Magazine | June 25, 2012, Issue

Conventional Unwisdom

David Parker, chairman of the North Carolina Democratic party (Chris Seward/ The News and Oberserver/AP)
North Carolina’s Democratic party descends into chaos

Raleigh, N.C. – ‘Well you crazy people, is this the Democratic party or what?” That was David Parker, the embattled chairman of the North Carolina Democratic party, announcing on May 12 that he would continue to lead the state’s Democrats through the rest of the 2012 election cycle despite widespread criticism for his handling of a sexual-harassment scandal at party headquarters in Raleigh. Parker was using “crazy people” as a term of endearment for the hundreds of Democratic activists in the room. But many state and national Democrats — including those managing President Obama’s reelection campaign — think Parker is nuts, that any Democrats who would vote to keep him in power are nuts, and that the decision to hold the Democratic national convention in North Carolina may prove to be catastrophically nuts.

Political parties have to hold their nominating conventions somewhere, and it makes sense to try to leverage them to political benefit in a battleground state. North Carolina certainly qualifies; in 2008, the Tar Heel State voted Democratic for president for the first time since 1976, albeit by only 14,000 votes out of 4.3 million cast. This year, the battle for North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes will be fierce. If you average the results of the last three statewide polls, President Obama and Mitt Romney can each claim about 46 percent support.

The problem for Obama is that North Carolina’s Democratic party is an utter mess. Most of its recent leaders are either in trouble with voters, in trouble with the law, or both. It would be in President Obama’s political interest to stay as far away from the North Carolina party as he can, campaigning there via broadcast ads, social media, and appearances that do not include unpopular state Democrats. But with the national convention scheduled to begin on September 3 in Charlotte, the Obama campaign is finding it hard to disassociate itself completely from the host state’s Democratic infrastructure.

To illustrate the scope of the problem, let’s jump in the Wayback Machine and travel ten years into the past. In 2002, North Carolina Democrats could claim to have built one of the strongest records of electoral success in modern American politics. While other southern states were moving steadily toward the Republicans, not just in presidential elections but in key races down the ballot, North Carolina had continued to elect Democrats to most of the state’s top jobs. Republicans had gotten just two governors elected in the past century — Jim Holshouser (1973–77) and Jim Martin (1985–93). Democrats had controlled both houses of the state legislature since Reconstruction, except for a brief period of GOP rule in the state house in the mid-1990s. In 2002, Democrat Mike Easley was in his second year as governor, after eight years as state attorney general. Democrat John Edwards was in the U.S. Senate. The lieutenant governor, Beverly Perdue, other statewide executive officers, the leadership of both legislative chambers — all were Democrats. The only major exception to the trend was longtime conservative U.S. senator Jesse Helms, and he was about to retire.

#page#Here’s what happened next: Governor Easley fell out of favor, immersed himself in scandal, ended his second term under a cloud of ethics violations, and then pled guilty to a felony. Senator Edwards — well, you know what he did. The Democratic speaker of the state house and majority whip of the state senate were indicted, convicted, and incarcerated on separate corruption charges. The lieutenant governor, Perdue, waged a successful campaign for governor in 2008 that happened to include a variety of illegal campaign contributions and expenditures. In the midst of a painful recession, in a state with one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates, Perdue and the Democratic legislature enacted a massive tax increase in 2009. Voters punished them in 2010 by delivering both houses of the state legislature to Republicans. By early 2012, several of Perdue’s aides and donors were either indicted on criminal charges or about to be, and she had become one of the most unpopular governors in the country.

In late January, Perdue announced that she wouldn’t seek a second term — perhaps the only major decision she made as governor that actually boosted her party’s prospects. But because she announced her retirement so late in the cycle, the Democratic primary for governor turned into a mad scramble. Lieutenant governor Walter Dalton ended up with the nomination, defeating former U.S. representative Bob Etheridge. But Dalton’s coffers were depleted. And for the first time in North Carolina history, polls showed that a non-incumbent Republican, former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory, would enter the governor’s race as the front-runner.

Just when it looked like things couldn’t get much worse for North Carolina Democrats, news broke that a young man, a former staffer at party headquarters, had made sexual-harassment charges against the party’s executive director, Jay Parmley, who had previously run the state party in neighboring South Carolina. It further came to light that longtime party activist and attorney David Parker, who hired Parmley as executive director in 2011, had responded to the harassment allegations by keeping Parmley on the job and authorizing a late-2011 financial settlement with the staffer, whose grievance had expanded to include a claim of wrongful termination after Parmley fired him.

Party officials managed to keep the story under wraps for several months. Reporters heard rumors but couldn’t confirm them. In early April, however, someone leaked internal party e-mails to the Daily Caller, which broke the story. North Carolina newspapers and broadcast stations quickly picked it up and fleshed out the details. It turned out that Governor Perdue and other prominent Democrats had long known about the sexual-harassment allegations. “Get over it,” Perdue snapped to a reporter asking her about the settlement, exhibiting the touch for public relations that denied her a second term. Parmley resigned his job as executive director of the party, inducing a mixture of snorts and giggles by stridently protesting his innocence and blaming conservative bloggers for his demise.

Attention next turned to the future of David Parker. State and national Democrats urged him to resign. Obama-campaign operatives put out the word that if he didn’t, their North Carolina operation would bypass the state party altogether rather than manage a separate but complementary effort alongside other Democratic campaigns, as originally planned. And DNC officials hoped that Parker would save them the trouble of disinviting him from the Charlotte convention.

#page#But it was not to be. On April 19, Parker held a bizarre Raleigh press conference at which he defended both his handling of the case and Parmley himself. Allegations of Parmley’s improper touching and comments simply reflected the fact that he was “a friendly guy,” Parker said. He compared Parmley’s contact with the male staffer to Mitt Romney’s patting Rick Perry’s shoulder at a GOP presidential debate. He even described his former executive director as “a close talker,” prompting late-night comedians such as Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart to riff on the party leader’s “Seinfeld defense.” While Democrats were appalled at Parker’s press conference and annoyed at his refusal to submit an immediate resignation, they were at least comforted by his announcement that he would step aside in May and let the Democratic party’s executive committee elect a new leader for the 2012 cycle.

As the election approached, however, it became clear that some Democratic activists were not convinced Parker needed to go. They blamed the Obama team and the governor for staging a power play to get control of the state party. Some in the Parker faction even suggested that the sexual-harassment claim had been a financial shakedown by a disgruntled staffer who had fabricated or exaggerated what occurred between the two men, or that the dispute went public only because greedy Democratic operatives wanted to overthrow Parker so they could get lucrative consulting contracts from a new leader. E-mail inboxes, comment threads, and Facebook pages filled up with conspiracy theories and personal attacks.

The morning of the May 12 vote, the new Democratic nominee for governor, Walter Dalton, appeared before the executive committee at its meeting in Greensboro and sought to bring the splintered North Carolina party together. “As you know, David is resigning as the chair of the party,” Dalton said. “And he says he is committed — he’s indicated he’s committed to a smooth transition. I want you to know that this is a very selfless act.” Shortly afterward, Parker offered another spirited defense of his conduct, left the room to applause, and began the 90-minute drive east to Raleigh to clean out his desk. The executive committee deliberated, voted, argued, voted again, and by late afternoon had decided to reject Parker’s resignation. Parker headed back down Interstate 40, entered the room in triumph, and pledged to remain the Democratic chairman until Election Day. Dalton and his team were aghast.

Whether it was all a theatrical production, a spontaneous revolt against the party establishment, or some combination, I don’t know. What I do know is that Democratic pros in North Carolina and beyond see Parker’s retention as capping off a disastrous series of events. The host state of the national convention now has a barely functioning party organization, one that faces the prospect of losing both the governor’s office and the legislature to the Republicans for the first time since General Sherman’s troops were camped outside the state capital.

For its part, the Obama campaign is pretending that the North Carolina Democratic party doesn’t exist. Wouldn’t you?

– Mr. Hood is the president of the John Locke Foundation, a public-policy think tank in Raleigh, N.C., and the author, most recently, of Our Best Foot Forward.

John Hood is a syndicated columnist and the president of the John William Pope Foundation, a North Carolina–based grantmaker.

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