RALEIGH — The chairman of the state Democratic Party is expected to resign after an avalanche of top elected officials called for his ouster Tuesday amid revelations that he authorized a secret agreement to pay a former staffer to keep quiet after making sexual harassment allegations.
Gov. Bev Perdue, after refusing to comment on the issue for days, said she told Chairman David Parker that “he had lost the confidence of Democratic leaders, and I asked him to step aside for the good of the party.”
Her statement came hours after five statewide Democratic elected officials also asked him to step down in a controversy that cost the party’s executive director his job earlier this week.
The allegations are garnering national attention because North Carolina serves as a key state in President Barack Obama’s re-election strategy and host of the Democratic convention this summer. It also is distracting from the party’s final push before the May 8 primary. Early voting starts Thursday.
“Given the importance of this election to our state and our country, a change needs to be made as we prepare for the general election in November,” read a joint statement from the five Democratic Council of State members.
Parker issued a statement saying he wouldn’t step down. But within hours, Congressman Larry Kissell, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, two Democratic legislative leaders and eventually Perdue joined the call for him to step down, sealing his fate, experts said.
“This is a distraction and unfortunately for him, chairs of state parties tend to be dispensable,” said Andy Taylor, a political analyst at N.C. State University. “It’s just a matter of time.”
The allegations about a cover up at the state party surfaced Friday in internal emails obtained by The News & Observer. The emails included questions from a member of the state’s executive committee about a financial settlement and nondisclosure agreement with a former staffer who left the party in November after complaining about being sexually harassed by a senior staff member. The emails did not identify the staffers nor discuss the actions that constituted harassment.
Executive Director Jay Parmley resigned Sunday but denied doing anything wrong, saying he “refused to be a distraction.”
Parker’s role in the settlement agreement – crafted without the knowledge of the party’s executive council – still remains murky. Questions remain about whether party rules gave him the authority to make such a deal and the use of party money.
During a Sunday conference call with the executive council, Parker defended his decision to handle the matter in private. A Statesville attorney who specializes in labor law, he maintained that grounds didn’t exist to fire Parmley for cause. But party activists and elected officials weren’t satisfied and began calling for him to exit.
A day after the call, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, State Treasurer Janet Cowell, Superintendent June Atkinson, Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin and State Auditor Beth Wood wrote Parker a letter asking him to resign on his own by noon Tuesday. When Parker didn’t respond, they released the joint statement demanding his resignation.
“We just didn’t feel that he can exhibit the leadership at this time and that he can be as effective as he needs to be,” said Marshall in an interview. “He will realize (that resigning) is the right thing to do.”
What did Perdue know?
At the same time, a new question emerged about what Perdue knew about the sexual harassment allegations, which have circulated among Democrats for months.
Earlier in the week, Perdue refused to comment on the situation. And Tuesday afternoon she reiterated her contention that it was “an internal personnel matter the party is working on.” Pressed again for comment, Perdue snapped and told a TV reporter to “get over it,” a statement that drew national attention.
Hours later, in her statement, Perdue acknowledged knowing about the “rumors” since December. She said she referred the matter to Parker and the party’s legal counsel.
In an internal party memo, Parker said he followed the advice of party attorney John Wallace “in all personnel matters.” But he asked party leaders to consider amending the party’s policies, calling them deficient. He also said he would review the decision-making process for “where funds come from for all personnel matters.”
He also formed a committee to search for a new executive director and hopes to appoint an interim director soon.
Wood, the auditor, said she wasn’t satisfied with how the party addressed the issue from the start. “From my perspective, I didn’t think this was handled timely enough or transparently enough,” she said. “If we want (voters) to believe in us and follow our lead we need to do a better job.”