Last Friday, the Alaska Democratic Party (AKDP) announced the hiring of their next executive director, Jay Parmley. His resume is extensive, to say the least.
Parmley served as the executive director of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, the North Carolina Democratic Party, and the South Carolina Democratic Party — the most executive director positions in the party’s history. He worked with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in Mississippi to craft and then implement the 50 state strategy, which many pundits credit for the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. And he’s traveled around the country (including in Alaska) as a trainer with Democracy for America, a political action committee (PAC) founded by former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, which works to get Democrats elected. (Full disclosure: I attended one such training session several years ago.)
During the past year, he took a job in Anchorage working on the coordinated campaign — the joint effort to combine resources and get Alaska Democrats elected to the state legislature.
“We are excited Jay Parmley will join our team. Jay’s long time commitment to building stronger state parties and working with party activists, donors, candidates, and community leaders is exactly what we need as the Alaska Democratic Party prepares for the 2018 election,” AKDP Chair Casey Steinau wrote in a press release. “As we have worked with Jay over the last year, we have seen first-hand his commitment to building a more vibrant grassroots activist base and working with our candidates to run quality campaigns across our state.”
Parmley is a heavyweight player in Democratic politics and looks to be an impressive pick up by the AKDP. At least on paper. There’s just one hitch.
Sexual Harassment Accusation
In December of 2011, a former North Carolina Democratic Party (NCDP) employee filed a complaint against Parmley. Four months later, that complaint was leaked to the press. The Daily Caller, an online, conservative publication started by ex-Fox News host Tucker Carlson, wrote that “A former North Carolina Democratic Party staffer was sexually harassed by a party official, made a financial settlement with the party and signed a non-disclosure agreement to keep the incident quiet[.]”
Parmley turned in a letter of resignation the following day, while maintaining his innocence.
“Let me be clear: I have never harassed any employee at any time at the NCDP or in any other job,” he explained at the time. “Even though I have not done anything wrong, it is clear to me that I need to move on.”
With last week’s promotion within the AKDP, there’s a good chance people are going to start pointing to the allegation and raising their hands. Including me. I reached out to Parmley over the weekend and we sat down over a cup of coffee Sunday afternoon. I asked him about the claim.
He again flatly denied the allegation and painted me a picture of the landscape when he took the North Carolina job. His hiring came on the heels of the 2010 election — where Republicans picked up six seats in the U.S. Senate, 63 in Congress (flipping it to GOP control), and numerous state legislatures. North Carolina had experienced similar losses.
“I think it’s unfair of me to say their party was in shambles, but it needed some work to get ready for 2012,” the Wyandotte, Oklahoma native told me through a strong southern drawl. “I had a lot of work to do when I got there, which really had to do with revamping their party.”
That revamp included some people losing their jobs. A tracker and research analyst, later identified as Adriadn Ortega, was one employee let go.
Any time the NCDP fires an employee, a process kicks into place, Parmley said.
“I sent him his termination letter and included this standard nondisclosure agreement which was our offer of a severance package,” he continued. “[Ortega] had 14 days in which to respond. On the 14th day, which was some time in December of 2011, the response was what is now so well known: ‘I think that I was terminated because you harassed me.’”
This kicked a second automatic process into motion: an internal investigation conducted by the party. Parmley told me he turned over all pertinent information to the NCDP chair — a position held at the time by David Parker. Following legal counsel, Parker kept details of the investigation confidential. He would face his own battle with the party over that decision and eventually tender his own resignation, but his Democratic colleagues rejected it. He would ultimately retain the chairmanship until the following year.
The NCDP and Ortega reached a deal over his severance package two months later, and the investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Parmley.
“I was never asked to leave,” he explained. “I was told that everything checked out; that, for lack of a better term this was… someone I had terminated and was unhappy about the situation. It was never in an effort to retain his job. It was always an effort to get more out of us.”
That was the last he heard about it for another two months. That April, shortly after returning from a DFA training session in Anchorage, Parmley received calls from the NCDP communications director and a local reporter, informing him that news agencies were receiving brown envelopes leaking the complaint.
“This became a firestorm,” Parmley said. And since both the investigation and the deal worked out between the NCDP and Ortega were confidential, it was seen (most notably by The Daily Caller) as a concession of guilt during a heated election year. That was compounded by the quickly approaching Democratic National Convention, which Charlotte was hosting.
“So, the reporting became, ‘It was a cover up,’” Parmley concluded. He said that reporters staked out his home and his office. “What you had was the allegations, which are bogus, you had them in writing. You had the acknowledgment of an agreement reached. But, to connect the two, you would have had to infringe on his personnel rights.”
Part of the standard procedure for negotiating severance packages bars disclosure — both by the employee terminated and by the person who terminated them. Had Ortega leaked the allegations immediately, he would have breached his nondisclosure contract and forfeited his back-pay. Similarly, neither Parmley or the NCDP had ability to defend themselves publicly against the allegations, he said. Parmley believes a third party was involved, but concedes he will never fully be able to prove that or his innocence.
“We played by the rules. We took this seriously that this was dealt with, end of discussion,” he said. But, “the damage was done.”
Parmley said that he saw no other recourse than to step down as executive director and announced his intentions to do so the day after the leak was made public.
You had this big public uproar and I thought it was honestly in the best interest of the party. I never had a conversation with anyone at the White House. I never had a conversation with anyone at the DNC. I didn’t have to. You know, at this point I’d been in state party work for well over ten years. I knew how this stuff plays out.
Once Parmley quit, the press largely dropped the the issue. This made matters worse, he said, because he was unable to make the case for his innocence. Meanwhile, the traffic generated by the controversy have ensured that whenever one searches online for “Jay Parmley,” they are treated to the story, which has never been updated to reflect why the negotiations with Ortega were sealed or to clarify that no charges were ever filed against him.
A Second Accusation
A second accusation followed two weeks later, also by The Daily Caller, featuring what the author described as a “longtime girlfriend” of Parmley claiming he had “infected her with HIV.”
Parmley’s ex-girlfriend Rebecca Burgin told TheDC that Parmley forever changed her life by making her HIV-positive. She’s worried, she said, that Parmley may have done to someone else what he did to her.
Burgin went on to say that it was Ortega’s allegations of sexual harassment that prompted her to contact Matthew Boyle, who authored the initial article.
Parmley brought it up at the end of our conversation. He was frank. He said he is HIV positive, but is in good health, and he categorically denies the claim.
“It’s bullshit. And it’s stupid. And it’s unfortunate,” he said, calling the charge “jarring” and adding his own suspicion that money might have been involved. “At the time, no reputable news organization would touch it with a ten foot pole because it was a personal health matter…. It makes me look like a bigger sleaze bucket. You can’t believe everything you read. You just cannot.”
A Political Gamble
Parmley learned after he was hired that these allegations were scrutinized by the AKDP, but that they decided he was worth the risk. I asked outgoing Executive Director Kay Brown about that process.
“The Alaska Democratic Party established a hiring committee as required by our party plan of organization,” Brown responded via email. “That group hired Jay because he has a record of success working in Alaska and around the country. They determined he was the best candidate, and were satisfied after a full vetting of his past work history. It was a unanimous decision by the statewide committee.”
Specific to the hiring committee’s vetting, she added, “The accusations against him were unfounded…. Anybody can accuse anyone of anything and then the accusations live on the internet forever.”
Parmley has been traveling around the state since taking the coordinated campaign job last January. He said he planned to focus efforts on developing Democratic support in all 40 House districts in Alaska, but recognized that would be a long process.
“When people say that we can’t win in the [Mat-Su] Valley, they’re right. I mean, look at the numbers. But, on the other end, we do have progressives and Democrats on the borough assembly and as mayors. There is a way to win there.” He pointed to valley candidates Gretchen Wehmhoff and Patricia Faye-Brazel in Wasilla and Gregory Jones in Big Lake — who lost state legislative contests by wide margins. Faye-Brazel fared the best out of the three with just over 25 percent of the vote. “When you get 25 percent of the vote, the question is how do we get 30? How do we get 32? How to we get 34? It’s not a question of how we get from 25 to 51 in one year. We’ve got to find a way to, across the board in the valley, bring those numbers up.”
Parmley said the party needed to stop repeating the strategy that denied dedicating resources towards races in the valley or the Interior and other red parts of the state. Efforts to increase numbers — even nominally at first — needed to be seen as a worthwhile investment. He looked at the Mat-Su, Fairbanks, and Anchorage as places where seats could be picked up in the state legislature, but cautioned: “This party is never going to make it if we’re an Anchorage-only party. It’s just not.”
He said he thought deeply about whether or not he was up for another run as executive director, but ultimately decided it was worth it — knowing full well his past controversies may pop up again.
“I think I have a wealth of experience, through all the good things that have happened to me and all the bad things that have happened to me, that I think will be helpful,” he summarized. And if people have concerns: “I’ve said, I’m here. Anybody who wants to talk, tell me.”