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.