Embattled North Carolina Democratic Party Leader Won't Seek Re-Election

The position of state Democratic Party chair is expected to take on added importance now that the Republicans control all three branches of state government in Raleigh.

David Parker, the embattled state Democratic Party chairman, said Wednesday he would not seek another term, apparently ending one of the more turbulent episodes in the party's recent history.

Parker's announcement was a relief to party and elected leaders, who were fearful that Parker -- who has a loyal following among many party activists -- would successfully seek another two-year term when the state Executive Committee meets in February.

Many party leaders had already been quietly lining up behind state Sen. Eric Mansfield of Fayetteville as their choice even before Parker's announcement.

Mansfield, an African-American physician, Baptist minister and retired Army officer, said Wednesday that he was "very strongly considering" a bid for party chairman. He unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor earlier this year.

"I am getting a lot of phone calls from across the state," Mansfield said in a telephone interview from the White House, where he was attending a Christmas Party. "I will probably make a decision in the next three or four days. I am talking to activists and grass-roots people, and elected officials trying to get a clear voice from across the state."

The position of state Democratic Party chair is expected to take on added importance now that the Republicans control all three branches of state government in Raleigh.

Parker, a Statesville attorney, has in recent months given mixed signals about whether he would seek another term. But in an email to activists Wednesday he said he would not seek re-election when the executive committee meets in Durham on Feb. 2.

"I have enjoyed my two years of service to our state and to the Democratic party," Parker said. "There is much work to be done on the vital issues of good government, public education and job creation in North Carolina and I look forward to continuing to work to better our state in the year to come."

Parker, a 58-year old Raleigh native, is a long-time party activist, whose experience ranges from Jimmy Carter's North Carolina youth coordinator in 1976 to his election as state party chairman two years ago. He managed the unsuccessful re-election campaign of U.S. Sen Terry Sanford in 1992.

But for someone who had for years coveted the party chairmanship, his tenure proved to be a public relations fiasco and resulted in a drubbing at the ballot box.

For months this spring the party was plagued by a sexual harassment charge brought by Adriadn Ortega against the party's executive director, Jay Parmley. Ortega sought a severance payment and signed a confidential settlement. After word of the settlement became the subject of news media reports, Parker held a news conference in which he defended Parmley and suggested that Ortega could not be believed. Parmley denied the allegations, but resigned his position. Ortega later sued for breach of settlement and defamation in a case that continued to be dragged through the media during the election.

Under fire for his handling of the case, and under pressure from national and state party leaders, Parker resigned as party chairman last May at the state executive committee meeting -- only to reverse himself hours later when the state executive committee voted 269-203 not to accept his resignation.

But Parker's usefulness as a public spokesman for the Democratic Party had been damaged, and he remained a virtual ghost the rest of the campaign.

The Democrats suffered their worst election in recent memory, losing the governor's race, the legislature, three congressional seats and a key N.C. Supreme Court seat.

Under normal circumstances, when a party takes such a beating at the polls the party leadership changes. But in the months since the election, Parker has declined to say what he would do -- until Wednesday. And that assumes he doesn't change his mind again.

(c)2012 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.