Under the Dome

Democratic chairman backs down on Chavis pick for leadership post

Facing resistance, N.C. Democratic Party Chairman Randy Voller retreated from his intention to nominate civil rights leader and controversial figure Ben Chavis for a top post – at least for now.

In a contentious conference call with upward of 100 party executive leaders Tuesday night, Voller supported making state director Casey Mann the party’s interim executive director for up to 30 days as officials “explore a permanent replacement,” the party said in a statement. The executive council must approve Voller’s nomination.

Voller canceled a Wednesday morning news conference where party officials said he had planned to name Chavis as the party’s executive director. On Sunday, Voller unexpectedly fired Robert Dempsey from the director’s post. In the statement – sent by an interim spokeswoman after the party’s communications director resigned Monday – Voller said the potential for hazardous weather played a role in the cancellation.

Shedding new light on the situation Wednesday, Chris Hardee, the party’s 3rd Congressional District chairman from Manteo, said Voller considered firing Dempsey for days before he pulled the trigger. Hardee said that in a conference call last week, Voller complained that Dempsey “didn’t respond to (him) and spent too much time working with the (Kay) Hagan campaign.”

Dempsey and Voller did not return messages seeking comment.

The party’s Tuesday call proved raucous at times, according to Hardee and participants who live-tweeted the action. Mann ran the motion to name herself interim executive director and apparently calculated the votes, too. Democrats who tried to interject on the call were apparently muted and not heard.

But Voller made clear on the call that Chavis is his man, saying he approached him when he learned Chavis was returning to North Carolina.

Chavis, an Oxford native, is a prominent civil rights figure in North Carolina from his days as a member of the Wilmington 10. He went on to lead the NAACP and serve as a No. 2 under Louis Farrakhan in the Nation of Islam. Former Gov. Bev Perdue pardoned Chavis and the other members of the wrongly convicted Wilmington 10 in 2012.

But his checkered record, including his ouster as NAACP head following a secret settlement for a sexual harassment case and another similar allegation while at Farrakhan’s organization, are now being re-examined given the political light that will shine on the party’s day-to-day leader. Farrakhan is a controversial political figure, so much so that then-Sen. Barack Obama rejected his support for his 2008 presidential campaign.

On the call, Voller sounded angered about this scrutiny, saying he didn’t appreciate people relitigating things from 20 years ago.

But Hardee said the information is relevant to the position. “When you’re fired for executive mismanagement and you’re fired for sexual harassment misconduct, it makes you wonder,” he said, questioning whether Chavis was the right pick.

In an interview with WNCN in Raleigh, Chavis said he wouldn’t let his past distract him. “I would strongly consider the position,” Chavis said, if he were offered the post.

“I am not currently a member of the Nation of Islam,” Chavis told the TV station. “I’m a member, in good standing, of Oak Level United Methodist Church of Christ in Henderson.”

He added that the allegations of sexual harassment at the organization were “utterly false.” In court papers, Chavis admitted no wrongdoing, but the organization did reach a financial settlement with the woman.

“Sometimes when you’re in the public light, people will allege all kinds of things against you,” Chavis said the interview.

The state Republican Party is now making the Democratic disarray an issue, saying U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper ought to speak out on Chavis and Voller. The party notes a News & Observer story in which many party leaders declined to comment directly on the issue.