The Dysfunctional Republican 6th District

On August 3rd, at First Friday, a monthly political gathering in Harrisonburg, the featured speaker was Jennifer Brown, the 6th District Republican Chairman.  I found her inclusion surprising, as she and the leader of First Friday, Donna Moser, are part of two different, presently hostile, factions within the 6th District Republican Committee.

When Jennifer Brown began her speech, she said she needed to address some elephants in the room (or as she called them, donkeys).  One is the pending lawsuit and defense.  Almost since Ms. Brown took over as chair, the two sides have been feuding over a recent decision by the committee to hire a law firm to defend itself against alleged FEC violations made against the committee and the previous chairman, Scott Sayre.  I’ve read that Brown supporters launched the suit against Sayre and other members of the committee in an effort to discredit and defeat Sayre which they did successfully at their May convention.  As a result, the majority of the committee voted to retain a law firm in Indiana for their legal defense at a cost of $30,000.  Ms. Brown opposed this decision by the 6th District committee and has appealed to the Virginia Republican State Central Committee.

Jennifer Brown also spoke of the need for unity, for the group to work together to elect Republican candidates and welcome Democrats who recently walked away from their party so that they would become Republicans rather than turning into independents.  Curiously though, although she welcomed votes and aid from former Democrats, as far as I could tell she didn’t stress advancing any ideological agenda other than a blanket support for Republicans.  She paused to yield some time to Frank McMillan, an independent candidate running for Harrisonburg City Council this year.  As a side note, I noticed that there were three independent city council candidates (McMillan, George Hirschmann from 2016, and me from 2014) at the gathering.  McMillan stated that he was a Republican (and will likely have the backing of the local Republican Party as Hirschmann did in 2016) but stressed he was running as an independent.  I presume that the reason for this maneuver is that the Republican Party label is so toxic in the city of Harrisonburg that using it will almost certainly result in defeat.  After all, since 2009 only one Republican candidate has won the city when facing a Democratic opponent.

After Jennifer Brown gave her speech, she opened the floor for questions.  One local activist, a fellow named Phil Corbo, asked to share an email he recently received from Roger Jarrell, Jennifer Brown’s fiance and apparently legal liaison for the 6th district committee.  Although Donna Moser opposed the reading of the email at first, Mr. Corbo persisted.  In that email, Mr. Jarrell claimed that the leader of First Friday, Ms. Moser, had slandered Ms. Brown at a recent meeting of the local tea party and demanded it cease immediately or legal action could be taken.  As evidence of this slander, it mentioned Cole Trower and other unnamed parties.  Mr. Corbo declared that although he had been involved in New Jersey politics for decades, he had never seen such dirty politics as what has been going on in the 6th district prior to the recent convention and at the present.

At first, Jennifer Brown offered to apologize if the allegations from Mr. Jarrell were proven untrue, but when several of the attendees declared that Ms. Moser did not slander Ms. Brown at the tea party meeting, her tone became rather defensive.  Donna Moser steered the conversation toward announcements and the subject dissipated.  (Here is a clip of that part of the gathering).

What is most troubling to me is not whether or not individuals are critical of Ms. Brown’s leadership as chairman, (after all it is impossible to be both effective in politics and still please everyone) but rather the fact that she would consider taking legal action against a person who potentially declared her to be inept and/or ineffectual.  Unlike Ms. Brown, I am not an attorney but, to the best of my understanding, questioning the effectiveness of a leader does not rise to the legal definition of slander.

I left First Friday with the impression that the 6th District GOP was seriously dysfunctional.  How can a party operate properly when the chairman opposes and attempts to undermine the will of a majority of the committee?  Or if her fiance attempts to bully other members of the committee?  A recent article on The Bull Elephant highlights some of these problems. In addition, as Bearing Drift reports, the Lynchburg Republican Party passed a vote of no confidence against those committee members who vote for representation from the Indiana legal firm.

After witnessing what happened on Friday it seems to me that either the two sides need to reconcile quickly or, more likely, it will result in a civil war for control; if that takes place, my money is that the majority of the committee will end up deposing Ms. Brown before the end of her term.  If I were a Republican candidate running this year anywhere in the 6th district of Virginia, I would be seriously concerned about this state of affairs.  Despite these developments, I don’t expect November’s blue wave to overwhelm the deeply Republican Shenandoah Valley and claim victory for the 6th Congressional seat, but a divided and squabbling committee might spell certain doom for a number of local candidates in the area this year and possibly lead to inroads from Democrats in the 2019 General Assembly elections.

A Potentially Nasty Convention

On Saturday, May 19th, Virginia Republicans held their 6th district convention in Harrisonburg.  However, before discussing the event itself, I think it is important to discuss some of the events leading up to the convention.

For starters, until last week I wasn’t expecting to attend the convention.  I had signed up to be a voting delegate but had my application rejected as I refused to sign a loyalty oath to the Republican Party and her candidates.  Specifically, they required all attendees to sign a pledge to support all of the Republicans candidates in the 2018 election cycle without knowing who these candidates are and what they stand for.  For a political party who supposedly advocates freedom, liberty, and limited government, one would assume that most of their activists would find such an oath unacceptable and yet they, like Esau and the pot of lentils, presumably bartered away their free will in order to participate.

Second, I had no idea who I would be supporting.  Only one candidate asked for my endorsement by personally calling me on the phone, Delegate Ben Cline.  I came to the conclusion that on the issues Cline was closest to my values of the three most well-known candidates.  Although I had known both Cynthia Dunbar and Chaz Haywood for many years, I was deeply concerned that Dunbar had become far too pro-Trump and worried that her campaign was promoting loyalty to the president over adherence to principles.  And Haywood I saw as the establishment’s choice.  Given my extremely negative opinion of Bob Goodlatte, I was worried that Haywood would fall in with the same people that have worked to squelch liberty in the 6th district these last several decades.

I appreciated Cline’s efforts in the House of Delegates and had previously invited him to speak at a Libertarian gathering.  But, I was particularly concerned about the hiring of one of his campaign staffers, a person I considered unethical who had engaged in dirty tactics in a previous campaign.  As such, I wrote a piece about it for this website (which I have not published) and sent it to Delegate Cline.  In January, he said he would get back to me about the matter “soon” but I never heard anything more, even after I sent another message a month later.  As more time passed, I found myself drifting toward neutrality, wishing I knew more about the other candidates who were running.

Leading up to the convention, the mudslinging against the candidates grew increasingly ugly.  For example, led by the Cline campaign, the others (with the exception of the Dunbar and Pope campaigns) attacked 6th district chairman Scott Sayre saying, “We have concluded that the current plans put forth by Chairman Scott Sayre will not ensure a fair, orderly, and unbiased convention for the Sixth Congressional District.”  In addition, rather than sticking to the issues, often anonymous sources attacked people personally.  One website that popped up a day before the convention was SwampyScottSayre.com, which accused Scott Sayre of rigging the convention in favor of Cynthia Dunbar.  I consider such attacks from the shadows to be unethical and have tried to determine who is behind it.  Given the previous behavior of some Cline staffers, I am worried that they might have had a hand in it.  If you (the readers) are able to tie a person or an organization to this website, I would appreciate hearing of it.  Considering Ginger Burg of Amherst was the first person I saw sharing the site, I would expect that she is either behind it or knows who is responsible.

As mentioned, as I was rejected as a delegate, I didn’t plan to attend the convention.  However, on May 15th, John Fredericks wrote the following on Facebook.

After I read that, I was determined to find out the truth for myself.  I have known Scott Sayre for many years and considered him a decent and fair fellow.  Was he trying to suppress the media?  Was he attempting to rig the convention?  Although I hadn’t covered a Republican convention since 2013, I thought it best to witness it for myself rather than rely on what others said.  After sending a few messages and making a phone call, I secured my press credentials several days before the event.

Even though conventions are harder to predict than primaries, my assumption was that Cline was the most favored candidate, followed by Dunbar, and then Haywood.

It was a rainy Saturday morning and it had been raining in Harrisonburg for the last several days.  The convention was slated to begin at 10 AM.  Although I found myself on Port Republic Road at 9:30, there was considerable traffic at this time and due to some construction at JMU, I ended up parking about a mile away and had to walk to convocation center.  Before I left my car, I decided to wear a Ron Paul 2008 campaign pin in the hopes of reminding some of the delegates that they ought to remember their principles.  In the closest parking lot, I found that one member of the House of Delegates had made his or her own parking space and wondered if he would be ticketed or given a free pass due to his or her status.

I arrived at the convocation center shortly before 10 and picked up my press pass.  Although I didn’t know who I would vote for to replace Bob Goodlatte, I also checked in with the credentials committee to see if they would let me vote as a delegate.  I found Anne Fitzgerald leading the effort and she asked me if I would sign one of two documents pledging that I would not support any non-Republican candidates, specifically Libertarian ones.  I could not honorably sign such a paper and that was the end of the discussion.

I want to pause for a minute to speak about the Fitzgeralds.  For those who don’t know, Matt Fitzgerald is the chairman of the Staunton GOP.  Unlike some other folks in Republican politics in the 6th district, I have found that the Fitzgeralds are friendly, honorable, and principled activists.  If you live in the area, share similar values, and haven’t met them yet, I would encourage you to seek them out.  I’ve always been glad to see them.

The press area at the convention

Anyway, after a few false leads, I found the media section and had a seat reserved next to Bob Stuart of the News Virginian. Despite what Mr. Fredericks stated, there seemed to be ample room for the media and it was nice to be in a spot removed from the noise and the traffic of the general public.  In addition, it was nice to have internet access provided for the press as the building seemed to block out a general signal.  I planned to give live updates throughout the day but was disappointed to find that when my computer went to sleep it had forgotten the internet password and I had foolishly failed to jot down the password on a piece of paper when I had the opportunity.

Scott Sayre handing off control of the convention to Mr. Wilson

One of the first orders of business was the election of the temporary chair.  The Scott Sayre people preferred Mr. Albertson (who runs the Bull Elephant) while the Jennifer Brown people ran Mr. Wilson.  The Brown people combed the convention center holding signs for Wilson declaring that Albertson would rig the convention.  With a break in the action, I took the opportunity to wander around the convention and found some folks I knew in both the areas for Harrisonburg delegates and in Shenandoah County.  I ran into Elliot Pope, one of the lesser known 6th district candidates.  He sounded like a good fellow, but I would need more than a minute to learn more about him.  Hopefully, I’ll run into him in the future.  Also, I asked one of my friends who voted for Wilson why she did so; she repeated that Albertson would rig the convention.  I asked what proof was being offered for these allegations but it seems that none could be offered.  Although Mr. Albertson won several localities (Bedford, Highland, Page, Staunton, Warren, & Waynesboro), the result wasn’t particularly close.  I assumed that this result didn’t bode well for Sayre’s reelection chances.

When lunchtime came I found myself carrying a bag for my friend Laura.  As we approached a staffer for Doug Wright, she asked if we would like a free box lunch.  Apparently, the Wright campaign had ordered a number of lunches for their supporters and had quite a few left over.  I don’t know how much JMU meal services charged for the boxes, but I was certainly appreciative of the Wright campaign’s generosity.

After lunch, I ran into Ed Yensho, the chairman of the Greene County GOP.  Along with several other folks outside the district, he was recruited to help maintain order should the convention grow particularly nasty.

As it came time for the regional candidates to give their speeches, I returned to the press area.  It was good to speak with and spend time with some of my fellow bloggers.  There was Rick Sincere and Willie Deutsch and I also got to meet Mick Staton of The Bull Elephant.

I found it very curious that when the candidates for Central Regional Vice Chairman were supposed to speak, one of the candidates, Wendell Walker was absent.  Given his status as former 6th district GOP chair, I was certain that he knew the proper procedure and the fact that he was absent meant that he did not intend to take the stage.  As a result, his opponent took the opportunity to voice his support for Jennifer Brown.

The two candidates for chair, Scott Sayre and Jennifer Brown, took the stage.  While Sayre spoke of his experiences and what his plans were for the 6th district, Brown spoke of principles instead, not offering any sort of idea what she would tangibly do to put her principles into action.  In addition, when she called Bob Goodlatte the best member of Congress, I was deeply concerned that she represented a return to the same policies as Goodlatte of a top-down approach where the people of the 6th were servants of the congressman and not the other way around as the founders had intended.  Her campaign signs mirrored both the font and colors previously used by Goodlatte.  On the other hand, it seemed to me that perhaps Brown wanted to win more than Sayre, her campaign had stickers and signs throughout the convention hall while, as far as I could tell, he didn’t have any.

The view from the press area

Then it was time for the main event when all of the candidates for the 6th district Republican nomination spoke.  Here I observed something else strange.  While Dunbar’s and Cline’s supporters waved signs for their candidates, not a single person held a sign for Haywood.  It was darn peculiar.  After checking the FEC reports, he had sufficient funds to do so and the few Haywood signs sitting on the tables at the luncheon were of particularly poor quality, looking as if they were printed on a home printer.  I anticipated two or more ballots given that with eight candidates it would very difficult for any candidate to get 50% of the vote on the first ballot.  However, after giving his speech, Haywood announced his withdrawal, instead endorsing Cline.  The timing of his withdrawal didn’t sit right with me.  It felt as if it were staged; given that there were no Haywood signs on the floor, he must have decided to withdraw sometime before the day of the convention.  In addition, like E.W. Jackson at the Republican state convention in 2013, it seemed that Dunbar gave the best floor speech, but would that win the day?

To be honest, at that point I couldn’t come up with an outcome that I was particularly excited about.  Walking to an area with internet access, I wrote a friend in Nevada who has been following the race “I think I might not be voting Republican in November.”

Although I did not endorse any candidate, it was peculiar that I felt more at ease around Dunbar supporters than Cline people (with a few exceptions and, if a particular Cline staffer is reading this, I assume you know who you are).  I guess it was offputting to see some people who I felt had bartered away their honor wearing Cline stickers.  As the votes were being cast and counted, Scott Sayre came by the press table and spoke to me, voicing some similar opinions regarding what had happened with the Central Vice Chairman speeches and Haywood’s withdrawal.

While we waited for the results, the three Republican Senate candidates were given a chance to speak to the masses. None of them, Nick Freitas, E.W. Jackson, or Corey Stewart passed up this opportunity.

I was dismayed to hear that in the 6th district chairman race Brown won 58% of the vote to Sayre’s 42%.  From what I observed, I felt that the accusations of a rigged convention and disreputable conduct leveled against Sayre were false.  I began to wonder if these allegations were possibly been a deflection to try and mask underhanded conduct on the part of his opponents.

Newly minted 6th district Republican nominee Ben Cline

Lastly, with Haywood’s withdrawal, they announced that Cline had won on the first ballot with 52.62% of the vote.  At the time I could not hear how the rest of the candidates ended up because the roar coming from the crowd was far too loud.

During his acceptance speech, Delegate Cline spoke of his support for President Trump and his desire to build a border wall which I found disheartening.

I hoped to leave the convention in good spirits, but I felt despondent instead.  It felt as if the Republican establishment had struck back, that liberty was once again on the retreat in the 6th district Republican Party.  While walking back to my car I thought to myself, after one sees the sausage being made, he starts to lose his taste for it.

I hope that in the coming days we can determine definitively that the Cline campaign had nothing to do with these anonymous attacks.  I still personally like Ben Cline and want to vote for him in November, but the convention left a dark cloud in my mind that has yet to dissipate.