Bobby Moak said he will not seek reelection as chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Bobby Moak, who has led the party since 2016, announced on Friday afternoon he would not seek reelection to the top leadership position — an abrupt decision that shakes up an already dramatic struggle for control of the party.

The announcement, which Moak sent to the party’s 80-member executive committee on Friday afternoon, comes just hours before the committee is scheduled on Saturday morning to elect its leader for the next four years.

Moak, who had previously announced his candidacy and asked for support, was being challenged by at least two people: former longtime Appeals Judge Tyree Irving and longtime state Rep. Earle Banks. In his email on Friday, Moak endorsed Banks for the top job.

“I will not seek the office of Chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party Executive Committee nor will I seek any elected office of this committee,” Moak wrote in a Friday afternoon email. “It is time we join together as a party and work toward helping our candidates, rather than suffering through petty, in-house political maneuvering. Now is the time for the party to unify behind a candidate that can bring the party together.”

Earlier this month, a group of Irving supporters on the party’s executive committee, who believed Moak was stalling the new leadership vote, utilized an obscure party constitution clause and garnered enough signatures to call their own meeting for Saturday. Moak, in turn, scheduled a meeting for Thursday — two days before the Irving supporters’ special meeting.

But on Thursday morning, Banks publicly announced he was entering the race, prompting Moak to cancel the Thursday meeting. Saturday’s previously scheduled meeting is still on, and committee members are expected to vote to elect their new leader.

Irving on Monday — before Banks entered the race and before Moak dropped out — told Mississippi Today that 45 members of the party’s newly elected 80-member executive committee have pledged support to him, and another eight have told others they’ll vote for him.

It’s unclear how the executive committee may vote now that Banks has entered the race and now Moak has withdrawn.

“It is no secret that during this election for the chair’s position of the Mississippi Democratic Party the process has become contentious and placed friends at political opposites,” Moak wrote on Friday. “The process devolved to something more than it should have. It certainly is not a way to bring the committee or Democrats statewide together. Campaigns like this should be reserved for taking on Republicans in elections around the state.”

Many Democratic leaders and candidates have decried a lack of leadership in the party and support for candidates, particularly amid the party’s dismal showing in the 2019 statewide elections. Republicans swept all statewide offices last year, solidifying supermajority control of the state Legislature and increasing down-ticket wins on the local level.

Some party elders have also criticized Moak and other party leaders for failing to devote resources to electing Black candidates, even as white voters have left the party in droves and Black voters have become a substantial majority of the party’s base. The last six Democratic Party chairmen, including Moak, have been white. Irving and Banks are Black.

The meeting to elect new party leaders is scheduled for Saturday at 10 a.m.

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Adam Ganucheau

Adam Ganucheau

Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.