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Wednesday, 05 April 2017 14:18

Patriot faction of Haywood GOP blindsided by ousting

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Eddie Cabe suspected something big was afoot in the weeks leading up to the annual precinct gathering of the Haywood County Republican Party. 

But he didn’t realize just how big until he saw cars parked all over the grass and a check-in line snaking out the door — both telltale signs of the showdown waiting inside.

Cabe and his patriot faction had grown at odds with the party establishment of late, but neither side was going quietly. The past several months had been marked by accusations of collusion, shifting allegiances, email sparring, social media shaming and shouting matches.

The factions wrestled over control of the party headquarters, argued over when and where to hold meetings, debated who volunteered more hours, swapped character barbs, and even tried to strip each other from the party bank account and confiscate each others keys to headquarters. 

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a group of party insiders began strategizing the ouster of the patriot faction. The plan: to push them out of their precinct chair positions and off the party’s executive committee.

When the countywide precinct gathering rolled around in February, Cabe and his patriot faction were oblivious to the coup about to unfold, however.

“This was all done in secret behind closed doors,” Cabe said.

But as they funneled in to the metal warehouse in Bethel — the site of the GOP gathering — it was swarming with unfamiliar faces. The expansive floor was lined with rows of folding tables labeled with signs for each of the 30 precincts in the county. 

When Cabe finally found the table with his precinct name on it, he was surprised to see so many people. Years’ past, it was just him and his wife and a couple others at best sitting around the table at the annual precinct gathering. But this year, there were a dozen.

Cabe noticed one woman had a folded piece of paper and was surreptitiously showing it to few others. He didn’t think anything of it at first, but gradually grew suspicious.

“She got up and showed other people the piece of paper and whispered in their ear and came and sat back down,” Cabe said.

Meanwhile, a similar story was playing out a few tables over at Joy Diettle’s precinct.

“Down at the end of the table there were a group of men looking at a sheet of paper. I walk over to them and they quickly folded it up and tucked it in their pocket looking sheepish,” Diettle said.

Jeremy Davis, a member of the patriot faction sitting at Diettle’s table, asked point blank what the paper was all about.

“I said ‘What’d ya have there?’ And he said, ‘This is the list of people I was given to vote for to keep this one guy from getting a seat,’” Davis recounted.

Little did the man know that Davis was that “one guy.” Someone across the table silently shook his head, trying to silence the man with the paper from saying anything more to Davis. 

But Davis quickly snatched the paper. What he saw was a cheat sheet of names to vote for in the precinct election — names for precinct chair, vice chair, secretary and over a dozen delegates.

Cabe has since realized what was on the sheet of paper at his table as well, and walked out.

“I said ‘I am not going to play a crooked game with crooked people.’ It was clear the whole thing was being manipulated. This was not honest, open governance,” Cabe said. 

Diettle wonders whether those who came out to vote the line of the party establishment knew if they were complicit in a coup.

“They probably realized they were being manipulated but thought they were supporting a friend and it was the right thing to do,” Diettle said.

Davis doesn’t blame those who were recruited to the precinct gathering but instead sees them as pawns.

“I bet 98 percent of people had no idea what was going to happen,” Davis said.

It wasn’t until the precinct gathering ended that blindsided members of the patriot faction realized the same story had unfolded all over the room that day.

“I was sitting there rather dumfounded at what had occurred and I didn’t know what was going on at other precinct tables with the cheat sheets,” said Paul Yeager. “The gentleman who ran against me openly admitted he’d been asked to come and run to keep me from getting chair.”

K. G. Watson, a neutral observer who witnessed the precinct overthrow, believes the cheat sheets were misleading. They had the air of an official party hand-out, and most in attendance took the lists as gospel.

“It was implied these are your official candidates,” Watson said. “It was a scam.”

Watson was impressed at the orchestration that went into the overthrow, but found it deceitful. 

“It was a mass effort, and if it had been an honest effort I would not be talking to you right now,” Watson said. “These kind of things create long-standing animosity and if you are really trying to get on the same page you can’t do things like that.”

 

All’s fair in politics

The political strategy that went into the precinct gathering was indeed immense. But there’s nothing wrong with that, according to Lynda Bennett, the newly elected party secretary from the mainstream branch of the Haywood GOP.

“There was a lot of legwork and a lot of effort went into getting that number of people to come out. It had never been that well organized before,” Bennett said.

Bennett said there’s often competition for party offices, particularly at the district and state level, where conventions are rife with campaigning for leadership positions.

“Somebody gives you a button, somebody else gives you a hat, somebody gives you a pen — it is not uncommon. It’s common,” Bennett said.

Pat Carr, a long-time party leader from the mainstream branch, said the groundswell of Republicans who came out for the precinct gathering has been a long time coming for a party that’s risen above its minority status in Haywood. The momentum from Trump’s win, and the success of local Republican candidates on the ballot last fall, created the perfect storm.

“There was tremendous enthusiasm and I wanted to capitalize on that. It was a good time to strike while the iron was hot,” said Carr, the newly elected party treasurer. “All of us really worked to organize the precincts so we would have representation across the county. Many are new people and probably have new ideas. We can always use more talent.”

At the end of the day, more than a dozen members of the patriot faction were ousted from their precinct seats. Only two patriots managed to stay in the game.

“There was enough people that came this time that cared and were interested in making their voices heard,” said Pat Bennett, a Republican from Maggie Valley who’s been involved in the local party since the 1970s.

Bennett, who won the precinct chair for Maggie Valley, readily admits that he recruited people to turn out and vote for him.

“I worked hard to get that precinct turnout,” he said. “When I decided I wanted it, I called all the people I knew who were Republicans and ask them to come vote for me. I actually picked up two people in my car and drove them there because they were in wheelchairs. They were there to vote for me.”

But that’s how elections work, he said.

“The other side — if you want to call it that — had a good opportunity to call their supporters as well,” said Lisa Womack, a long-time party member.

Philip Wight, who Bennett ousted as Maggie precinct chair but claims allegiance to neither faction in particular, said he would have saved himself the time and trouble of going to the precinct meeting if he’d known it was going to be a set up. Wight was glad to serve as precinct chair if it needed filling, but wasn’t gunning for a showdown over the volunteer title.

 

A clean sweep

To silence the patriot faction, the mainstream branch needed to seize a critical mass of precinct chair seats. If the patriot faction maintained a toehold on the executive committee, the party would remain bogged down by infighting and disarray. 

“If I’m going to do something, we are going to do it all the way,” said Pat Bennett. “I wanted to see unity in the party.” 

Leo Phillips, a Republican from Murphy who’s active in the party at the state and district level, saw the show of force at Haywood’s precinct gathering first-hand. He made the rounds to 14 counties during March to drop in on their annual conventions and campaign for the title of 11th District Party Chair. Haywood turned out more people than any of the other conventions he attended.

“I was very impressed with the enthusiasm and numbers that came out,” Phillips said.

Regardless of what motivated people, the point is they came out, he said.

“Whenever you get those kind of numbers and there’s that much enthusiasm and they are part of the process of the party election, then it is a good thing. It is democracy at its very basic,” Phillips said.

The election of precinct chairs and officers within a party is a lot like a primary, with people of the same political stripes running against each other. It can be more difficult emotionally than running against the opposing party.

“During elections, only one side wins and only side loses,” said Lynda Bennett. “Feelings do get hurt but you have to let the process of voting take place and let people make their decisions of who they want to lead.”

Phillips’ run for district chair isn’t his first bid for higher office in the party. He’s tried before and lost, but didn’t take his marbles and go home. 

“I didn’t leave the sandbox. You got to stay in there,” Phillips said.

To the masses, precinct meetings are elusive and obscure. But they are the essence of political parties in America, the very backbone the party is built on.

The chain of command in a party doesn’t flow from the top down like the military, but instead flows from the ground up, starting with precincts.

Each precinct — thousands of them all across America — elect chairs and delegates to their county party, which in turn elects delegates to the district, state and national party conventions.

The national party platforms define the public’s view of society and influence the nation’s direction on a grand scale at, but it all starts at the grassroots precinct meetings.

This grassroots process was violated in Haywood County, Cabe said. The election of precinct chairs and delegates was orchestrated from the top down, with mercenaries brought in to carry out the marching orders for the establishment.

Cabe thinks the same voting laws that apply to elections should apply to the party’s own selection of officers and delegates.

“It would be a felony to go into where people are voting and lay down a list of people they should vote for,” Cabe said.

Debbie King, the Haywood GOP vice chair who recently switched camps from the patriot faction to mainstream branch, initially denied there was a concerted effort to create cheat sheets. When asked about their origin, she postulated the lists were just a coincidence. 

But the lists had clearly been orchestrated, with the font, type size and formatting identical from precinct to precinct.

 

Staying power

It remains to be seen whether the masses recruited to pull off the overthrow of the patriot faction will stick with the party.

“They tried to stack the executive committee. But in few months they won’t have a quorum to get anything done,” said Terry Ramey, who claims to be neutral but sympathizes with the patriot faction.

Watson agreed.

“If you try to build a party with people who aren’t interested or are immature to the political process they aren’t going to come back to meetings,” Watson said. “They aren’t people you can count on. They won’t be active.”

Another problem is trust. Some newcomers may not have realized they were being used as pawns in a power coup. “What they did may be legal but it is unethical,” Ramey said. “How can these people knock the church door off every time church is open and then come out here and be deceptive?”

Those who witnessed it may be leery of the party turning on them one day, too. They may always be leery of any organization that used so much political maneuvering to take control of the leadership of the local party. 

“Yeah you have recruited a lot of new blood to the table, but once they see the leadership style, they aren’t going to have patience for that and it will collapse again and you will end up with that core small group that ran the party before,” said Mark Zaffrann, who claims to be neutral, but doesn’t like how the patriot faction was treated.

For many, it was the first time they ever came to a party function or got involved in the local party other than voting on election day. But that’s the first step to building a more active party, and Lynda Bennett believes they will have staying power.

“They said it was fascinating and interesting and enjoyed the process. They thought it was interesting and fun,” she said.

There’s a reason some of the people who came for the precinct gathering hadn’t shown up at party functions before. They hadn’t felt comfortable or welcome, but being personally invited to get involved changed that, said Womack.

“Some of the people who didn’t feel comfortable coming before turned out for this event,” Womack said. “We were all very uplifted by the record attendance. We were very, very encouraged and realized the other group doesn’t have that big of a following. The general feeling is that really and truly they are a minority that has a very, very narrow viewpoint.”

Bennett said the party was being held back by strife and negative energy, but hopes that will now change.

“We were never able to bring all these people in,” Bennett said. “We wanted to create an environment that was more celebratory and happier and more positive. It is essential that we stay on a positive footing to keep this level of activity.”

Some of the patriots are known for their bareknuckle tactics, from public cussing outs in mass emails to made-up accusations of malfeasance against their foes.

But the party insiders who planned the heist of the precinct meetings did something worse, at least in Watson’s view. The exorcism of the patriot faction was akin to a nuclear option, Watson said.

“It is the last thing you would try if the party was going under, but it wasn’t going under, it was riding the crest of big victory,” Watson said. “They had to go throw some more fuel on the fire.”

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