Chavis choice worried some Democrats

The Associated Press

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RALEIGH — The planned hiring of a long-term executive director for the North Carolina Democratic Party has been delayed as both allies and critics of Chairman Randy Voller expressed concern about his early choice of former national NAACP leader Benjamin Chavis.

Voller canceled a Wednesday news conference in Raleigh to announce his pick to run the party’s day-to-day operations. Voller said in an interview the event at state party headquarters was delayed partly by weather. But Voller also appears to have pulled back on naming Chavis to the post that became vacant last weekend with Voller’s firing of executive director Robert Dempsey.

Voller didn’t seek the approval of Chavis as executive director from the party’s 51-member executive board during an unwieldy conference call Tuesday night. Instead, a divided board agreed to hire Voller ally Casey Mann as interim director and meet within 30 days on a permanent replacement.

“We’re going to work through the process,” Voller said in a subsequent interview.

Chavis, an Oxford native long largely out of state politics, had a contentious past with his departure from the NAACP in the 1990s and joining the Nation of Islam soon after.

Hiring Chavis “just wasn’t a good fit for the Democratic Party,” said Gwen Wilkins of Rocky Mount, a council member and Voller supporter. Wilkins said that while “Chavis may know politics and civil rights ... he did not know the inner workings of the state Democratic Party.”

Voller had earlier emailed Democrats saying Wednesday’s news conference would mark “the return of a North Carolina native and national leader.”

Voller said he did tell the council Tuesday that Chavis was returning to live in North Carolina and could bring a “synergy of a local and national level” to the state party. State Democrats are struggling to rebound after Republicans captured control of the General Assembly and the Executive Mansion in recent election cycles.

It’s unclear whether Chavis could still be considered for the job.

Chavis didn’t respond to an email seeking comment Wednesday. But he wrote The Associated Press on Monday that “as a native of North Carolina, I strongly support and share the leadership vision of Chairman Randy Voller and the N.C. Democratic Party.”

Chavis was a member of a group wrongly convicted of firebombing a Wilmington grocery store in 1971. He served about five years before his release. He and other members of the “Wilmington 10” received a pardon from the governor at the time in 2012.

In 1993, Chavis was named executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He was fired in 1994 after admitting that he used NAACP funds to settle a sexual discrimination case against him without consulting the board. He converted to Islam and helped organize the Million Man March in 1995.

In an interview with WNCN-TV, Chavis said Tuesday that allegations of sexual harassment were “utterly false.”

Chris Hardee, chairman of the state party’s 3rd Congressional District, said Voller held a conference call with other district chairs last week in which Voller discussed potentially firing Dempsey. Hardee said Voller told call participants that he and Dempsey had differences about how the party should operate heading into the 2014 elections.

As for Chavis’ potential hiring, Hardee said: “I don’t believe that you fire someone on a Sunday, then have someone ready to be hired on a Tuesday.”