The termination of 10 minority employees at the Democratic National Committee this week was a mistake that never received formal approval, a party official said yesterday.
But some Democratic leaders are still seeking an explanation from committee chairman Terry McAuliffe for an episode that sent staffers into meetings all day yesterday.
“If the Republicans were to do this, you know what would happen,” said Donna Brazile, who chairs the DNC’s Voting Rights Institute. “You know I would be kicking them where they need to be kicked.”
She added that Mr. McAuliffe assured her that “the list [of those terminated] never crossed his desk and that he never would have signed off on that.”
“This is still the party that I belong to,” Miss Brazile said. “I was afraid it had taken a wrong turn.”
She said Mr. McAuliffe told her he had not received her repeated phone calls Wednesday night after she found out about the firings.
The DNC told some of its members and party lawmakers Wednesday that they were cutting 10 positions to save money and streamline operations in preparation for next year’s presidential election. The DNC refused to comment on the episode, which caught several black leaders off guard.
A prominent Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, hinted that Mr. McAuliffe’s explanation was less than genuine.
“It doesn’t take all day to simply explain that there was some kind of clerical error,” the official said.
“Whatever the rationale … it appears that somebody did not give this decision as much thought as would be expected,” said Rep. Danny K. Davis, Illinois Democrat and secretary of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“Now that it has been brought to their attention, there will be some rethinking and some effort to reconcile the decision with political interest and what is fair,” he said.
Several Democrats speculated that the DNC made the move to cut costs in preparation for its 2004 campaign.
When Miss Brazile served as presidential-campaign manager for Vice President Al Gore in 2000, she took a pay cut rather than eliminate jobs on the campaign.
“You start at the top,” she said. “This layoff took all of us by surprise.”
She added that the initial response from the DNC — that the committee had hired nine minority employees recently to its 100-person staff — was insufficient.
Both the DNC and the Republican National Committee declined to respond to a request for racial breakdowns of their work forces.
Democrats have enjoyed the wholesale support of black voters during the past three decades, with a platform heavy on social services. In 2000, they captured 92 percent of the black vote. But some Democrats have argued that the leadership’s reliance on the black vote is tantamount to taking it for granted.
Democratic presidential hopeful Carol Moseley Braun said through a spokeswoman that “it is her hope that the DNC will resolve its staffing issues.”
News of the layoffs came to Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson late Wednesday afternoon. She called Mr. McAuliffe immediately, she said, but received no return call, as she usually does when she phones the chairman.
“I wanted an explanation,” the Texas Democrat said yesterday. “It makes me suspicious, but I am trying to keep a lid on that until I find out if there is something I agree with in the general plan.”
Mr. Davis said a meeting with Mr. McAuliffe will be in order in the near future.
“There is no doubt about that,” he said.
Mr. McAuliffe has withstood criticism within his own party after last fall’s Republican domination of midterm elections.
Specifically, he was questioned for sending extra funding and staff to Florida to assist gubernatorial hopeful Bill McBride at the expense of Carl McCall, a black New York candidate for governor.
Earlier this month, Mr. McAuliffe criticized Republican efforts to attract blacks to the party, saying Republicans are “good on the photo ops, but there are a lot of false promises.”
“The Trent Lott debacle was an accurate portrayal of how Republicans feel,” he said.
“What this showed is that [Mr. McAuliffe] had no respect for anyone, even members of the [Congressional Black Caucus],” said conservative black commentator Armstrong Williams, who is behind the Republican effort to earn the black vote. “How can they do this without consulting anyone to let them know what was coming? It just shows sheer arrogance.”
Democrats have criticized what they have called “token” appointments in the Bush administration and say Republican policies portray a party that says one thing and does another.
But school vouchers, for instance, a policy seen as firmly Republican, has been embraced recently by some high-profile black officials on the Democratic side, including D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams.