When Randy Voller, the embattled state Democratic Party chairman, called to order a meeting of the party's executive council Sunday in Greensboro, he turned to Charles Johnson for a point of personal privilege.
Johnson, 91, certainly qualifies as a veteran Democratic leader. He has been a delegate to the last seven Democratic national conventions. Johnson's point: Voller's critics on the executive council were out of control.
The 40-member executive council steers the party between semiannual sessions of the 700-member state executive committee, which narrowly elected Voller in February.
Inside the party, Johnson said, they have every right to disagree with Voller, "with respect." But their attacks on him at, and after, the April meeting were shameful, Johnson said. "I love everyone in this room," he added. "I love this party more."
For the next five hours, council members were on their best behavior as they trudged through party business. Perhaps it was Johnson's lecture. Perhaps it was Voller, who followed with a warning to stop the "petty bickering." Or perhaps it was the fact that in April, he used a loophole in the party's rules to pack the council with extra supporters—a move that infuriated his detractors and prompted them to file a written complaint that went viral.
Whatever the reason, beneath the surface the split over Voller and his ability to be the Democratic chairman remains angry and wide.
To his supporters, Voller, the four-term mayor of Pittsboro, is a hard-hitting progressive reformer fighting to expand the party beyond its traditional top-down, right-of-center leadership.
"We need to keep him," Walter Rogers, a Scotland County Democrat who heads the N.C. Black Leadership Caucus, told me. "I think he's doing a great job. I think he'll do even better if people will get off his back."
The rap on Voller? That he's arrogant, divisive, lacks rudimentary political judgment or interpersonal skills, and is oblivious to the need to avoid even the appearance of improper conduct.
Voller's critics, who include progressive and moderate Democrats and leaders of the N.C. Young Democrats, generally limit their on-the-record comments to Voller's known missteps as chairman. Privately, they're so disdainful that Voller's biggest sin, in their eyes, seems to be thinking he should run for chairman in the first place.
Frank Eaton, a videographer from Winston-Salem who briefly sought that position a year ago, is the least guarded of Voller's critics. He put a video online accusing Voller of "major violations in the firing and demotion" of party staffers and of hiring unqualified cronies as consultants. Eaton also alleged "major irregularities" in the credit card charges for a trip Voller took to Las Vegas—irregularities not investigated by the executive council because Voller packed it, Eaton said.
"My metric was, [Voller's] doing more damage to the party as chair than I am" by going after him, Eaton said later. "Things were dire and required immediate sunshine."
Voller's alleged missteps include owing back taxes to the IRS, using the word "rape" to describe (to a Democratic women's group) what the Republican General Assembly is doing to our state and putting his annual jaunt to Vegas with old college buddies on a party credit card—now that he has one.
The first problem—owing the IRS—strikes me as a good reason to prefer someone else as party chairman. But Voller's debt was known before he was elected. I reported it, and it was on his campaign website, yet he ended up being the only candidate for the post after two others, including former Congressman Bob Etheridge, dropped out.
This didn't stop Gary Pearce, the prominent Democratic blogger and former Jim Hunt press secretary, from telling Voller to resign and "go back to work and pay off your taxes" when Pearce learned about his debt—after Voller was elected.
The rape comment you can judge for yourself. But to accuse Voller of insensitivity, Republican-style, to the crime of forced sex is a stretch—but that's what Voller's critics did after one tweeted his comment.
That said, Voller's best course was to apologize for a bad choice of words, not issue a convoluted non-apology that resulted in Jon Stewart skewering him on The Daily Show.
Similarly, Voller responded to Eaton's video with a tirade calling it libelous and defamatory. No, it wasn't.
And Voller's first appearance as party chairman? He spoke at a rally in favor of medical marijuana—not wrong, but a dubious first move for someone who should be focused on jobs, education and defeating Republicans.
The Vegas trip is more troubling. Voller insists that he intended to pay the credit card charges personally—they totaled $3,327—but because the bill was mailed to the former party executive director, he never saw it before it was leaked to critics.
The former executive director is someone Voller had fired. Voller did reimburse the charges after critics hammered him, but assuming he intended to pay all along, it was still poor judgment to put that expense on a Democratic Party credit card.
Voller has made a lot of mistakes since February. His critics may be right that he is temperamentally unsuited for his position. On the other hand, given the criticism from other Democrats he's received, he may be justified in blaming his bad start on them.
But here's the bottom line. Despite having no opponent, Voller was elected chairman by just 11 votes over an absent Etheridge. Voller was chosen by party activists—the grassroots folks who distrust the big party donors and the campaign consultants who depend on the big donors.
Still, for Democrats to win, they need the donors, consultants and grassroots folks—and as sorry as the Republicans are, it shouldn't be that hard to unite the Democratic Party against them.
That's Voller's job. His critics should give him a fighting chance to get it done. Only then, if he fails, can they be sure it was his fault—and not theirs.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Randy Voller: rebel or menace?"