The End of First Friday?

E.W. Jackson speaking to the First Friday group in 2013

Although I cannot recall when it began, First Friday has been a regular political event in Harrisonburg for quite a while.  Over the years, it has hosted a variety of candidates, politicians, and leaders of various groups.  It has served not only as a monthly gathering for local activists but also as a way to reach a wider audience of folks from Shenandoah, Rockingham, Augusta, Rockbridge, and sometimes Greene Counties.

First Friday is not a local Republican unit, but it typically hosts Republican speakers.  They’ve had Corey Stewart recently, and had a bit of a dust-up when Cynthia Dunbar ran for Republican National Committeewoman last year.  Suzanne Obenshain, who also sought the committeewoman position and was the longtime leader of First Friday, also spoke to the group last year.   Although he attended when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2014, Ed Gillespie has been a no-show this election cycle.  When I ran for local office in 2014 as an independent candidate, I was allowed to attend but not to address the crowd.  Nevertheless, the event was valuable; after my Republican opponents addressed the group, one attendee declared they were both socialists and wrote a check to my campaign.  Donna Moser, the former head of the Rockingham County Republican Party leads the gathering.

However, things have been a bit rocky for First Friday these last several months.  Several months ago Ms. Moser broke a bone while visiting relatives out of state and thus was unable to attend the May meeting.  Nevertheless, First Friday still took place with Senator Bryce Reeves, who is running in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor, as the speaker.  Ms. Moser had the leader of the local tea party hold First Friday in her absence.  But, the meeting was very sparsely attended.  In fact, I cannot recall a First Friday with such a low turnout.  Usually, two factions attend; the conservative grassroots folks and the so-called establishment Republicans.  But, almost none of the establishment people were in the audience.  I asked the senator about this absence and he pointed out that although he is arguably the most conservative candidate running for the position, many of the establishment had endorsed his opponents and thus did not attend.

Shortly before the June meeting of First Friday, I’m told that Ms. Moser received a phone call from the chairman of the Harrisonburg Republican Party letting her know that the party had selected a replacement to host First Friday in her stead.  However, as she had returned to the area, she stated she was able to resume her duties in this capacity.  Delegate Ben Cline was the speaker, but, as with the previous month, the establishment Republicans boycotted the event.

After most folks left, Greg Coffman, the Harrisonburg GOP Chairman, sat at a table with Donna Moser.  Afterward, I asked her about the conversation and she said that the three local chairmen (Harrisonburg, Rockingham, and Republican Women), had decided among themselves that Ms. Moser would no longer be leading First Friday.  As none of these chairmen had elected her to her position, nor did any of these chairmen attend First Friday on a regular basis, my opinion was that none either individually or as a group would have the power to make such a decree.  However, the story does not end there.

Late last night, the Harrisonburg Republican Party sent out an email declaring that future First Friday lunches have been cancelled.  As the message states:

Consequently, the Committees’  leadership has decided to terminate the First Friday Luncheons program. The goal is to examine other venues that can provide more relevant opportunities for our members, community leaders, and political leaders to interact.  This was the original intention in starting the First Friday Luncheon program, but we’ve seen a continuous decline in participation and support to the extent that the program is no longer fulfilling its purpose.

Due to the upcoming election season and the demands on everyone’s time, no decision on alternatives to First Friday will be made until after the election.  Therefore, the County and City Committees are no longer endorsing, sponsoring, or supporting activities similar to or calling themselves “First Friday”  until further notice.

To the best of my knowledge, there was no vote or discussion among the attendees of First Friday or even the local Republican committees of such a course of action (according to those who attend these meetings), but rather a dictatorial decree from the local party chairman.  Perhaps this authoritarian push shouldn’t be all that surprising given that the Harrisonburg Chairman will not allow individuals to make any announcements at the city GOP meetings unless they have been submitted in writing at least five days prior to the meeting.

After speaking with Donna Moser, she has stated that First Friday will continue, whether the GOP chairmen support the idea or not.  Given my experiences in local politics, the Republican Party strives for strict control of political events and guards who have access to their candidates and elected officials.  Given this attitude and several other factors, it shouldn’t be surprising that every candidate except for one who has run under the Republican banner in the last seven years has lost to a Democrat in Harrisonburg.

I would expect that local activists will continue to gather at the Woodgrill Buffet in Harrisonburg for First Friday with or without the blessing of the local GOP chairmen.  True, it will be a smaller affair as most of the establishment Republican crowd likely won’t attend, but perhaps First Friday will become a gathering for conservative activists and candidates of all stripes, not only those who bind themselves with the increasingly rigid rules of the Republican Party.  If so, the local chairmen’s declaration of disavowing First Friday is a blessing in disguise for the citizens of the central Shenandoah Valley.

A First Friday Fracas

Photo from Cynthia Dunbar's Facebook page
Photo from Cynthia Dunbar’s Facebook page

On Friday, the local Republicans held their monthly First Friday gathering at the Woodgrill Buffet in Harrisonburg.  The featured speakers were Ralph Smith, who is running for 6th district Republican Chairman, and Cynthia Dunbar, who is seeking to be the next Virginia Republican committeewoman.

Although not quite every seat was filled, the room was almost full.  After both Smith and Dunbar spoke, they took questions from the audience.  As a few examples, Laura Logie asked Mr. Smith about party primaries and the fact that although Senator Emmett Hanger isn’t popular with valley Republicans and often votes against the wishes of his constituents, he continues to get re-elected due to fact that the senator, and not the party, gets to select the party nomination process.  Mr. Smith seemed to indicate that he preferred the current system of open primaries as opposed to conventions.

I pointed out that although the Republican Party demands loyalty from its members, it doesn’t hold its candidates and politicians to the Republican Creed and asked Ms. Dunbar what she would do about this issue.  She agreed that the party leaders needed to create some system to keep rogue or unprincipled politicians in check.

Then, Cole Trower, an employee of Representative Bob Goodlatte, got up.  He started off by declaring that Cynthia Dunbar was wholly unqualified to serve as national committeewoman and furthermore that she had no understanding of the position for which she was running.  It wasn’t so much a question, but rather a hostile accusation.  Another fellow at Mr. Trower’s table added that Dunbar was “a smooth talker”.  Dunbar offered a rebuttal to this accusation, but Cole continued which led the organizer, Donna Moser, to ask Cole to stop.  He refused.  Then, Scott Sayre, another candidate for 6th district chair, said that Cole was a plant of the Obenshain campaign, Dunbar’s opponent.  Nevertheless Cole was not deterred.  At this point, Ms. Moser asked Bryan Hutcheson, the Sheriff of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County who was in attendance to remove Cole Trower.  The sheriff thought such an action wasn’t called for, and fortunately Cole finally sat down, ending the matter.  However, a local JMU student spoke next saying that Ms. Dunbar was new to Virginia and questioned how much she had helped out the Virginia Republican Party, one of the main talking points of the Obenshain campaign.

After that, things got less heated as several of the candidates who are running for spots as delegates to the national convention spoke along with individuals seeking positions on the Republican State Central Committee.

Then, at the very end of the meeting, a fellow asked if he could say something, which was granted.  He declared that although he had supported Bob Goodlatte for many years, he could no longer do so because he considered Bob Goodlatte to be a liar.  He pointed out that although Goodlatte pledged to only serve three terms in the House of Representatives when he first ran, he is now in his eleventh term and is presently seeking his twelveth.

As I left the meeting I realized I hadn’t seen anyone treat a guest speaker with such disrespect as Cole Trower had to Cynthia Dunbar since several years before when Cole interrupted and berated Bob Goodlatte, the man he curiously now works for.  Even though I had no hand in it, I felt it necessary to apologize to Ms. Dunbar for Cole’s behavior.  Unfortunately, Mr. Trower has been acting more and more thuggish as of late, bullying people as he did me at the Rockingham County GOP mass meeting on February 17th.

Booking Photo of Cole Trower from the Republitarian.com website
Booking Photo of Cole Trower from the Republitarian.com website

When I got home, I pulled up VPAP and found that in late 2015 Cole Trower had been paid over ten thousand dollars by the Obenshains, hardly making him either an objective or an impartial observer in the Suzanne Obenshain vs. Cynthia Dunbar contest.  Later that day, Dave Briggman, who sat across the table from me at First Friday, wrote a piece on his website, The Republitarian, about Cole Trower.  It detailed Cole’s arrest in 2014 for destruction of private property, assault and battery of a young woman, and other charges.

This matter brings up a lot of important questions.  Did Mark Obenshain and Bob Goodlatte know of Cole’s conviction before hiring him?  Once they found out about it, why would they keep him on their staff?  Why didn’t the media report it either when the event transpired in 2014 or when he was found guilty in 2015?  Did Cole’s powerful political connections help keep his arrest out of the public spotlight before it was revealed on Friday by Mr. Briggman?  With this knowledge, why would any politician who considers himself to be a defender of the family and the individual bring Cole Trower on his staff?  Now that these events are in the public spotlight, will he continue to serve as Bob Goodlatte’s northern field director on his re-election campaign?

It is unfortunate that Cole Trower treated both Cynthia Dunbar and Donna Moser, the leader of the group, with such contempt at the Republican First Friday gathering.  Disagreement is natural in politics, but not such incivility.  Let us hope that that kind of disrespect will not happen again.

Reflections From the Rockingham GOP Mass Meeting

Donna Moser
Donna Moser

Last night, the Rockingham County Republican Party held their mass meeting to elect a chairman for their committee as well as to elect delegates to the party’s 2016 6th district and state conventions.  It was a packed gathering with well over a hundred attendees.  Besides the county residents, attendees also included:  Representative Bob Goodlatte (VA-6), Harry Griego (his Republican challenger), Scott Sayre (6th district chair candidate), Ralph Smith (6th district chair candidate), Wendall Walker (current 6th district chair), a variety of individuals seeking to be delegates and alternate delegates to the national convention, the chair of the Staunton Republican Party, the chair of the Waynesboro Republican Party, the chair of the Greene County Republican Party, and likely more individuals I did not recognize.

SOAs mentioned, the main focus of the evening was the race for chair.  Donna Moser, the incumbent, was seeking re-election while Dan Cullers, the secretary, was also running.  I’ve known both of the candidates for many years as I met Donna through the local tea party and Dan through the 2012 Karen Kwiatkowski campaign.  Both had their list of supporters though Donna had the endorsement of both Senator Mark Obenshain and Suzanne Obenshain.  Curiously though, neither of the Obenshains attended the Rockingham mass meeting.  Given that they live in the Rockingham County and that Suzanne Obenshain is running for National Republican Committeewoman, it seemed quite peculiar that they were not there.  Although I assume that it was possible that the senator was tied up with business in the Virginia Senate, around that time Suzanne tweeted a photo of her speaking to a Republican gathering in Arlington.

Bob Goodlatte
Bob Goodlatte

Gazing around the room, a lot of the people wore stickers in support of Dan Cullers.  However, many of them had on lapel white stickers for Suzanne Obenshain and blue ones for Bob Goodlatte too.  As people entered the building Cole, one of the Goodlatte staffers and former staffer for the Obenshains, glad-handed people and declared that Dan Cullers was “their guy”.

In retrospect, there were far too many guest speakers for the event as they ended up extending the meeting time significantly.

When Donna Moser got up to give her speech for chair, either she or someone in the audience mentioned that the original plan was that Suzanne Obenshain would introduce her and give a few words of support on her behalf.  That news was terribly depressing.  If the Obenshains actually supported Donna, wouldn’t at least one of them have been there when they were most needed instead of in Arlington or Richmond?  Furthermore, wouldn’t the majority of the multitude of people wearing Obenshain stickers support Donna Moser, their supposed candidate, too?

When people finally started voting they were not allowed to vote in secret, which seemed just plain wrong.  However, after an angry complaint, declaring it “soviet style voting”, subsequent voters were allowed at least some small measure of privacy in casting their ballot.  During this time, I appreciated the opportunity to speak with Harry Griego.  From our first conversation, he seemed like a pretty solid guy.

While we waited for the votes to be counted, I got a drink of water.  On the way back to my seat, I walked past the room where they were counting the ballots.  I didn’t enter the room nor did I attempt to interrupt the proceedings in any way.  I just stood and watched for a few moments.  However, Cole, Goodlatte’s staffer saw me and insisted I leave.  Afterward, I spoke to one of the Republican leaders who said that Cole had no right to do what he did, but I have found that bullying and intimidation is a prized trait among Goodlatte staffers.

Newly elected chair, Dan Cullers flanked by members of the county party
Newly elected chair, Dan Cullers flanked by a few members of the county party

Although the vote totals were not revealed publicly, Dan Cullers was declared the winner.

I spoke to both Donna and Dan and wished them both well.  Once the attendees dispersed, Dan worked to put away tables and chairs.  I have to tell you that there is something refreshing about seeing the leader of a group staying behind to clean up and not simply leaving this undesirable work to subordinates.  Dan did this sort of thing before he was elected chair and so far his new power had not changed him.  I gladly volunteered to help and the two of us straightened up.

After the event was over, I spoke to another political activist about what I saw and thought about the evening.  This activist told me that if the Obenshains had actually been supporting Donna, she would have won.  I was still depressed, not by the outcome, but by the process.

Although there certainly were good folks in the crowd, that night I saw too many people who only cared about advancing themselves and their allies and don’t care at all about trivial things like principles and honor.  I left with the sense that others have been trying to use both Donna and Dan as pieces on some grand political chess board; I was reminded of the work, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society.

The Unveiling

Last night, as snow began to fall in Harrisonburg, the Valley Family Forum held their annual Unveiling ceremony.  Although designed to showcase upcoming legislative measures by local members of the General Assembly, curiously a vast majority did not attend.

Matt Homer, staffer for Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-Roanoke), began by leading with an invocation and the pledge of allegiance.  From there, Dean Welty, Director of the Valley Family Forum, offered welcoming remarks and introduced the first two speakers, Travis Witt, the Chairman of the Tea Party Federation of Virginia and Chris Freund, the Vice President of the Family Foundation of Virginia.  Mr. Freund spoke on the social issues facing the Commonwealth while Mr. Witt mentioned the tea party’s role in Virginia politics.

Delegate Mark Berg
Delegate Mark Berg

Next, Delegate Mark Berg (R-Winchester) talked about issues like Medicaid expansion that seek to enhance the power of government in the lives of ordinary citizens.  Then, Rita Dunaway, the Deputy Director of the Valley Family Forum, brought up the issue of an Article V Convention as a means of curtailing the expansion of the federal government.  Conservatives have been split on this issue.  Although some favor a convention, others believe it will merely end up expanding the power of Washington.

Dan Moxley with his family and local activist Laura Logie after the event
Dan Moxley with his family and local activist Laura Logie after the event

Dan Moxley and Marshall Pattie were slated to address the crowd next, but due to illness, Mr. Pattie was unable to attend.  Mr. Moxley spoke of his faith and his political principles which seemed to resonate well with the audience.

Finally, Dr. John Sloop, Chaplain of the Valley Family Forum, offered the commissioning to close the event.  He planned to offer additional thoughts, but decided against it due to the continued precipitation.

Although I’ve never attended an Unveiling before due to prior commitments, it did draw a sizable number of activists; almost every seat in the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors room was filled.  As far as I could tell, many, if not most of the audience seemed to be members of the Republican Party; both Harrisonburg Chairman Mac Nichols and Rockingham Chairman Donna Moser were there.  All in all, I’d say it was a worthwhile evening, though I would have liked the opportunity to hear and speak with more elected officials and candidates as has been in the case in previous Unveilings.

A Political 4th, In Pictures

As with communities throughout America, yesterday the citizens of Harrisonburg celebrated the 4th of July.  The city’s downtown area was filled with an assortment of vendors and entertainment, not to mention politicians and political activists.  Unlike the previous year, the local Democratic Parties did not seem participate  in Thursday’s festivities, somewhat surprising given the three statewide races going on this fall.

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Representative Bob Goodlatte (VA-6) and Delegate Tony Wilt of Broadway greet the crowds.
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During the early afternoon, Council Member Abe Shearer manned the dunk tank for charity.
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli speaks to the media
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli speaks to the media.
VA RLC member Steven Latimer climbs the rock wall.
VA Republican Liberty Caucus member Steven Latimer climbs the rock wall.
JMU's Duke Dog shows his spirit.
JMU’s Duke Dog shows his spirit.
The Republican Procession featuring Delegate Steve Landes of Verona on the far left and Harrisonburg/Rockingham Clerk of Court Chaz Evans-Haywood on the far right
The Republican Procession featuring Delegate Steve Landes of Verona on the far left and Harrisonburg/Rockingham Clerk of Court Chaz Evans-Haywood on the far right.
The banner of the Shenandoah Valley Tea Party
The banner of the Shenandoah Valley Tea Party.
Tea Party Director Donna Moser, Treasurer Nancy Stone, and Co-Director Tommy Moser.
Tea Party Director Donna Moser, Treasurer Nancy Stone, and Co-Director Tommy Moser.
Tea Party Secretary Lois Paul playing the snooping IRS agent
Tea Party Secretary Lois Paul playing the snooping NSA/IRS agent.