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Monday, May 20, 2024

Petitioners want state party to remove top New Hanover County Democratic leaders

Registered Democrats are petitioning for the removal of chair Andre Brown, first vice chair Victoria Garcia Velazco and second vice chair Susanne Werner as officers of the New Hanover County Democratic Party. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands Williams)

Update: Third vice chair Dorian Cromartie confirmed Friday, July 16, he has requested to add his name back to the petition.

NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– The secretary of the New Hanover County Democratic Party and two elected Democrat officials are petitioning for the removal of the party’s chair, first vice chair and second vice chair after a contentious meeting last month.

Filed in early July, the petition alleges chair Andre Brown, first vice chair Victoria Garcia Velazco and second vice chair Susanne Werner violated the party’s code of conduct, initiated a closed session for impermissible reasons, failed to publicize meetings and prevented fellow officers from carrying out their duties.

The petition is backed by Democratic Party secretary April Farr and New Hanover County Board of Education members Stephanie Walker and Judy Justice, as well as four well-known education activists: Barbara Anderson, Eden Avery, Leslie Posey and Angie Kahney. Kahney, who said she normally votes blue, only recently changed from unaffiliated to Democrat so she could sign the petition.

Third vice chair Dorian Cromartie also signed, then withdrew his name. The Democratic Party confirmed Wednesday via email to those involved Cromartie was no longer considered a petitioner.

“I have to do what’s best for the party and Democratic candidates and fighting each other doesn’t do that,” Cromartie wrote in a text.

Port City Daily obtained copies of the three grievances, in addition to witness statements, screenshots of emails and texts between officers, and a 46-minute recording of a June 14 closed session in which a shouting match erupts with occasional profanities.

Emailed for comment, Werner wrote back, “Our responses are being sent to NCDP, not to Port City Daily.” Garcia Velazco did not respond.

Brown said he was responding on behalf of the local chapter and provided the following statement:

“There is nothing novel about political parties having internal strife, as is evident in the New Hanover County GOP meetings and the national-level rhetoric. The issues that our community face bring out a great deal of passion in people, rightfully so. As party chair, I am focused on the work that needs to be done – registering voters, turning those voters out, and electing Democrats. Frankly, there are many more pressing issues for residents of New Hanover County that deserve our attention.”

The blow up

Most of the violations alleged against Brown and his colleagues occurred during or as a result of the June officers’ meeting that was advertised on social media.

After seeing a post of the agenda, which included a planned discussion about recent school board meetings, a small group of education reformers showed up to express concerns about a lack of representation from the Democratic party at those meetings, while members of the GOP come out in large numbers.

After taking in the criticism, Brown and other officers abruptly asked everyone to leave the room so the officers could conduct business in private. The petition asserts Brown violated party rules when ushering the board into closed session, as the discussion had nothing to do with legal issues. The closed session was not accompanied by an attorney, unlike government boards.

In the audio recording of the closed-door meeting, Brown voiced frustration with secretary Farr for advertising the agenda and presumed she invited her “friends” to the meeting –– a relationship Farr denied.

This divide between the local Democratic Party leaders comes at a time when its elected delegates are just as distressed. Democratic school board members are publicly at odds at the dais. No longer faking unity, chair Stephanie Adams successfully led a no-confidence motion on June 22 against Justice, an outspoken member of the board. Just days prior to the vote against her, Justice attended the Democratic meeting to plead for more support from her party.

The petition also comes as New Hanover County Board of Commissioner Chair Julia Olson-Boseman, an elected Democrat, is under fire for allegedly accepting $20,000 to file a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of a grieving father. The suit, according to a WECT investigation, was never filed. Predating the potential criminal allegation is Olson-Boseman’s lengthy track record of siding with Republicans on key issues, without any public condemnation or comment from Democratic party leaders.

Despite these public-facing problems, internally, party officers have yet to settle their differences. In an interview last month, Cromartie said the new board, elected in April, was experiencing “growing pains.”

The pains mirror a national divide occurring in both parties: On the right, a Trump-adjacent splintering warded off Republicans unwilling to cosign to the more aggressive persona; on the left, a more progressive wing is taking off, frustrated with moderates who aren’t willing to budge toward a more disruptive position.

The petitioners’ attempt to oust the party’s top brass is representative of the fracturing on the left. Those under fire have found themselves in this position not solely due to perceived missteps. The new leaders also inherited a local chapter that traditionally has rarely spoken out against some of its most highly criticized officials.

The tape

In the recording of the closed session, Werner warned coming out publicly against elected officials would create “horrible division” within the party.

“I don’t just work for Judy Justice,” Brown told leaders in the room. “I also represent Stefanie Adams. I represent Nelson Beaulieu. Even Julia.”

Cromartie and Brown went back and forth on the role of the party in “serving the people.” Cromartie pushed for taking stances on issues such as affordable housing, transgender students and sexual assault in schools.

“You can’t say that you stand against pedophiles?” Cromartie is heard saying.

There were other issues the officers disagreed on internally. Brown condemned Farr for identifying herself as an officer of the party while voicing opinions in public comment at the June board of education meeting. He said she did not explicitly clarify she was speaking on her own accord. Cromartie defended Farr, telling Brown as the dispute turned heated, “You are not ‘bout to sit in here and ‘bout to chickenshit me.”

Brown accused Farr, who is white, of attempting to undermine a Black man (him) and a Latina woman (Velazco). Cromartie, also Black, fought back: “Stop playing the race card. Stop it. It’s disgusting.”

At one point in the meeting, Brown told Cromartie, “[Elected officials] constantly –– the ones that I talk to –– get criticized from people like this in this room and people like yourself. They say you both do hit jobs –– April as well –– for Republicans.”

Farr laughed at the suggestion, repeating through chuckles, “I do hit jobs for Republicans.”

Most of the 46-minute recording is the officers talking over each other and fighting for chances to get a word in. Toward the end of the closed session, officers attempted some semblance of productivity by briefly reviewing a drafted statement regarding sexual assault in the school system and discussing a few other topics, but it imploded once Brown extended an olive branch, asking if everyone was going to work together.

Werner tried to lead an exercise, having everyone go around the room and pledge to work with “good will and good faith,” but brief disputes broke out over who they were working for: the Democratic Party or the greater community?

“Can we move on this?” Cromartie asked.

“I don’t know,” Brown said. “I’m going to be honest with you.”

“I can move on from it,” Cromartie said. “Jesus Christ.”

“Let’s –– let’s leave it there,” Werner said.

“Let’s move on. Let’s move on,” Garcia Velazco said.

Then the tape ends.

They did not move on

The only business conducted in the nearly hour-long closed session was when Brown motioned to restrict Farr from posting on the local chapter’s social media. The move was a direct retaliation for her posting the meeting details online, leading to the unexpected audience of education activists and a reporter.

Cromartie amended the motion to limit the suspension to 90 days.

It passed with all officers in support but Farr.

The complaint references Farr’s gag order, arguing it prevented her from performing her duties as secretary. The petition claims Farr received training about posting agendas and meeting notices.

On a phone call a few days after the meeting, she told Port City Daily, “I am pro-transparency and inclusion. That seems to have made them upset.”

The petition asserts Brown denied Farr access to the party email account and keys to the office.

Two days after the closed session, Brown apologized to Farr for his self-described “tantrum” via an email with the six officers.

“I want to sincerely apologize to you for losing my composure in front of you and our fellow NHC Democratic Officers,” Brown wrote. “I also want to apologize for telling you to get out of the Democratic Party, foolishly using profanity [the f-word]to get my point across instead of me deciding to be intelligent and use more respectful language.”

In the days after the meeting, Farr and attendees of the meeting were removed from the “New Hanover County Democrats!” Facebook group, a private discussion page users must receive approval to join. Justice was also censored on the page.

Brown directed Cromartie in an email to consult Velazco before “unblocking” people from the group. He wrote he appointed Velazco as “having the final say” regarding the chapter’s social media.

On June 27, Cromartie wrote back, “I still need to know why I was stripped of my duties and responsibilities without reason or cause.”

According to the petition, two mediations were held since the June 14 meeting in an attempt to reach a resolution between the officers.

The petition states Brown, Velazco and Werner left early from the first meeting. The three leaders did not show up to the second.

The North Carolina Democratic Party declined to provide information on the status of the petition as it “does not comment on pending reviews in front of the Council of Review.”

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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at or on Twitter @alexsands_

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