ATLANTA — Georgia Democratic Party Chairman Mike Berlon said Wednesday he will step down from his position, citing concerns expressed by Democratic leaders that his personal issues have become a distraction as a major election year looms.
Berlon, an attorney who became chairman in 2011, has been dealing with several issues in recent weeks, including a reprimand by the State Bar of Georgia and a lawsuit filed by a client. In addition, the party recently reported weak finances ahead of the 2014 statewide and congressional elections.
The announcement came just hours after Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, speaking to reporters after an event, called for Berlon to step aside. It was expected that party officials would call an election for state chairman within 60 days.
“My goal is, and always has been, to unify Georgia Democrats,” Berlon said in a statement issued by the Democratic Party of Georgia. “We have an important U.S. Senate race in 2014 and our focus should be on winning that seat and others.”
Berlon could not immediately be reached to discuss the decision.
Earlier, he said in a text message that he was at a doctor’s appointment and unable to speak. The party said Berlon has been undergoing medical evaluation for chest pain and exhaustion and would be unavailable for interviews this week.
In the statement, Berlon said he will be working with party staff to ensure a smooth transition.
The decision was met with support from Senate Democratic Leader Steve Henson, who praised Berlon for his service.
“We appreciate his dedication and the countless hours of work on behalf of our party,” Henson said. “Serving as chairman of our party is both a great honor and a great deal of work.”
The party’s executive committee had been scheduled to meet June 6 and Berlon’s issues were expected to be on the agenda. House Minority Leader Stacey Abram, who sits on the state party’s executive committee, thanked Berlon for his work on behalf of the party.
“I wish him well,” Abrams said. “I think it’s always a good idea to move to clarity, and I appreciate the fact that he decided that it was in the best interests of the party to step aside.”
Last week, the state Supreme Court issued an order agreeing to a reprimand after Berlon acknowledged violating State Bar of Georgia rules. The maximum sanction could have been disbarment.
Court records show Berlon filed a petition for voluntary discipline after a client filed a complaint against him claiming Berlon failed to file paperwork
as requested and paid an investigator without permission.
At the time, Berlon told The Associated Press he took responsibility for the miscommunication on legal strategy with the client.
It was also reported last week that Berlon was
being sued by another client. And recent reports showed the Democratic Party of Georgia had $30,734 in cash on hand at the end of April, compared to $631,960 in cash for the Georgia Republican Party.
In comments before Berlon’s announcement, Reed said the chairman’s focus must be on organizing and growing the party to compete with Republicans.
“This is not about the person. Any human being that was in that role that was experiencing the challenges that that person is experiencing I believe owes it to the party to move on,” Reed said.
The mayor said Berlon’s issues were a distraction as Democrats look to field a strong candidate for the open U.S. Senate seat in Georgia, which has already drawn the attention of four Republicans including three U.S. congressmen and a former secretary of state.
“We’re actively recruiting a candidate for a real opportunity and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee is in a posture which for the first time they are going to make the appropriate investment in the state of Georgia,” Reed said. “No person has a right to be a distraction from trying to win a United States Senate seat and for preparing the state for a 2016 election.”
After Berlon’s announcement, Reed’s spokeswoman Sonji Jacobs said the mayor “wishes Mike Berlon well in his future endeavors and looks forward to working with the Georgia Democratic Party to elect Democrats in 2014 and 2016.”