So did Patsy Keever of Asheville, the party’s first vice chair.

“I hope that he (Voller) has gotten the message from people all over that Chavis is simply not the right person to be executive director of the state party,” she said. “It’s just so clear that he’s the wrong choice.”

Voller, who’s been in office for a year, said it’s not clear that Chavis will be a candidate when party officials meet within 30 days to choose a new director. But he defended him.

“Dr. Chavis has a track record of looking out for communities that feel they’ve been left behind,” Voller said.

“I’m interested in what I call a democracy revival, and I’m looking for anybody to work with us to revive democracy in all parts of the state. Democracy can’t be a once-every-four-year exercise. We can’t be the cicada party.”

The discord comes two weeks after the party’s annual Sanford Hunt Frye dinner, this year at the Charlotte Convention Center. The dinner and an earlier party meeting appeared marked by harmony and a focus on election-year politics.

Dempsey’s firing, and the prospect of Chavis getting the job, changed that.

“It’s unfortunate that we have good candidates around the state filing for office and they’re being overshadowed by this,” said Pat Cotham, a party official and Mecklenburg commissioner.

Some Democratic bloggers have criticized Voller. Thomas Mills called him the “dictator of the Democratic Party” and to drive home the point, ran his photo next to one of Lenin.

In his own blog, Democratic strategist Gary Pearce said, “the worst wounds in politics are self-inflicted. And this is a doozy.”

Voller dismissed his critics.

“It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and lob hand grenades,” he said. “What they really need to do is say, ‘How do we energize the base? How do we get more people involved?’

“When you’re leading. you’re going to take some punches. … You can’t be a leader leading from behind.”

John Frank of the (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.