Democratic Party chairman resigns, then unresigns

rchristensen@newsobserver.comMay 12, 2012 

— David Parker, the besieged state Democratic Party chairman, said Saturday that he would remain in his post after the party’s ruling committee voted not to accept his resignation.

In doing so, Parker defied pressure from party leaders from Washington to Raleigh to step aside because of the concern that his handling of sexual harassment accusations by a staffer would damage the party’s efforts in the fall.

In a day filled with high drama and at times chaos and anger, Parker first tendered his resignation in an emotional speech to the state Democratic Executive Committee. He left the hotel to clean out his office in Raleigh, only to return hours later to announce that he would remain as chairman.

The change in heart came after the Executive Committee, a body made up of party activists from across the state, voted 269-203 not to accept his resignation.

“Well you crazy people, is this the Democratic Party or what?’’ Parker said after emerging on stage from behind a curtain to reclaim a post he resigned just hours earlier.

“My friends, I resigned this party but I abide by the will of the state Executive Committee,” Parker said. “This is our party,’’

The move came despite an effort by party leaders including Gov. Bev Perdue, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Walter Dalton, key state elected leaders, the national party, and the White House to ease Parker out.

The pressure came as Republicans have repeatedly hammered the Democrats on the scandal, and national political stories cite it as a reason why it will be difficult for President Barack Obama to carry North Carolina again in November.

In a speech earlier in the day, Dalton heaped praise on Parker for his selfless behavior in resigning. He said he had conversations beforehand with Parker to prepare for an easy transition. So certain were party leaders that Parker was stepping aside, that three candidates launched campaigns in recent days for the post: state Sen. Don Vaughan of Greensboro, Raleigh City Councilwoman Mary Ann Baldwin, and videographer Frank Eaton of Winston-Salem

But that all blew up Saturday in spectacular fashion, as the Democratic Party activists staged their own “tea party” moment, rebelling against their state and national leaders.

“The lieutenant governor is surprised and disappointed,’’ Dalton’s campaign said in statement. “David Parker had assured him that he would resign and assist in the smooth transition to a new chair. Clearly that did not happen.’’

Other Democratic leaders, such as Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, seemed stunned.

At issue was Parker’s handling of a sexual harassment accusation brought by a staffer against Jay Parmley, the party’s executive director. There were criticisms of the confidential settlement in the matter, whether Parker should have taken it to the Executive Committee, and Parker’s off-key news conference last month.

But some Democrats saw Parker as a longtime Democratic Party worker who had followed the advice of the party’s attorneys and was being offered up as a sacrificial lamb.

Tempers flared throughout the six-hour meeting during a series of procedural votes, as Parker allies and opponents maneuvered. At one point, the presiding officer, vice chairwoman Gwen Wilkins, was referred to as “madame Republican,” and one speaker talked of “pandemonium’’ reigning on the floor.

“I’ve been to every convention since 1956, and I’ve never seen anything that approached this,” said Dewey Sheffield of Wilson.

Added Pittsboro Mayor Randy Voller: “This is a circus without the elephants. You’ve got about everything else here.”

The meeting was called especially to deal with Parker’s resignation. The party rules – or what it calls its plan of organization – don’t deal with resignations. So Parker said the party should follow Robert’s Rules of Order, which says the ruling party must vote to accept the resignation. This set up the showdown.

Parker offered an emotional speech in which he talked about how he had worked all his life for the party and how he had worked as chairman to improve party operations, including cutting out expensive consultant contracts – and by inference making enemies.

Following his speech there was a powerful wave of emotion in the room, and Parker plunged into the crowd to shake hands.

Some Parker critics, such as Perry Woods, a Raleigh consultant who was advising Baldwin, said it looked like political theater by Parker to keep himself as chairman – from the ruling that there had to be a vote to accept his resignation to the tenor of his speech, which did not include any Shermanesque statement about not serving.

“I think he set things up for him to stay in power,” Woods said.

After hours of a series of votes not to accept his resignation, the question became, would Parker agree to stay as chairman? As the crowd waited for Parker, rumors swept the hotel – the White House was working on Parker, the governor was calling. Parker would only say later that he had received calls from people “who represent candidates who you are going to elect in November.’’

But Parker was elected party chairman without the support of elected leaders and owed them nothing. When he emerged from behind the curtain, he announced that he intended to remain as chairman.

“There is difficulty in the party that has to be resolved regardless of who the chair is,” Parker said.

“I’m in shock,” said Baldwin, one of the candidates who had campaigned to replace Parker only to find out there was no vacancy. “I’m afraid what has happened has hurt the party. At the same time I don’t want to be a divisive person. It’s all about electing Walter Dalton and the president.’’

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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