Archie Parnell resisted calls that he end his U.S. House candidacy in South Carolina after a local newspaper revealed in May that he had beaten his first wife in 1973. His two paid staff members quit. But the Democrat, who had attracted national attention after performing surprisingly well in a 2017 special election, stayed in the race, insisting he was “not the same person” his first wife divorced for “acts of physical cruelty.”
But six former paid Parnell staffers who spoke to HuffPost anonymously to protect their employment prospects described a candidate still plagued by a hair-trigger temper that occasionally caused them to fear for their physical safety.
“I was not surprised at all when I saw the [divorce] documents,” said one of the former aides. “I was surprised about the details. But to see that Archie could lose his temper and act out in an irrational way did not surprise me at all.”
The ex-staff members compared Parnell to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One moment he was normal; the next he was unleashing on a staffer for a perceived slight.
Parnell, 67, a one-time tax attorney for Goldman Sachs and Exxon, moved back permanently to his hometown of Sumter in December 2016 to run in the special election for the seat vacated by Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney. (President Donald Trump tapped Mulvaney, who had been a member of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, to become his budget director.)
Parnell’s campaign cut a “House of Cards” parody ad that persuasively branded him as a self-deprecating, “dad joke”- dispensing bookworm. In the heavily GOP 5th Congressional District, he quietly came within 3 percentage points of a major upset in the June 2017 special election — a showing that prompted Politico magazine to credit him with running “the best Democratic campaign” of the year.
His decision to run again in 2018 was an easy one. Behind the scenes, however, Parnell had developed a reputation among staff members and confidantes for an unpredictable temper that went beyond the kinds of candidate flare-ups that often mark stressful campaigns. By the time his second House bid was underway in earnest this spring, he was on his fourth campaign manager (and his current manager is his fifth).
“I was surprised about the details. But to see that Archie could lose his temper and act out in an irrational way did not surprise me at all.”
“I’ve never seen a candidate who was basically violent and belligerent toward staff and would turn violent and belligerent within seconds and out of nowhere,” said a former campaign aide with years of political experience. The aide emphasized that the “violent” conduct was limited to fits of yelling and “getting in people’s face.”
Michael Wukela, a spokesman for the Parnell campaign, called the ex-aide’s characterization “absolutely false.”
“Let’s be clear, we’re not talking about violence or even the threat of violence. We’re talking about raised voices,” Wukela said. “To try to compare that to a domestic violence incident 45 years ago is absurd on its face and frankly insulting.”
He also said that two of Parnell’s former campaign managers had been asked to leave by the candidate, rather than quitting, and that one ex-manager still advises the campaign.
Based on the accounts of former staffers, two incidents in the weeks before the domestic abuse revelation exemplify Parnell’s temper problem. At least one campaign aide witnessed or heard both incidents.
One of the cases left a staffer in tears and prompted another staffer to consider dialing 911. The second prompted a staffer to quit on the spot ― part of a pattern of staff churn prompted by Parnell’s temper.
The first flare-up took place in late April in the pool house of Parnell’s Sumter mansion, which functioned as a temporary campaign headquarters.
Shortly upon entering the workspace one morning, Parnell lit into an aide, demanding to know where the campaign’s field plan was for the June 12 primary. Since it was not a truly competitive primary, the aide had not developed a field plan yet and was not sure one was even needed. Parnell’s biggest competitor was a progressive circus clown with almost no funding. Parnell would go on to clinch the nomination easily despite being shunned by the state’s Democratic establishment.
Unable to accept the aide’s soft-spoken explanations, Parnell stood over the seated staff member, barking angrily that the aide “wasn’t doing anything,” according to multiple accounts. Given Parnell’s visible animation ― he was shaking with rage ― the aide worried that Parnell was losing control and might physically lash out.
Two other staff members, who heard the incident in an adjoining room, were frightened by Parnell’s tone, according to the accounts of the incident. One of them, who had seen Parnell erupt similarly at previous campaign staffers, held a cellphone at the ready to call the police if the interaction came to blows.
The aide left the pool house briskly after the dressing down. Breaking into tears, the aide immediately called another campaign confidant to share the story of the incident.
The aide considered quitting, but after a subsequent conversation with Parnell did not at that time. But the aide did quit the campaign when the domestic abuse incident surfaced, as did one of the two aides who had been in the adjoining room.
Wukela, the Parnell campaign spokesman, acknowledged that there was a “dispute” in the pool house, but argued that it stemmed from legitimate frustration that the aide had not drafted a field plan after weeks of promising to do so.
“Was there a dispute? Yes. Was it violent? Absolutely not,” he said.
“There was never any remorse that I saw, anyway.”
The following month, mere days before the story of Parnell’s decades-old abuse came to light, he blew up at another campaign staffer in a similarly threatening fashion, the sources say. The aide was working out logistics for a breakfast meeting the following morning and informed Parnell that they should arrive 15 minutes earlier than the event was scheduled in order to prepare.
The decision required Parnell to wake up earlier than 8 a.m. In the presence of a second staffer, Parnell screamed at the aide from another room and cursed them out for suggesting the earlier-than-usual wake-up time.
The incident was the last straw for the aide, who had had only three days off since joining the campaign in February and had already witnessed numerous humiliating outbursts toward other staffers. The aide quit on the spot.
“These are personnel issues and we’re not going to be commenting any further,” Wukela said.
The former staff members who spoke to HuffPost said Parnell rarely seemed to appreciate the severity of his behavior.
The candidate “did not seem to think this behavior was a problem and that’s what really struck me about it,” said a former aide who witnessed his explosive temper more than once. “There was never any remorse that I saw, anyway.”
In the 1973 abuse incident, Parnell broke into a friend’s home and struck his then-wife, Kathleen Parnell. Kathleen Parnell’s divorce filings stated that their marriage had deteriorated “by reason of certain difficulties and differences caused by [Parnell’s] unwarranted accusations” against her.
After breaking into the apartment, where Kathleen had been hiding from him, Parnell made “further accusations” against his then-wife before beating her “with such force as to cause her acute physical injury,” according to the filing. He found Kathleen on a second occasion that night and struck her again, the filing said.
Kathleen’s attorney sought and received a restraining order against Parnell as part of the divorce.
In this November’s election, Parnell is challenging Rep. Ralph Norman, the Republican who edged him in last year’s special election.