Wrestling the ‘sleeping giant’: Local GOP deals with divide

A leadership upheaval within the Haywood County GOP is far from settled, but some members are calling for a reconciliation of opposing camps within the party.

The internal power struggle in the local party should take a backseat to the more important task at hand: campaigning for Republican candidates who will be on the ballot this fall. At least that’s the appeal that Lisa Womack made to members of the executive committee at a party meeting earlier this month in Waynesville.

“All factions are trying our best to focus on our candidates because we don’t want them to be hurt by what is going on internally,” Womack said. “Sometimes you have to have these kinds of fusses to get back to what you are supposed to do. There are some hard-working people out there who are running, and we want to show them respect and help them.”

Following a speech along those lines to the GOP’s executive committee, Womack was elected as vice-chair of the party. The seat had been vacant for months, which seems to be par for the course lately.

Three of the five officer positions had been vacant. Womack filled one, but two remain up in the air. Disenchantment with the bickering and feuding — and in particular the relentless, needling criticisms from an activist faction within the party — prompted some officers to resign. New people willing to step up and take the roles have been slow to materialize.

Only one other person put their name in the hat for vice-chair aside from Womack. A newcomer on the scene, Matthew Hebb, also made a bid for vice-chair and also pledged to pull the party together.

“I am on the side of the Republican Party and would like to see a unified, active and successful local party,” said Hebb, when asked which faction he hailed from. “I want to try to help them organize.”

Hebb, a fulltime student and head of the newly founded Young Republicans Club in Haywood County, offered an objective take as a neutral outsider.

“I don’t think they are as far apart as they think. I think both sides can pull together,” said Hebb.

Whether that can happen remains to be seen, however.

“I think they want to,” Womack said.


Too much baggage?

Beyond the calls for reconciliation, the party remains in a state of turmoil after a faction of the executive committee called for the ousting of Haywood GOP Chair Pat Carr earlier this month.

Two factions of the party have been at loggerheads for nearly a year. They fundamentally disagree on the role of the party.

A faction of conservative purists want to play an activist role, staking out platform positions on local issues and vocally pushing for conservative principals in local government.

Mainstream Republicans prefer the traditional and more limited role of the local party, namely recruiting and supporting Republican candidates. They fear being too outspoken will backfire and ultimately harm the party if it is viewed as a bunch of ideological extremists.

Carr represents the traditional camp of the party and is now in a power struggle with the activist faction. 

It is unclear whether the activist faction has enough votes to force Carr down, however. The decision rests with the executive committee of the party, which includes the five officers and all the precinct chairs — which fluctuates around 28 people, depending on vacancies among officers and precinct chairs at any given time.

While the faction had enough votes to call for Carr’s ousting, they need a two-thirds majority of the executive committee to side with them. A formal vote had not been scheduled as of last week.

Even among the faction that is dissatisfied with Carr’s leadership of the party, there are varying views. Some merely wanted to censure Carr rather than call for her removal. But those calling for her removal ultimately prevailed, and plan to call for a formal vote in the proceedings is in the near future.

Womack’s election as vice-chair could be a harbinger for the direction of the party. Womack was championed for vice-chair by the same activist faction that is pushing to oust Carr. Following the meeting where Womack was elected vice-chair, the ringleaders of the activist faction were all smiles as they flowed out of party headquarters and spilled into the parking lot.

But Womack said she is committed to serving the best interest of the party as a whole, not one faction over another.

“They all know that’s my desire,” said Womack, who has been actively involved in the Haywood Republican Party for several years, including serving as party secretary in the past.


Growing pains

Republicans, while still in the minority in Haywood County, have grown in number over the past decade.

The party is now trying to find its voice in the local political landscape, but it is having to build its own scaffolding as it goes.

By comparison, Haywood Democrats are more organized, thanks to a continuum of leadership with an institutional knowledge of the party’s by-laws.

“They know their party’s rules,” said Womack, who has family members who are Democrats.

The Republican Party, meanwhile, has been bogged down in recent months trying to navigate what its standard operating procedures are, or at least what they should be.

“I think that has been a bit of a struggle,” Womack said. 

The executive committee of the local GOP has spent untold hours fighting over mundane protocols for handling their business meetings — the process for preparing meeting agendas, when to disseminate those agendas, who is permitted to make motions, how committees should be appointed, how vacancies should be filled, and so on.

“I have sat through some of those meetings, and I didn’t enjoy it, and I know they didn’t enjoy it. We want things to settle back down and return to business as usual,” Womack said.

While the machinations over protocols seem petty, they matter.

Whoever sets the agenda controls what gets talked about and voted on. The activist faction of the party claims the agenda is being tightly controlled in a concerted effort to shut them out, or at the very least, keep them at arms’ length.

They say they can’t get issues placed on the agenda prior to the meeting, but if they try to discuss it anyway, they are told they can’t because it isn’t on the agenda.

“The executive committee is the leadership of the Republican Party. We should decide what issues to discuss, what resolutions we come up with, what goes on the agenda,” said Jonnie Cure, a Republican precinct chair and member of the activist faction.

They are also upset they don’t get a copy of the agenda until a couple of days before the meeting — and in the past, not until they show up for the meeting.

“Everyone should have the agenda and see ‘OK, here’s what we are working on.’ They don’t want us to have access to it,” said Eddie Cabe, a precinct chair of the executive committee and member of the activist faction. “Keeping everything secret and everyone in the dark till the last minute is a planned strategy by Pat Carr.”

However, at February’s GOP meeting, Carr asked everyone there — including Cabe — what items they wanted on the agenda of the next meeting, and no one spoke up, according to the minutes of the meeting.

Ultimately, an ad-hoc committee was named to tackle the agenda tussle and develop a protocol for how the agenda is created and circulated.

To Lynda Bennett, a Republican from no particular faction, the turmoil isn’t all that shocking.

The party’s executive committee underwent a major expansion last year from just five members to nearly 30. Before, only the five party officers served on the executive committee. But a movement led by the activist faction changed that, adding precinct chairs as voting members of the executive committee.

“The main concern at the time was it would be difficult to manage. Growing pains should be expected, and sure enough there have been growing pains,” Bennett said. “We have made adjustments, but more have to be made.”

Governing by committee is not easy, however. The activist faction wants precinct chairs to be consulted at every turn, and weigh in on every move, making the process cumbersome.

While the Haywood County Democratic Party has an executive committee that’s twice as large as the newly expanded Republican one — the Democratic executive committee includes not only precinct chairs but also vice-chairs — the day-to-day of party business is run by a much smaller subset. The core Democratic party officers develop the agenda, for example, not the whole executive committee. The rest of the executive committee gets handed a copy when they arrive for the monthly meeting.


Common courtesy

As the Republican Party works through its growing pains, some personalities have added fuel to the fire due to aggressive tactics.

“Things are said and done in ways that are not the best, friendliest way to discuss these issues,” Bennett said. “Both sides say things that are inflammatory and both sides say things that hurt the other’s feelings.”

The activist faction has excelled at using email as a weapon of intimidation, launching a barrage of personal attacks against those who disagree with them to a massive list of recipients as an audience to the assault. 

Monroe Miller, a precinct vice-chair and member of the activist faction, was generating so much email to party members, some of it unwanted, that “removal from email list” was among the agenda topics at this month’s party meeting.

“I have read all the emails over the past few months between Mr. Miller and others and have come to the conclusion that we as Haywood County Republicans are dysfunctional. How can we support candidates when we are so busy pecking each other? Let’s spend our energies on joining together to win elections for our candidates, not on trivial issues,” Susan Brown, a precinct secretary, urged in an email of her own to Miller this month.

Miller has been labeled as both “caustic” and a “bully” for the critical emails he sends out about others. These criticisms against Miller, ironically, were also penned in emails, which were obtained through a public records request to county officials regularly cc:ed on Miller’s email traffic.

Miller replied in an email that his tactics are necessary when met by “pushback.”

Cabe, who also generates a copious volume of critical emails, said those in his camp have been forced to assert themselves louder and louder. They have been labeled as troublemakers, but that misses the main point: If precinct chairs were given a voice in shaping the direction of the party, there wouldn’t have been a conflict in the first place. 

“For many years the Haywood GOP has been run by a handful of officers who did not want any interference from those Republicans outside their little group,” Cabe wrote in a complaint to the state party about the issues in Haywood. 

Adding precinct chairs to the executive committee has caused “great stress” to that inner circle, who view the precinct chairs with “disdain and contempt,” Cabe said.

The activist faction believes in the conservative principles they are standing up for and won’t quit, Cure said.

“They have grit,” Cure said, painting the faction as the epitome of a grassroots movement.


Fork in the road

Some mainstream Republicans, however, fear for the direction of the party should the activist faction take over completely. They fear it could become a vehicle for the ideological extreme of the party, touting platform positions “in the name of” the party, even if they don’t in fact represent the majority of Republicans in the county.

The activist faction has called for a straw poll or resolution on local issues twice in the past year.

One called on the county to “do over” its property revaluations, claiming the property values on tax rolls now are intentionally laced with bias to extort more property taxes out of certain classes of people.

A second one denounced a county proposal to increase the tourism tax on overnight lodging to build or improve tourism-related attractions and venues.

Both party resolutions passed, and both were presented to county commissioners with the weight of the Haywood County Republican Party behind them.

But in reality, the resolutions came from a relatively small handful of Republicans who show up at party gatherings. Whether the 12,000 registered Republicans in the county agree is a mystery.

The activist faction that has risen to power within the party would like to take stands on more issues, more frequently. 

Some believe this is what the conservative activists were after all along: gaining control of the Republican Party to lend clout and credence to their own positions. 

Some have been long-time critics of the powers that be in Haywood County government, but the backing of a political party certainly gives them a louder voice.

Cure claims it is the other way around. She has been standing up for conservative principals for years, but the Republican Party always sat on its hands and went along to get along. Now, with their numbers building in Haywood County, the party has a chance to do something.

“The party is evolving. It is the sleeping giant,” Cure said.

Now is not the time, the activist faction argues, to do what’s always been done.

“We want to increase the effectiveness of the party,” Cure said. “There are timid people who don’t feel capable of leading on policy issues.”

Samantha Battell from Maggie Valley believes the party won’t reach its full potential unless the old leadership steps aside and makes way for the conservative activists.

“There is a vast amount of knowledge in there,” said Battell, speaking in the parking lot outside the Haywood Republican meeting last week. “You have people wanting to change the direction the county is going right now. I think we need a leader who will lead.”

Bennett said the party chair has a challenging job.

“They should be very cautious because they represent all 12,000 Republicans in the county and not just this person or that person, or this idea or that idea,” Bennett said. “The chair has to be so mild-mannered it might aggravate people, but they have to be because they represent 12,000 people.”


Going the distance

But some mainstream members of the party have another fear: that the activists are only interested in making noise. There’s doubt whether they will do the busy work of actually running a political party should they gain control.

Someone has to coordinate food for party gatherings, recruit and organize volunteers for polling sites on Election Day, put up signs for candidates, fill out receipts for donations, type up the minutes of monthly party meetings, host meet-and-greet functions for candidates, or simply take out the trash and wash the windows at party headquarters.

The biggest kicker, of course, is fundraising.

It was one of the first signs of a fracture within the party shortly after the executive committee was expanded to include precinct chairs.

Mainstream Republicans on the executive board suggested a required donation of $20 a month from each precinct chair to help pay rent and overhead for the party’s headquarters. Theoretically, they could raise it within their precinct, or just pay it themselves. But the idea of a mandatory monthly contribution didn’t sit well with some precinct chairs. 

So a new suggestion was made that would base the monthly contribution per precinct on a sliding scale, depending on the size of the precinct, with the county’s smallest precincts ponying up just $4 a month.

Still, some opposed the idea of “dues” on principle, and it was deemed a monthly “goal” rather than a mandatory payment.

Over the past year, turmoil in the party has slowed donations. Kevin Ensley, a county commissioner and a Republican, said the faction behind the infighting is hurting the party.

“The party cannot raise money to support candidates,” Ensley said. “The party has become dysfunctional, and that will hurt the candidates come November.”

The activist faction hasn’t given robustly because they felt shut out. And many mainstream Republicans fed up with the party had quit giving as well, saying they would redirect their support to individual candidates instead of the local party.

Funds dipped so low some members recently questioned whether the party could afford the roughly $600 a month for rent and utilities to keep headquarters open, according to the minutes of a February executive committee meeting.

As of late February, the party had only $2,100, lackluster donations coming in and no fundraising activities of any sort scheduled. The executive committee voted not to close headquarters, however, but to find a way to come up with the money.

The conservative activists claim they would pitch in more — money-wise and labor-wise — if they were brought into the fold rather than held at bay on the periphery. They want a voice and say in the direction of the party, not just to be called on when it’s time to give money or make potluck dishes for the annual convention.

The activist faction also believes there are more effective ways of reaching voters than making sausage balls or crock-pot chili for party gatherings.

Having a vocal and robust Facebook page, staging issues forums, holding petition drives, speaking at county commissioner meetings — these do more to move the bar on local government policies.


Fear tactics

Many mainline Republicans have declined to comment for this article, fearing they would come in the cross-hairs of mass email attacks.

Haywood Commissioner Kevin Ensley has been on the receiving end of these for a few years now for not being conservative enough despite his Republican affiliation. The insult of RINO — Republican in Name Only — is used liberally to describe any Republican who is not Republican enough in the conservative purists’ view.

Ensley said mainstream Republicans in the party are now scared to speak out or go against the activist faction.

That’s exactly the response given by Ray Warren, a precinct chair and longtime party volunteer, when asked for a comment on the current situation within the party.

“They have called me all kind of things,” Warren said. “They have called me a RINO and a liberal. Why all the arguing and calling people names? I don’t quite understand what their point is. It is all negative.”

Warren said he did not want to comment for fear of riling them up against him.

Ultimately, several Republicans disenchanted by the melee with the local party have walked away.

Paul Turner, who was the party’s finance and fundraising chair, recently resigned his position. He likewise changed his party affiliation to independent.

“I resigned as the finance chair because I did not like the direction the Haywood GOP was going. I am interested in issues that are important to Haywood County and electing good candidates to office,” Turner said.

Ensley said the goal of the activist faction is to drive others away so they can increase their own hold on the party.

Here is a mass email sent out last month by Miller, after another mainstream Republican vacated his seat as precinct chair.

“Where the heck is Tony Beaman on the list of Precinct Chairs? Where the [Expletive Deleted] is he? Did he punch out also? These people are dropping like flies. Can’t wait for Ray Warren or Clarissa Kuehn to punch out!” Miller wrote, citing by name two hold-outs among mainstream Republicans who have hung in on the executive committee.


Party maneuvering

Ensley postulated that the party has nearly reached the “tipping point,” if not already there, with the activist faction now in the majority on the executive committee.

It seemed the only way to extract them from the party was political maneuvering.

So last month, at the party’s annual convention, a surprise motion was brought to the floor to kick precinct chairs off the executive committee.

At least it was a surprise to the activist faction. Mainstream Republicans, including Carr, knew the motion was coming. They had, in fact, been planning it for weeks, but kept it quiet.

“It is seen by far too many Republicans as a sly, underhanded attempt to turn back the clock and return to the ineffective, inefficient, pitiful attempt to exclusively control and rule our Haywood County Republican Party,” Cure wrote in an email to Carr following the convention.

The move to shed the precinct chairs was justified by mainstream Republicans as a last-ditch effort to save the party from a takeover by the activist faction. The surprise element was part and parcel to their strategy, it seems.

At the annual party convention, any Republican who shows up is allowed to vote. The key is who shows up.

If the activist faction knew about the plan to kick precinct chairs off the executive committee, they would have mustered as big a turnout from their faction as possible.

While there are scores of mainstream Republicans who would like to see the activist faction ousted from their power seats, whether they would have showed up for a showdown with the activist faction is uncertain. 

“They don’t participate,” Ensley said. “People just don’t want to go anymore.”

Ultimately, the motion to downsize the executive committee was withdrawn after a hue-and-cry erupted. 

The maneuvering by Carr to strip the precinct chairs from the executive committee angered the activist faction.

“Your actions will have a very long-lasting and negative effect on our Party,” Cabe wrote in an email to Carr after the convention.

Cabe said it also violated the party’s rules by conducting business without “the knowledge, consent, or approval of the executive voting members.”

In retaliation, the activist faction turned the tables a few weeks later by calling for Carr’s ousting.

However, the secret bid to cut out the precinct chairs is not much different than what the activist faction did to gain power in the first place. They had likewise plotted, in their own secret strategy meetings, how to infiltrate the party’s leadership structure — first with a concerted plan to snatch up precinct chairs and then pushing for a vote to make themselves part of the executive committee.

Precinct chairs serve as a critical bridge between the party structure and rank-and-file voters at the neighborhood level.

There are usually few, if any, takers for the role of precinct chair, however. Many of the 29 precincts in the county didn’t even have precinct chairs within the Republican Party until a couple of years ago. 

Who — if anyone — claims the title depends solely on who shows up to the party convention where precinct chairs are elected every other year. At last year’s convention, many precincts had only two or three people come — five from a precinct was considered a good showing — making it easy for members of the activist faction to walk on.

At the same party gathering, a vote passed to make precinct chairs official members of the executive committee, completing the plan.

Strategizing to undo that move isn’t terribly different from the strategizing by the other side a year ago. 

But closing the door once the horse is out of the barn is never easy, and taking on the party’s own voting members has proven a far more dangerous game.

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