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Dem Mess In NC: State Party Chairman Resigns But Ends Up Keeping Post

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File photo of North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue. (credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

File photo of North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue. (credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — The embattled chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party and his backers rebelled Saturday against top state elected officials who want him to resign over his handling of sexual harassment allegations involving the former party executive director.

Chairman David Parker verbally submitted his resignation offer to the party’s State Executive Committee meeting in Greensboro earlier Saturday and left the room, but hours later, a majority of committee members rejected his resignation.

Parker, a Statesville attorney, returned later Saturday to the podium and said he wouldn’t leave despite receiving phone calls from people he wouldn’t identify specifically. “But this is our party,” he told activists.

Gov. Beverly Perdue, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and several other top elected officials moved last month to force Parker out, saying the allegations were becoming an election-year distraction. Some Democratic leaders and rank-and-file members were frustrated Parker had left them in the dark about a former party employee’s allegations against the then-executive director and the ensuing financial settlement.

During a rambunctious six-hour meeting that pitted Parker’s backers and critics, the panel voted 269-203 to reject his resignation.

“My friends, I resigned this party but I abide by the will of the State Executive Committee,” Parker told the crowd soon after the vote. “This difficulty in the party is going to be resolved regardless of who the chair is … but you have spoken today. And that’s about enough drama. We have business to do, my friends.”

Parker’s refusal to step aside deals a blow to party leaders who believed they had put out the firestorm surrounding the harassment allegations. Parker announced last month he would call for a new election for his job but that he wouldn’t be a candidate. At least three candidates to succeed Parker had assembled campaigns in advance of Saturday’s election, which never happened.

The standoff adds to the challenges facing state Democrats as they gear up for the party’s national convention in Charlotte in September, and President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in a key battleground state.

Obama’s “chances at winning North Carolina continue to grow smaller by the day and this vote is further evidence that the president’s ground game and national convention are in absolute turmoil” in the state, Republican National Committee spokesman Matt Connelly said.

Some committee members said they were shocked and incensed by Parker’s return. One committee member threw down his unused ballots in the hotel ballroom as Parker announced he would remain chairman. Another complained loudly earlier to 1st Vice Chair Gwen Wilkins about how she handled the vote on Parker — leading him to call her a “Republican.” He later apologized.

Others said there had never been a vote before to accept or reject a resignation — a decision that raised questions among some about whether Parker had orchestrated his return using parliamentary maneuvers.

“This is now about David,” said Perry Woods, a Democratic strategist working with Mary-Ann Baldwin, a Raleigh city council member who was prepared to run to succeed Parker. “It’s obviously divisive and he’s put himself above the party.”

Committee members backing Parker, a veteran party worker elected chairman in January 2011, said he did nothing wrong in his handling of the harassment allegations. They printed fliers for the meeting asking colleagues not to accept his resignation.

“He’s been a good chair and he hasn’t done anything illegal,” said committee member Mike Schaul of Raleigh. After the meeting, he said he was pleased with the outcome and predicted the strained relations between Dalton and Parker weren’t a huge problem. “They’ll make it work.”

Parker played down Saturday’s fracture within the party and called the committee’s decision unexpected, saying he had been prepared to travel out of town after his resignation speech and clean out his desk in party headquarters. He said the party is united behind Obama and Dalton, who won the party’s gubernatorial primary less than a week ago.

“This party will come back together within two or three days,” Parker said.

Still, Parker’s about-face represented an embarrassment for Dalton, who addressed the crowd before Parker’s resignation submission.

“As you know David is resigning as chairman of the party and he says he is ready,” Dalton said Saturday morning, adding that “this is a very selfless act by David.”

Later Saturday, Dalton campaign spokesman Schorr Johnson said: “The lieutenant governor is surprised and disappointed. David Parker had assured him that he would resign and assist in the smooth transition to a new chair. Clearly that did not happen.”

Tensions began rising within the party after members learned a former party headquarters employee accused then-Executive Director Jay Parmley of harassment and being wrongly fired when he spoke up about it, according to documents.

Parmley denied the allegations but resigned April 15, saying he wasn’t going to be a distraction in the coming elections. Campaign finance records and the party’s attorney confirmed that a financial settlement was reached between the party and the former employee.

Democratic elected officials soon centered on Parker because they said he kept them out of the loop. Parker held a news conference in which he defended his actions and said he followed the advice of the party’s attorney. He said he couldn’t discuss the confidential settlement.

The party’s plan of organization does provide a method to remove the chairman from office, but it doesn’t involve the executive committee, which is next scheduled to meet June 17 in Raleigh.

This isn’t the first time the party’s executive committee has thwarted the wishes of a top Democratic elected official. In 2005, the committee elected Jerry Meek, a favorite of local party activists, as chairman over then-Gov. Mike Easley’s choice, Ed Turlington.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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