WASHINGTON, D.C., May 6, 2013 – The Republican Party knows it needs to change. It needs young people, minority voters and a broader coalition of support if it is going to remain politically viable.
But in many county parties when members of these key constituencies offer to volunteer the door is still being slammed in their face.
After the debacle of the 2012 election Republicans are aware they need to see real change in their party and most are willing to accept it. Even party Chairman Reince Priebus has put forward a plan with some good ideas for outreach. Reform-oriented groups within the party like the Republican Liberty Caucus are actively recruiting new members in minority communities and urging them to join the party.
But when these new members offer their services, far too often they find their earnest efforts rejected before they are even given a chance.
The Texas GOP needs all the help it can get. It is under attack by Democrats whose “Battleground Texas” plan has a multi-million dollar warchest and the goal of turning Texas blue. Yet in the last few weeks incidents in Texas have demonstrated how difficult it may be to make the changes the party needs to survive over the resistence of entrenched interests that are unwilling to accept new members if it means sharing even the little bit of power.
The key entry point to involvement in grassroots Republican politics is as a Precinct Chairman. They are the building blocks of the party, responsible for voter outreach and organizing Republican voters in local neighborhoods. The party has been suffering from declining recruitment for these offices and nationwide well under half of them are filled. They are filled by election but between elections they can be filled by application to a county party and approval by the party’s Vacancy Committee.
Two recent examples in Texas demonstrate how this system can break down, become politicized and do further harm to the party’s reputation instead of expanding outreach.
Harris County has the second largest Republican County Party in the nation. The county government is dominated by Republicans, but inside the county the city of Houston is strongly Democratic and offers a potential powerbase for a change in control of the county. To stop the Democrats from taking over it’s absolutely essential for the GOP to improve outreach in urban precincts, a job which requires Precinct Chairs with ties to those communities.
When Christopher Busby, a 25 year old, openly gay Republican with extensive experience on Republican campaigns and in GOP organizations applied for the position of Precinct Chair in one of these urban precincts where he fits the demographics perfectly, you would think that he would be the ideal applicant.
With his background, skills and experience, he’s the definition of what the party should have gone out looking for, and he was eager to serve.
But when he applied to the vacancy committee at first he was given the runaround adn then his paperwork was lost. When he was finally granted an interview he was faced with an interrogation worthy of the Spanish Inquisition, focused on his honest admission that he was gay
Busby’s interview very quickly got down to his sexual identity and involvement with the Log Cabin Republicans, turning into a witch hunt in which he was virtually accused of supporting pedophilia. This attack on Busby was driven by a Terry Lowry, a talk show host on a local Christian radio station who also publishes a very influential local voters guide.
Lowry confronted Busby with a copy of the 1972 Homosexual Agenda and asked questions based on its content, including whether Busby agreed in the “repeal of all laws governing the age of sexual consent” and supported the teaching of sex education in kindergarten, both of which Busby said he and all other Log Cabin Republicans opposed.
The committee’s treatment of Busby was an example of all the worst stereotypes about bigotry which the party is trying to live down. As Harris County Precinct 333 Chair Greg Aydt put it, “Daring to ask a candidate for precinct chair whether or not he supports pedophilia simply because he is gay and active in a gay Republican organization is not merely indecent, but is so far beyond the pale as to boggle the mind.”
Ultimately Busby was rejected as a Precinct Chair by a 5 to 4 vote of the committee
As a young Republican with several years of campaign experience working for candidates like Sarah Davis, Fernando Herrera, John Faulk, Jack O’Connor, Jack Christie, and Mitt Romney, active involvement in several party organizations and service as a state party convention delegate, Chris Busby ought to be exactly the kind of person the party is looking for.
Precinct Chairs are the forward edge of the party, meeting and recruiting new voters and representing candidates in their neighborhoods. Busby lives in an urban neighborhood with a youthful, politically independent population, exactly the kind of voters the GOP has lost touch with and whom he can relate to.
Local party leaders were shocked when they heard of the circumstances under which Busby’s application was rejected. Felicia Cravens, founder of the Houston Tea Party observed that “These are not the actions of a party that wants to win. These are the actions of a party interested in protecting leadership positions, even if facing continuing losses. These are the actions of a party that is wholly ill equipped to win elections.”
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett stated: “Some of the most conservative people I have ever known have been gay…No one has to sacrifice personal beliefs in order to support fellow conservatives, even those with whom another Republican disagrees on lifestyle.”
Republican Liberty Caucus of Texas Chairman Jeff Larson was actually a member of the committee and was one of the four who voted in support of Busby. He observed:
“I found Chris Busby to be one of the most qualified individuals that we had the pleasure of interviewing during my time on the Harris County Vacancy Committee. Many of the questions my fellow committee members put to him were bizarre and totally inappropriate to the task of determining whether he was a qualified applicant.
The decision to not recommend Chris for appointment was so disappointing that I question whether some of the committee members were more interested in building the Republican Party or in conducting witch hunts.”
This failure by the Houston Republican Party to support a young, gay Republican in his desire to do nothing more than to help the party expand its membership and reach new people, takes on particular significance in the context of a planned visit to Houston by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus later this month.
Priebus has issued an outreach plan calling for more inclusion, but so far his outreach has mostly been to consultants and the mugwumps of the party establishment.
Sadly this is also not an isolated incident. At about the same time in North Texas the equivalent committee in Denton County was rejecting the application of Jorge Landivar as a Precinct Chair. Again this is a county controlled by Republicans but with a strongly Democrat-leaning urban core and it also has many Precinct Chair positions sitting unfilled.
Like Busby, Landivar has extensive political experience and is very well qualified for the job. He has worked on campaigns and is particularly well known for his legislative activism on gun rights. He was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Tampa last year and helped write part of the plank in the party platform opposing Obamacare. He is also an outreach double-threat, being both young and hispanic.
He has exactly the kind of qualities the party needs in a Precinct Chair.
Yet despite his outstanding qualifications, when he applied to be a Precinct Chair in Denton County, Jorge Landivar was also rejected by their committee which approves new Precinct Chairs.
No one on the committee has come forward with a clear explanation why, but it appears that Landivar was seen as perhaps too libertarian-leaning philosophically despite the hard work he had done for the party in general and diverging from widely held Republican positions in only a very few fairly specialized areas like not supporting the War on Drugs - a position which actually makes him more appealing to a younger and more independent electorate and might actually be an asset as a Precinct Chair.
These two examples of resistance to change in the party are not isolated incidents. These same kinds of conflicts between those who want to open up the party and help bring about reform and those who want to maintain the entrenched power structure at the county and state level are going on all over the nation. In some cases these conflicts between reformers and party establishment are even more dramatic and widespread.
Reince Priebus has claimed that he is ready for the party to change and reach out to the constituencies it has lost over the years and to minorities and other potential new participants, but is the party leadership really ready to accept the sharing of power which comes with bringing in new blood?
It’s easy to say you understand the need for change, but clearly it is much more difficult to actually do what’s necessary to make that change. With a dwindling base of workers at the precinct level the party should be eager to welcome volunteers who can connect them to new constituencies, but that means being ready to accept people who are younger and of different backgrounds.
It even means welcoming Republicans with libertarian ideas and gay Republicans. If the party cannot do this at every level then it may not have much of a future.
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