State Politics

Supporter of ousted NCGOP chairman says his removal was ‘illegal and illegitimate’

Supporters of former N.C. Republican Party chairman Hasan Harnett aren’t ready to back his replacement – a sign the party’s infighting could continue in a crucial election year.

Former Lee County Commissioner Jim Womack served as Harnett’s defender on Saturday in a seven-hour, closed-door hearing in which GOP leaders voted to remove the chairman. Harnett wasn’t present because he was out of the country on business. Womack said Tuesday that the process was a “kangaroo court.”

“It was patently illegal and illegitimate,” he said. “It was done through trickery.”

Womack says that’s because removing Harnett should require a two-thirds majority vote of the party’s Executive Committee, which has roughly 550 members. But other party leaders said removal requires a two-thirds majority of committee members present; about 200 of 300 present voted to oust Harnett.

“We followed the rules exactly,” said former U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes, who was elected the NCGOP’s new chairman shortly after Harnett’s removal.

The party’s rules allow for removal “by a 2/3’s vote of the respective committee” but the document doesn’t get more specific. Womack said a removal hearing in Haywood County several years ago interpreted the rule as two-thirds of all committee members.

Harnett did not return calls and emails seeking comment Tuesday, but in a letter to supporters posted online, he did not appear to surrender.

“I am in the process of reviewing all options for next steps and will communicate my plans soon,” he wrote.

Womack said that Harnett’s supporters aren’t giving up the fight. “The party thinks that the grassroots activists like me and dozens of others will fade to black,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere. ... The grassroots of this party are the heart and soul of the party, and without them, we’re not winning anything.”

On Wednesday, Hayes plans to host an “open house and listening session for grassroots activists” at the party’s Raleigh headquarters – an apparent effort to mend fences.

“I’ve been spending all my time catching up with people and listening to ideas,” Hayes said Tuesday, adding that NCGOP members have been supportive so far. “I’m almost overwhelmed by the amount of support. Everything’s been very, very positive.”

Womack, however, is already calling on Hayes to resign. He says that within minutes of being elected, the former congressman broke a gag order for Harnett’s removal hearing. The party leaders participating had agreed not to speak publicly about what took place during the meeting.

Hayes told reporters from The News & Observer and WRAL that Harnett “did not have the background, the experience and the leadership skills that come from being immersed in the process over a number of years,” adding that he was simply repeating the description that Womack used in defending Harnett.

“We were sworn not to say anything outside that room,” Womack said, adding that Hayes was “twisting my words” and is “tone deaf and blind” to the needs of the party.

“Helen Keller could lead this party better than Robin Hayes.”

Asked about the gag order concerns, Hayes said, “Saturday’s behind us. There’s nothing to respond to.”

Harnett was the state party’s first black chairman. He was elected last year with Tea Party support, beating a candidate who had endorsements from nearly every GOP statewide elected official.

Other party leaders made a number of complaints against Harnett, which he denied: He didn’t raise enough money for the party. He sought to lower the party’s convention fees against the wishes of other party leaders and attempted to hack the website to change the fees. They also objected to his public criticism of other party leaders, including accusations of racism.

With the change in leadership, Harnett loses the power to help pick North Carolina’s delegates to the Republican National Convention. Hayes will now appoint several of the committee members who propose a slate of delegates at Saturday’s state convention in Greensboro.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter