RALEIGH — The North Carolina Democratic Party has ordered Robeson County Democrats to re-do precinct meetings and hold a new county convention after finding that local Democrats did not follow party procedure when they elected their chairman and executive committee members.
The state party’s 13-member Review Committee rendered its ruling Saturday after holding a hearing in response to a petition filed by several county Democrats charging that the process used to elect local party officers at the April 8 county convention violated the state party’s Plan of Organization.The Review Committee consists of one representative from each of the state’s 13 congressional districts.
After several hours of testimony, the 11 members of the Review Committee present at the hearing in Raleigh voted 10 to one that state party rules were violated when local Democrats other than those elected convention delegates at precinct meetings were permitted to vote for their party leadership.
“Basically the Robeson County Democratic Party is now defunct,” Sheila Beck, a Democrat from Saddletree and chairman of the Lumbee Tribe’s Elections Board, said. “Everything that the party has done since the convention, including the election of Pearlean Revels as chairman, means nothing.”
No date for the precinct meetings or countywide convention has been set, but John McNeill, a former Robeson County Democratic chairman and mayor of Red Springs, said he believes the convention will be held late this month or in August.
The decision to allow all of the approximately 50 Democrats at the convention to vote for their party leaders, rather than just delegates from the 10 of about 40 precincts that were organized when the convention was held in April, ended with Ed Henderson, a Red Springs town commissioner who is black, not being re-elected to another two-year term as chairman. According to McNeill, Robeson County’s Democratic Party for the past 46 years has operated under a “gentleman’s agreement” that the party chairmanship would rotate by race to guarantee equal representation among the county’s white, black and American Indian communities.
The agreement, McNeill said, is that a member from each race can serve a two-year term as chairman and another two-year term as chairman if they choose to seek re-election. At the April convention, however, Henderson, who just finished his first two-year term and wanted another term, was defeated by Pearlean Revels, an American Indian.
“This was Ed’s year to serve,” McNeill said. “By not following this longstanding agreement, the Robeson County Democratic Party kicked the African American population that’s so much needed here to win election in the rear end.”
McNeill acknowledged, however, that the gentleman’s agreement that has governed selection of Robeson County’s Democratic leader over the years is not part of the state party’s regulations and requirements.
McNeill said that Henderson did a good job as chairman considering the “time and situation” during which he served. Democrats took a beating locally during the General Election, with two Republicans elected to the General Assembly and Robeson County favoring the GOP from top of the ticket and Donald Trump on downward.
McNeill has blamed a depressed Democratic turnout locally, especially among blacks, for the results.
“It wasn’t easy to organize and win an election with the challenges of Hurricane Matthew,” he said.
The petition challenging the convention results was filed by several black elected officials from Red Springs, Maxton and Fairmont.
“The last convention, that allowed more than just delegates to vote, was not proper,” said Charles Townsend, the mayor of Fairmont. “Let’s do things the right way, no matter where they lead.”
Those defending the local party’s decision to allow anyone to vote at the convention include Johnson Britt, Robeson County’s district attorney. Britt made the motion to suspend party rules and allow all Democrats present at the convention, not just delegates, to participate in the election of the party leadership.
“If we want more people to come out to the convention and participate in the party we have to allow them to take part,” said Britt. “Historically Democrats have been the party of inclusion.”
Britt, who is white, also said he opposes the continued use of the gentleman’s agreement governing the rotation of party chairman by race.
“What difference does the chairman’s race make? In this day and age race shouldn’t matter in who holds public office,” Britt said.
McNeill said that he believes when the next convention is held and the state party regulations about who can participate in elections and vote on policy is followed, the results will be “drastically different.”
“There was a huge mistake made at the convention,” McNeill said. “It was clear violation of the state Democratic Party’s Plan of Organization … . That plan is a 42-page document that tries to handle any situation that can come up. It tries to address issues to avoid conflict.”
The Robesonian was unable to reach Henderson or Revels for comment.
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.