Obenshain v. Dunbar

In just a handful of days Republicans across the state will gather in Harrisonburg, my hometown, for their state convention. There they will be voting for a new committeewoman. The two choices for this position are Suzanne Obenshain and Cynthia Dunbar. Having had the opportunity to get to know both women, I’d like to offer a few thoughts.

The Obenshains in Richmond in late 2012
The Obenshains in Richmond in late 2012

I’ve known Suzanne Obenshain for well over a decade. While I was growing up in Harrisonburg we both attended the same church and were both quite active in local Republican Party politics. She’s a person whose opinion I’ve valued. For example, when in 2013 I started to consider running for local office in the 2014 elections, speaking to Suzanne Obenshain was of prime importance. To highlight some of my activism, I was a bus captain for the Obenshain for Attorney General campaign at the 2013 Virginia Republican convention and later the campaign asked me to serve as her chauffeur, though I only ended up driving her once and it was just around Harrisonburg.

My last meaningful conversation with Suzanne Obenshain was a little over two years ago. However, as I’ve written in previous pieces, after about 19 years of activism I was kicked out of the Harrisonburg GOP in February 2014. Given that I had been a loyal supporter and volunteer for the Obenshains since Senator Obenshain first declared his intent to run for office in late 2002 or early 2003, the first person I called looking for assistance with this matter was Suzanne Obenshain. In the moment I needed her help the most she refused to provide aid. During the call she asked me if I knew what a “good Republican” was. I explained that I thought it was someone who held fast to principle and advocated the values found in the Virginia Republican Creed. Instead, Ms. Obenshain explained that being a good Republican had nothing to do with ideology, but instead a good Republican was a person who supported all the Republican candidates. I was shocked when I heard these words, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been.

After all, after the 2012 Republican National Convention, which screwed over the Ron Paul delegates, I presented a resolution to the local Harrisonburg GOP from the Virginia Republican Liberty Caucus that condemned both John Boehner and Reince Priebus for their role in this matter. However, it was Suzanne Obenshain herself who scuttled any attempt to either discuss it or bring it to a vote.

Also, during the 2012 Harrisonburg City Council elections, much to my disappointment I discovered that one of the Republican candidates promoted a lot of big government policies, more so than even the Democratic candidates. Given this realization, there was no way I could bring myself to either support or vote for this person. After the election, when all three Republican candidates went down in defeat, I spoke with Suzanne Obenshain, as she was the person who recruited our local candidates. I asked why the local GOP would nominate a person who couldn’t be called a conservative by any stretch of the imagination. She responded by telling me that no one else wanted to run. However, wouldn’t it have been better to have one fewer nominee than running a full slate if that meant rallying behind someone who was antithetical to our principles? Does being a Republican actually mean anything?

Getting back to 2014, although no longer a member of my local committee, I still requested to attend the state convention. Both the chairman and Ms. Obenshain told me that I could go as a voting delegate. However, I was dismayed to discover that the call for the convention included a strict loyalty oath to the party and her candidates, declaring that all delegates from Harrisonburg would support all of the Republican candidates that year. Neither knowing who they were nor whether or not they would uphold the principles of the RPV Creed I felt could not honorably sign such a document. I asked who decided to include this oath in the call, which was considerably more stringent than other local calls, such as the one from Waynesboro, and was told that it was Suzanne Obenshain who did so.

One of my relatives asked Suzanne Obenshain why the Republicans had treated me poorly and I was told that she responded saying that the Republicans were afraid of me, in part because I was unwilling to compromise on most principles and because I openly criticized my representative, Bob Goodlatte when he voted against what I always assumed were supposedly Republican values.

After the convention I spoke to a local friend who was also a Shak Hill supporter and convention delegate. At the time Shak Hill was running as the more conservative option for Senate. However, my friend told me that several Ed Gillespie supporters, including Suzanne Obenshain, attempted to intimidate him on the voting floor into supporting their preferred candidate.

I still ran for local office but I did so as an independent since I wasn’t a member of the Republican Party any longer; I felt someone needed to represent my principles. I ran on a platform of limiting the power and scope of the city government and to the best of my knowledge, I was the only candidate who mentioned the Creed of the Republican Party of Virginia or sought to advance the values which it advocated. Party labels aside you’d think that limited government Republicans would be happy that at least one of the candidates actually advocated limiting the government. Nevertheless, several of my friends told me that Suzanne Obenshain was furious with me because I had the audacity to run for office against the Republican nominees. When I went door-to-door for my campaign I stopped by the houses of several friends who had signs for the Republican council candidates in their yard. When I asked them about it, I was told that they had not requested the signs but instead Suzanne Obenshain placed them in their yards simply because they were members of the Harrisonburg Republican committee. By comparison, due in part to my principles, many Libertarians supported my campaign either through time or money as did some disaffected local Republicans.

Photo of Cynthia Dunbar with Suzanne Curran and Mark Berg. Image from the Dunbar campaign.
Photo of Cynthia Dunbar with Suzanne Curran and Mark Berg. Image from the Dunbar campaign.

On the other hand, I first spoke to Cynthia Dunbar on New Years Eve of 2015. She called me while I was picking up a few pizzas for a party that was taking place that evening. Although I wasn’t a member of the Republican Party and had no plans of rejoining, we spoke about her candidacy, the GOP, and political principles. I met her in person on Saturday at a meeting of the Shenandoah Valley Constitutional Conservatives in Mt. Jackson.

Over the last several months, I’ve had the chance to listen to Cynthia Dunbar on a handful of occasions.   She seems to be a person guided by conviction that promises to stand up to the party bosses and elected officials who betray their principles and/or the grassroots activists who elected them in the first place. In addition, she’s picked up endorsements from a number of good Virginia political activists and elected officials I respect including: Delegate Brenda Pogge, Delegate Bob Marshall, Senator Dick Black, Suzanne Curran, Anne Fitzgerald, Steven Thomas, and Ed Yensho. However, the most exciting endorsement comes from my former boss, the godfather of the modern liberty movement, Dr. Ron Paul.

Some of her detractors have attacked Dunbar for the fact that she has lived in Virginia for only a handful of years. But don’t we all have to come from somewhere? One of my Republican opponents for city council used this issue against the Democrats and the Libertarian candidate because they lived within the city limits for only several years. Although I am a native of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, that was as a result of the choices my parents made, not my own. Honestly, what should matter more, political principles and character or something transient like geography? I’d like to think this is an easy question and we should not treat people as outcasts simply because their roots are not as deep as our own.

Let me offer you a few fun facts. Since 2009, only one Republican candidate has beaten a Democratic candidate in Harrisonburg. If Senator Mark Obenshain had won our hometown in 2013, he would be Virginia’s attorney general. Here’s another fact. In 1995, at the age of 15, I was the youngest Republican activist in Harrisonburg. In January of 2013, at the age of 32, I was still the youngest person who regularly attended monthly meetings of the Harrisonburg Republican Party.

The facts and experiences I’ve mentioned might leave you with several important questions. Why don’t Republicans win Harrisonburg? Although I don’t know their current membership, when I was a part of the party why did the Harrisonburg GOP fail to recruit newer, younger members? Well, when you have leaders of a political party which values loyalty to the party over principle, what do you think happens? When you have a local unit, which forces its members to sign onerous loyalty oaths to the party and her candidates, it is possible that the members begin to build up resentment? When you have a political party that is more concerned with pleasing elected officials and party bosses at the expense of the volunteer grassroots activists, why in the world would anyone choose to join such a group? When a local party recruits candidates who are indistinguishable from the Democrats, why wouldn’t voters select the genuine article? When the local leaders of the Republican Party treat conservatives and libertarians who are outside of the party as hostile enemies, should there be any wonder why Republicans no longer win Harrisonburg and the local unit is so dreadfully small and ineffective? Lastly, I have to ask you, are these kinds of values ones that Virginia Republicans want at the national level?

It should be obvious that this election for Republican National Committeewoman is one of important contrasts. Like my hero Ron Paul, if I were a delegate to the Virginia Republican Convention, given my experiences and knowledge of the two candidates, I would have no hesitation in casting my vote for Cynthia Dunbar.