Friday, February 21, 2014

by Cash Michaels
                              Rev. Dr. Benjamin Chavis, Jr.

            In the aftermath of last week’s political firestorm surrounding the nomination of Rev. Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. as executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party, Chavis, who had his nomination temporarily withdrawn amid false allegations from moderate and conservative Democrats, says he can and will help the party muster up needed votes to win this fall.
            But only if the state party can overcome its internal differences and divisions, and unify in asking him to help.
            Meanwhile a statewide letter petition is being circulated to Democrats, asking the NCDP Executive Council to back Chairman Randy Voller in his efforts to recruit Chavis. In addition, support among NC black Democrats is growing as the party’s African-American Caucus has issued a statement backing Voller, and the nomination of Dr. Chavis.
            In an exclusive interview with The Carolinian and Wilmington Journal newspapers Wednesday, Dr. Chavis said, “It is up to the [NCDP]…” if he is to become executive director.
            “I would never try to impose my leadership on anyone or anything.”
Dr. Chavis says Chairman Voller, whom he has known for only a short time since the 2012 Wilmington Ten Pardons of Innocence Project and had supported as chair, approached Chavis with the offer to become an interim NCDP executive director [ED].
The previous ED, Robert Dempsey, was summarily fired by Voller Feb. 9th, according to that statewide petition letter to the state Executive Council, because he allegedly, “…has ignored matters brought to his attention by members of minority groups within the Democratic Party. The members are loyal voting Democrats, and on a daily basis fight Governor McCrory and General Assembly Republicans, while experiencing unprofessional treatment within one’s own party is outrageous.” 
Dr. Gracie Galloway, Democratic chairperson of the Eighth Congressional District, which includes Mecklenburg County, confirmed in an interview that Dempsey was unresponsive to the needs of “minority” members of the NCDP, having dealt with him personally on several organizational issues.  
Chavis was moving back home to North Carolina to pursue other opportunities – particularly with helping historically black colleges and universities - but says he was willing to lend his talents and services to the NCDP when Voller made the ED offer for what is considered a crucial midterm election year.
            But once word got out, it didn’t take long for Chavis to realize that those in the party who opposed the progressive politics of Voller were moving swiftly to block the nomination at all costs.
            What specifically surprised Chavis was that contrary to what he expected, there were officers directly under the NCDP chairman who were opposed to his nomination as E.D., and were also working to stop it.
            “Some of the people who opposed Voller used this as an opportunity to create their own agenda,” Chavis said. “I thought that when the chairman of the [NC] Democratic Party extended an overture, that his overture was representative of the political will of at least a majority of the officials at the party.”
            “I would have never entertained the idea of becoming executive director of the NCDP if I didn’t feel that it was a sincere overture,” Chavis continued, adding that there are progressive, moderate and conservative divisions within the party.
             Chavis said Chairman Voller had hoped to unite all factions of the party around a massive voter registration effort, which needed to start immediately in order to generate enough of a statewide base to carry the Democrats to victory in November.
            The key was to do what the Obama campaign successfully did in 2008, namely bring new voters into the base. With a tight statewide race between incumbent Democratic Senator Kay Hagan and any Republican on the line, and GOP redistricting essentially making almost every Republican-led voting district bulletproof on the state and congressional levels, Chavis said his previous experience at running voter registration campaigns on national, regional and statewide levels, plus his skills communicating with young people through his Hip Hop Action Network with music legend Russell Simmons, was the NCDP’s best hope of taking North Carolina back from the Republicans this year.
            Chavis said if you total the number of black, Latino and young potential voters who are not registered in the state, it adds up to approximately one million. Unless the NCDP devises an effective outreach to capture the lion’s share of these unregistered groups, its chances of winning back North Carolina are slim.
            Chavis said he was willing to devote himself to that task for his home state, and the NCDP. Given the negative impact on the state since the Republicans took over in 2012, he saw it as an imperative that he does all he can to help turn the tide.
            And of key interest to Chavis is working on economic development issues across the state, so that low-wealth communities could grow and prosper.
            “My motive was to come to serve the people of North Carolina, to serve institutions of higher learning, and to serve those, heretofore, whose rights have been denied and suppressed,” Chavis said.
            But before his plane could touch down at RDU International Airport Tuesday, Feb. 11th, Democrats opposed to Voller’s leadership mobilized a concerted media and online campaign to relitigate not only past allegations of sexual harassment against Chavis from his days as executive director of the NAACP twenty years ago, but also his brief membership in the Nation of Islam subsequently.
            On social media sites like Facebook and Blue NC, Democrats identifying themselves as Jewish immediately labeled Chavis as “anti-Semitic” because of his association with NOI leader Min. Louis Farrakhan, who has a history of making inflammatory statements about alleged Jewish mistreatment of blacks.
            With the exception of a late interview on WNCN-TV which aired too late to make a difference, Chavis was not afforded an effective platform or opportunity to answer the charges, and ended up asking Chairman Voller to with draw his nomination from the state Executive Council vote that evening, possibly to regroup in 30 days.
            Chavis says though there was a settlement of a sexual harassment allegation when he was executive director of the NAACP in 1994, it was a “totally false” allegation, with no admission of guilt.
            “We live in a litigious society where sometimes people will try to extort money from an organization or a person by making false allegations,” Chavis insisted. “None of though allegations were ever proven to be true.”
            Chavis also vehemently denied charges of anti-Semitism (hating Jewish people), saying that in his many ventures across the country and the world, he works with Jews “almost every day. He adds that his critics would be hardpressed to find any statements by him expressing hatred of Jewish people, because he’s never made any.
            Chavis said he hasn’t been a member of the NOI for years, and is a member of Oak Level United Church of Christ in Manson, NC, where the Rev. Leon White is the pastor.
            And then this week, Gary Pearce, currently involved in entertainer Clay Aiken's congressional campaign, and former press secretary to Gov. Jim Hunt when Hunt refused to pardon Chavis and the Wilmington Ten in 1978, posted the false assertion that Barack Obama had “disavowed” support from Chavis during his 2008 presidential campaign.
            Chavis not only refuted the false allegation (Obama did disavow his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Min Farrakhan), but added that he and Obama worked together in Chicago when the president was still a community organizer there.
            As of press time, Mr. Pearce had not retracted his false allegation, nor apologized for the error.
            Chavis says what has happened in the past week proves that there is a fear in North Carolina that is not just generated by Republicans, and that’s what has North Carolina “trending backwards.”
            “If the [NCDP] wants me to serve [as executive director], I am open to that overture,” Chavis said Wednesday, “but it’s up to them.”
            “I’m not going to stand still.”
            This week, a statewide petition letter, addressed to the NCDP State Executive Council, not only denounces the attacks on Dr. Chavis, leveled against him in a concerted effort by moderate NC Democratic party members, but challenges those members to own up to the party’s own well-documented and widely reported misdeeds of sexual harassment coverup and criminal corruption by elected officials, before they judge the civil rights leader.
             The petition letter also reasserts the chairman’s right to not only terminate an employee – in this case former ED Robert Dempsey - but then hire a replacement, subject, according to the NCDP’s Plan of Organization, to the approval of the State Executive Council, “…to serve at the pleasure of the state chair.”
            Eighth District Chairperson Dr. Gracie Galloway says she wants Democrats to sign the letter, and send it to Chairman Voller at NC Democratic Party Headquarters.
            Galloway calls what happened to Dr. Chavis, “ a travesty.”
            Meanwhile, in a letter issued from the state office of the African-American Caucus of the NCDP, state President Willie Fleming wrote that the AAC, “…strongly supports our State Chairman Randy Voller, his vision, decision-making and commitment to improving the lives of all North Carolinians.”
            Fleming’s letter went on to say, “ We applaud Dr. Benjamin Chavis, Jr. for submitting his name to become our party’s next Executive Director. We support African-American and minority involvement in this crucially important and historic process for the North Carolina Democratic Party.”


Friday, February 14, 2014

By Cash Michaels
An analysis
                           DR. BENJAMIN F. CHAVIS, JR

            The fallout from the badly mishandled nomination of the Rev. Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. to the post of executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party this week, is still unknown.

             But the behind-the-scenes movement among Democratic rank-and-file members to ensure that Dr. Chavis, a veteran civil rights leader and member of the Wilmington Ten, was stopped, is something that may give African-American voters pause come the critical 2014 mid-term elections.

As in 2010, when the Republicans dominated the congressional and state legislative races to claim a solid hold on both the US House and the NC General Assembly, NC Democrats have their work cut out for them in November convincing black voters that they deserve to return to power. With a lack of fundraising and little energy on their side, state Democrats are almost wholly dependent on outside nonpartisan movements like the NCNAACP’s “Moral Monday” and “Historic Thousands on Jones Street” demonstrations.

The Chavis episode, as it played out this week, will not help those efforts.

It all started when NCDP Executive Director Robert Dempsey, who had joined the state party last spring, was summarily fired last weekend by NCDP Chairman Randolph Voller. Sources say Voller had become disappointed in Dempsey, and felt it was time for a change.

An offer to Dr. Chavis to take the position, given that the civil rights leader had been planning to return to his home state after years away, was tendered by Voller, and after much thought, accepted by Chavis. Voller, the former mayor of Pittsboro, became acquainted with Chavis during the 2012 Black Press-led campaign to gain pardons of innocence for the Wilmington Ten.

Over the weekend Chavis tweeted that he was coming back to North Carolina to help the Democrats in 2014, without saying how, or in what capacity. It was not the first time Dr. Chavis has mentioned intentions of being involved in North Carolina politics, having contemplated, just a few years ago, a run for a state House seat from his native Granville County.

Voller retweeted Chavis’ message, and once word of Dempsey’s dismissal went public, the frenzy among local media and NC rank-and-file Democrats began. It didn’t take long for adversaries of Chairman Voller in the party, of which there are many since the liberal leader edged out moderate competition in 2013, to begin drumbeats of discontent about Dr. Chavis.

Local media began reporting negative stories about Chavis’ past membership in the Nation of Islam from 1995 – fueling immediate allegations of anti-Semitism; and rehashing old stories of sexual harassment allegations against Chavis in 1994 when he helmed the NAACP as executive director.

In virtually every false local media report on Monday and Tuesday, there was no mention that in court papers, Chavis has never admitted any guilt in the NAACP sexual harassment case, even though he tried to settle it quietly for fear that it would hurt the civil rights organization.

Nor was there any reporting that Chavis left the Nation of Islam in the late 2000’s, and has been an ordained Christian minister, and member of Oak Level United Church of Christ in Manson, NC for many years.

And there was certainly no reporting about what Dr. Chavis’ productive activities since 1994-95 have been, among which are:
-                    Serving as president of the Education Online Services Corporation, an online provider of higher education materials for HBCUs;
-                    President/CEO and cofounder of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Summit;
-                    Cofounder of the Diamond Empowerment Fund which supports scholarships in Africa;
-                    Syndicated columnist for the National Newspaper Publishers Association, read by 20 million readers.

Nothing was reported about his ministerial doctorates or other degrees from schools like Duke, UNC- Charlotte and Howard University, and the question was never even raised publicly if Dr. Chavis had the requisite experience to even function well in the position of NCDP executive director.

Instead, as Republican officials watched in glee, and the media focused primarily on any negative allegations they could dig up, Democrats took to social media to quickly stir up opposition among the moderate base.

Gary Pearce, who served as press secretary to Gov. Jim Hunt in 1978 when Hunt denied pardons to Chavis and the rest of the Wilmington Ten, took to his “Talking About Politics” online blog and, strongly referring to Dr. Chavis without ever using his name, chided Chairman Voller for wanting to appoint “…the most divisive, controversial figure he can find.”

Pearce, who is a loyalist of the so-called moderate “Hunt faction” of the Democratic Party which has reportedly vehemently opposed Voller’s administration, later did make direct reference to Chavis by name, writing, “And maybe Republicans will get so fixated on making Chavis and William Barber the faces of the Democratic Party that they’ll forget about education.”

By email, Democratic moderates were sending out patently negative narratives about Chavis.

“What are your gut feelings re: Dempsey's dismissal w/o just cause and about Voller's plan to announce tomorrow that he's hiring Ben (formerly Chavis) Muhammad as Ex. Dir. despite Ben's NAACP termination/lawsuit?” later asking, “WTH is going on in Raleigh.”

When the person who confirmed sending the email was asked why was Chavis’ former Muslim surname used since he hasn’t gone by it in many years, the person replied that they meant no disrespect. When pressed further, the person claimed to feel “threatened” being questioned about the needless reason to refer to Dr. Chavis in her emails by a name he no longer uses.

Emails were also sent out by members of the Democratic Women of NC.

They were not supportive.

“If you have not seen any of the articles, I suggest you Google Ben Chavis,” one DWNC member, who admittedly got her information from biased local media reports, wrote Tuesday evening prior to the NCDP Executive Council voting on Chavis’ nomination.

“I will be honest with you,” she continued,  “ I am not inclined to support Ben Chavis for ED for two reasons:  (a) lack of ED experience and (b) his history of sexual (sic) harrassment.  That said, if a majority of you feel otherwise, that is the way I will vote.”  

On the liberal “Blue NC” blogsite, reader comments after a story where Chairman Voller denied media reports that he and Chavis were old friends, and dismissed charges that past allegations and associations were primarily material to Chavis’ qualifications for the post, were negative.

What really got under my skin were Chavis' attitudes toward my fellow Jews,” posted Mike Radionchecnko under the title, “An Anti-Semite Running the NCDP.”  “When he was fired by the NAACP, he claimed that a Jewish conspiracy brought him down [1]. Chavis' speech at the University of Oklahoma was laced with anti-Semitic dog-whistles and innuendo [2]. He served as the right-hand-man to the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan, who has a prolific record of anti-Semitic and homophobic rhetoric, but Chavis' words speak for themselves.”

Two posts down, under the title “This Would Be Wrong for the Party,” someone identified as “chambers1” wrote, “If Chavis is no longer a member of NOI, this would be the first time that has ever been stated in the media. Frankly, I want to hear him say it. The NOI has done a lot of good work for the black community but nothing can excuse the fact that the NOI is a virulently anti-Semitic organization whose rhetoric about Jews is almost indecipherable from hate groups like the KKK and the Aryan Nation, etc. Having an Executive Director of the NCDP that was still a member of the NOI would be hugely problematic.”

On Facebook, other self-described Jewish Democrats actively compounded the anti-Semitic charges against Chavis, ignoring documented stories by the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun from the mid-1990s of then NAACP Executive Director Ben Chavis joining with other black leaders denouncing fiery anti-Semitic remarks by Nation of Islam spokesman Khalid Muhammad.

And when Chavis was forced to leave the NAACP in 1994, it is documented that it was under pressure from several Jewish donors to the civil rights organization who were concerned about charges of alleged financial mismanagement amid the sexual harassment scandal.

And even in a 1997 edition of The Jewish Week, the then Min. Benjamin Chavis Muhammad, under the leadership of NOI leader Min. Louis Farrakhan, told the paper that one of his missions was to improve relations with the Jewish community, given previous tensions between them and Farrakhan because of fiery remarks made by the Muslim leader.

For his part, Dr. Chavis, who arrived in Raleigh Tuesday in preparation for an announced press conference Wednesday, was certainly aware of internal opposition to his nomination, which had to be accepted by the NCDP Executive Council.

Facing difficult, challenging odds was part of Chavis' trademark, and he had prayed about Voller’s offer, and accepted it, deciding to leave its fate in God’s hands.

But the level to which the opposition had risen, accompanied by a seemingly united front between the media and a committed Democratic opposition to Chairman Voller, soon became concerning to even Chavis, sources say.

Among the major local media in Raleigh, only one, WNCN-TV, conducted an interview with Dr. Chavis, giving him something no one else would even offer – a chance to answer his critics.

In that interview he denied guilt per the sexual harassment allegations, and made clear that he had left the Nation of Islam years earlier. He said he was eager to come back home to North Carolina to use his skills as a charismatic civil rights leader to help Democrats win in the fall of 2014.

But before that singular interview ever aired, it was too late.

Tuesday evening, during a reportedly raucous, contentious NCDP Executive Council teleconference to decide on Dr. Chavis’ hiring, the nomination was pulled by Chairman Voller, at the request of Chavis, because of the growing firestorm among moderates.

 An interim E.D. was designated for the next 30 days.

Whether the Chavis nomination will ever be reintroduced is doubtful, given the high level of vitriol that remains in the party for its chairman.

The next day, triumphant members of a state party which had its own alleged sexual harassment scandal two years ago; handed the Republican Party control of state government for at least the next six years, and until recently, annually gathered for a dinner named after two white supremacist Democratic governors, slapped themselves on the back.

They admitted, as much, that Ben Chavis deserved at least due process to defend himself against allegations. But they vehemently opposed him, they say, to protect themselves from further Republican attacks.

They called what they did to Dr. Chavis, “political street smarts.”