NC Dems tap Pittsboro mayor for state party chair

Feb. 03, 2013 @ 05:01 AM

Still reeling from 2012 defeats at the ballot box, North Carolina Democratic activists narrowly elected a small-town mayor as their next leader Saturday after an 11th-hour draft of former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge fell short by a few votes.

Meeting in Durham, the state Democratic Party's executive committee elected Pittsboro Mayor Randy Voller by a vote of 309-298 over Etheridge, who wasn't in attendance when his name was placed in nomination. Voller, a favorite of local party activists, vowed during his two-year term to fight to reverse Republican electoral gains and policies.

"We are here to win the battle of ideas in our communities, and we're here to win elections," the 44-year-old Voller told committee members.

Voller had been publicly running for two months and appeared to be the only candidate when former state Sen. Eric Mansfield dropped out less than two weeks ago. But Mansfield supporters actively sought out Etheridge to run. Etheridge never announced his candidacy but visited the Durham Convention Center on Saturday morning and left before it got started.

Etheridge, who served 14 years as a congressman and eight as state school superintendent before an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2012, said he was going to watch a grandson play basketball.

"If Bob had stayed, he may have won," Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, said after the vote.

The close race reflected continuing divisions within the beleaguered party, which has seen its preeminent status in North Carolina politics for more than a century end. The GOP expanded their majorities at the General Assembly in the November 2012 elections, when Pat McCrory also became the first Republican governor in 20 years.

Although President Barack Obama won the state's electoral votes in 2008 — the first time for a Democratic presidential candidate in 32 years — North Carolina was the only battleground state that went to Mitt Romney in November.

Etheridge is well-known and gave some committee members more aligned with elected officials a reason to vote differently. Etheridge's supporters highlighted his connections to the national party, victories in statewide elections and fundraising. The state party was outraised 2-to-1 during the past two years, according to campaign finance reports.

"We have an opportunity, a great opportunity, to elect a heavyweight to serve as our state party chair," said Jenny Edwards of Franklin County, who told the crowd she was speaking on Etheridge's behalf.

But Voller's supporters said it was time to bring in a new generation of leadership. Voller is nearly 30 years younger than Etheridge.

"Sometimes there comes an opportunity to pass the baton," state Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham.

Etheridge supporters were encouraged later Saturday when Nina Szlosberg-Landis was elected 1st vice-chair, handily defeating incumbent Gwen Wilkins. Szlosberg-Landis served on the state Board of Transportation and she and her husband are prolific fundraisers for candidates, including Obama.

Voller, who also has been the Chatham County Democratic Party chairman, said he was honored to have competed against a longtime public official such as Etheridge and narrowly won. "We're a family and (now) we've got to focus on our true opponents and those are people who are working on laws that are bad for North Carolinians in Raleigh right now," Voller told reporters after the victory.

Mac McCorkle, a former consultant for then-Democratic Govs. Beverly Perdue and Mike Easley, said Democrats need to accept their run at the top is over for now and rebuild with a forward-thinking message — or their organization could be marginalized.

"A political party will not continue to exist or it will be replaced by a new organization," McCorkle said Friday, "if it doesn't place a high priority on winning elections."

Voller succeeds David Parker of Statesville, who took heat last year for how he handled a sexual harassment claim at headquarters involving two former employees. Perdue and other elected leaders called on him to resign. Parker offered his resignation at a State Executive Committee last May but the activists wouldn't accept it, leading Parker to remain on the job.

Before departing, Parker said that Republicans are the latest batch of right-wing extremists from a line that brought the state the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. Republicans want to move North Carolina backward, he said, by passing voter ID requirements, education "vouchers," and destroying the University of North Carolina system.

"Friends, we've got to save our state," he said.