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.