Marcel Groen resigns as chairman of Pa. Democrats at request of Gov. Wolf

Marcel Groen, who resigned as chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party Friday, in a 2007 election-night file photo, when he was chairman of the Montgomery County party.

HARRISBURG — Months before candidates face off in hotly contested races across the state, Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party is looking for a new leader.

Marcel Groen, the party chairman for the last three years, said in a letter released Friday morning that he was resigning at the request of Gov. Wolf. Groen, of Montgomery County, had come under fire for a series of mixed messages, controversial comments — and in some cases, silence  — in response to sexual harassment allegations involving Democrats in the state.

His resignation comes amid a fight over the direction of the state party, which emerged badly bruised from the 2016 election in which President Trump eked out a victory in Pennsylvania by gaining votes in traditionally Democratic territories. This year, the party hopes to piggyback on a wave of anti-Trump sentiment to gain more seats in the legislature and U.S. House, and hold on to the governor’s office.

Sources within the Democratic Party said Wolf, who has quickly and publicly denounced all public officials accused of sexual harassment, was unhappy with Groen’s stance on what he considers an important issue.

“I have always believed that the commonwealth’s chief executive should have final say on whom the chairman of the party should be,” Groen, 72, wrote. “The governor’s staff informed me that he no longer wants me to serve as chairman of the party.”

Groen’s comments on sexual harassment were highlighted this week in an opinion column by Will Bunch of the Inquirer and Daily News ,who blasted as tepid his response to allegations against state Democrats and his unwillingness to demand the resignation of Republican U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan, who settled a sexual-harassment claim with taxpayer money.

In the column, Groen was quoted as saying that while harassment in the workplace is unacceptable, “it is important that we keep our balance” and allow the accused to defend themselves.

Though Groen accepted responsibility for his “inartful” statements in the column, he also said some of his words were reported inaccurately or taken out of context.

“We stand by our reporting,” said Gabriel Escobar, editor and vice president of Philadelphia Media Network, publisher of the Inquirer and Daily News.

Reached by phone Friday, Groen said, “I think my letter speaks for itself.”

Groen and Wolf have taken different approaches in reacting to news that Democrats have been accused of sexual harassment.

Preaching zero tolerance, Wolf called on Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) to resign when ex-staffers said he touched them inappropriately and made sexual jokes. The governor also called on longtime State Rep. Thomas Caltagirone (D., Berks) to resign after news that House Democrats had paid at least $248,000 to secretly settle a complaint that he sexually harassed a former staffer.

In both cases, Groen remained mostly silent.

When one of Groen’s senior advisers came under scrutiny last summer for Facebook posts that some felt were insensitive to sexual harassment victims, Groen initially tried to stay neutral. Her comments did not reflect the party position, he said, but he added that “we need to permit people to speak as long as they don’t cross the line.”

It’s not the first time Wolf has had a disagreement with a party chair. In 2014, after Wolf won the primary for governor, then-chairman Jim Burn refused to step aside and let the nominee name his own choice for the post, as is traditional. Wolf and Democrats loyal to him formed a parallel fundraising and political organization.

Burn, an Allegheny County attorney, said Friday: “It’s always unfortunate when something like this happens, especially ahead of a critically important election cycle. Pennsylvania will make or break the Democrats this year. What’s allowed us to win is the grassroots, but they need to know there’s a steady hand at the wheel.”

Typically, when the party chair resigns, the vice chair — in this case, Penny Gerber — steps up as acting chair. Gerber had already announced plans to leave for unrelated reasons. At the party’s winter meeting next weekend in Harrisburg, state committee members will elect a new vice chair, who will become acting head of the party until the June meeting, when a permanent chair will be selected.

Among the names being floated to replace Groen is Jack Hanna, the party’s current treasurer and an attorney from Indiana County. Hanna declined to comment.

Burn said he felt Democrats were previously successful “because the party functioned independently. In a state the size of Pennsylvania, it’s critical to have continuity, and that depends on having the committee make its own decisions about leadership.”

However, Wolf, as governor, is the titular head of the Democratic Party. Like other governors before him, he has enormous sway over  the political messages that the state party sends.

State Democratic sources said in interviews Friday that they believed Groen was turning a deaf ear to the more progressive wing of the party, which rebounded in last year’s election, making inroads in local races in the Philadelphia suburbs.

The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity because they did not want to publicly pile on the former chairman, said they were disappointed and embarrassed by Groen’s statements and the party’s failure to implement policies to protect women.

Chris Potter of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette contributed to this article.