One-liners and the warpath: State Republicans relax, ready for revolution at Cherokee convention
Thom Tillis has a recurring daydream. The Republican Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives and candidate for the U.S. Senate, laid out his fantasy during the GOP’s annual convention held last weekend in Cherokee.
“It goes something like this: I’m standing in the Senate chamber,” Tillis said, “and Harry Reid is looking for his seat. And I get to say, ‘Mr. Minority leader, it’s somewhere back there.”
The Speaker’s approaching battle with sitting Sen. Kay Hagan is a big deal. It’s among a handful of races that could decide whether the GOP takes control of the U.S. Senate come November.
This fact has turned Tillis into a bit of a rock star.
“’You’re a groupie of mine? You win this race, you’ll be the king of groupies,’” conservative-darling Bill Bennett said of Tillis.
That chance to flip a pivotal seat and shift the majority in the U.S. Senate served to energize the faithful in attendance at Harrah’s Resort and Casino in Cherokee, the only time in recent memory the state GOP has met in Western North Carolina.
“We can’t afford to let Harry Reid sit in the front of the room one more day,” former Arkansas governor and 2008 GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee demanded during dinner at the convention. “You absolutely have to retire Kay Hagen.”
While other business was tended to — shaking out the party platform, for instance — the recent GOP convention was largely meant to rally what Tillis refers to as the “foot soldiers in this revolution.”
“This is a time when we have to get out and get our base enthused,” said Jackson County GOP Chairman Ralph Slaughter as he awaited Huckabee’s convention address.
Not everyone was enthused about the GOP’s visit to Cherokee. A group of protesters — unhappy with the direction Republican legislators have steered the state — received permission from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to assemble on a corner across the street from the valet parking lot.
“This is all part of Moral Monday energy,” said protester Steve Norris of Fairview. “Bad things in government cause rebellion.”
The corner rebellion remained only a rumor within the confines of the convention. Inside Harrah’s, the GOP could whoop up the home team without risking the public displays that haunt them in Raleigh.
“Not a good idea,” said a member of Harrah’s security team, explaining that any protests on the property would draw both federal and tribal prosecution.
No, inside the convention the GOP was left to cultivate a celebration that was equal parts pep-rally and war dance. Republicans took the opportunity to plot the revolution — a revolution built on the backs of what Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal calls the “good, decent, God-fearing people” — and pray that North Carolina might play some part in shifting the larger political landscape.
“I sense there’s a rebellion brewing,” Jihndal told the crowd in Cherokee. “Thank you for fighting the good fight.”
Riding the lightning
with Gov. Corndog
The seniors playing slots near the casino’s side entrance seemed oblivious to the action going on upstairs. Past the slot machines and the floor tile that glittered like diamonds, up a 68-foot waterfall and tucked discreetly into cubbies within the casino, the annual state convention was in full swing.
Just as the players downstairs were missing the GOP show, convention attendees could manage to go about their weekend with little notice of gambling. Since selecting the Cherokee resort for the convention, the hypocrisy of venturing to a casino when some members of the party have reservations about gambling had not gone unnoticed.
“What’s the big deal?” shrugged Dodie Allen, acknowledging the conflict but preferring to move beyond it.
There are a number of awkward schisms that aren’t being discussed at the GOP convention. No one is talking about the variations between the wings of the party. There are better things to discuss than inner-party drama like the divides that exists between Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican legislators over issues like Medicaid reform and education funding.
Allen, who recently lost her primary bid for the N.C. 119 House seat representing this region, isn’t sweating such disconnects — besides the party ended up softening platform language on gambling during the convention — and would rather focus on the un-conflicted mission of flipping the national senate.
Mike Clampitt, the candidate who beat Allen in the GOP primary and will now face Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, in the fall, agreed.
“Every family has its squabbles,” Clampitt said, taking a break from delegation proceedings over the weekend. “But when it comes down to being united for a common goal and direction, the members of the party will unify.”
That goal of course, is electing Republicans. Especially Tillis.
“A lot of energy comes from the Tillis-Hagan race, and that will trickle down to local elections,” said Clampitt
Halfway through the weekend, N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, had a good feeling about the party’s chances to pull off something special.
“The party seems to be united, and they’re gonna have to be this fall,” Davis said. “I think what’s going on in our country has them energized.”
Whether spurred by the Tillis-Hagan race or the Obama-era in general, Allen could feel that energy lit up like lightning in a bottle. She’s been hitting political conventions for a while —“That’s my Goldwater pin, I’ve had it since the 60s” — and knew this one was special.
“We are attracting people who are on the national scene,” said Allen, a Swain County resident, Sylva business owner and delegate to the convention.
Allen pointed to the roster of speakers slated for the weekend as indicative of the state’s overall importance nationally. It was a passable collection Republican-circuit notables, two of them regarded as presidential contenders.
In addition to Huckabee, Bennett and Gov. Jindal, attendees would hear from former speaker of the house Dennis Hastert. The keynoters had been brought in to light a fire under the North Carolina Republican base.
Bennett started it off as delegates dined on a lunch of molasses-glazed pork loin and wheat berry pilaf. The former U.S. secretary of education recently relocated to North Carolina from Maryland.
“Why’d you leave Maryland?” Bennett said. “It’s like that old joke — I won’t tell you the whole thing, it wouldn’t be right — but the last line is ‘I’ve enjoyed about as much as I can take.’”
Bennett bemoaned recent political changes in his former home that he disagreed with, before working the theme up to the national level. He painted a bleak assessment of America in the Obama era, ticking off a list of grievances: “Immigrations laws are not being enforced … there’s a war on coal … the redline in Syria was not a redline … ‘don’t dare move on Ukraine, Mr. Putin.’ Mr. Putin moves on Ukraine … we’ve been embarrassed on the national stage because of our president’s impotence … get the millennial out of your basement, in case he’s there staring at that Obama poster — remember that part of Paul Ryan’s speech?”
“It’s painful,” Bennett told the lunch crowd. “It’s a painful litany. It’s hard to listen to and it’s hard to endure.”
The political pundit and host of the “Morning in America” radio show also threw out some fresh headlines guaranteed to cause delegates to gag on their field greens and grape tomatoes. As further evidence of America’s decline, Bennett pointed to the recent exchange of Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. service member and prisoner of war held captive for five years in Afghanistan, for five prisoners — “the Taliban dream team” — held at Guantanamo Bay.
“We know for sure it is a mess,” Bennett said. “It may be a catastrophe and a disaster and a disgrace.”
With the crowd warmed up, Bennett turned it over to Gov. Jindal during desert. The Louisiana governor began by stumping for Tillis, who had just introduced the speaker.
“He’s taken over the state legislature and now we need to help him take over the U.S. Senate,” Jindal said of the weekend’s cause celebre.
Jindal — at times a name mentioned during presidential speculations — relayed his personal story to the convention attendees. He told them about how his parents had migrated from India to Baton Rouge, La.
“The American Dream I learned about is one where we leave more opportunity for our children than we received from our parents,” Jindal said. “If you work had, there’s no limit to what you can do in this country.”
The governor argued that the version of the American dream he was familiar with was not the same one being offered under the leadership of President Obama.
“In his worldview, the American dream is managing the slow decline of a once-great economy,” Jindal said.
The governor also spoke about how he had cut his budget by 26 percent and achieved the “strongest pro-life bills and the strongest pro-life laws year after year in the state of Louisiana.” His remarks traversed topics like the Fast and Furious arms fiasco and how the Obama Administration had blamed the violence in Libya on an inflammatory YouTube video. He accused Obama of using the Internal Revenue Service to go after conservative organizations and discussed Hobby Lobby’s stance on the new healthcare laws and the “unprecedented attack on our religious liberty.”
Jindal also talked about education, a subject of constant conversation these days in North Carolina. The governor pointed to the country’s steady decline in international educational rankings, and connected a quality education with the achievement of the American Dream.
“We can’t accept that if we want to be a superpower and want to maintain our quality of life,” Jindal said.
The governor explained how Louisiana had created a statewide scholarship program to enable students and their parent the chance to enroll in a charter schools.
“We’ve got to trust parents to be the first and best educators of their children,” Jindal said, explaining that his state now had record numbers of students opting for charter schools.
The governor also described the opposition his education reforms encountered in Louisiana.
“Make no mistake, the Left doesn’t think we’re smart enough to be trusted, they don’t think we’re smart enough to decide,” Jindal said, recalling opposition from teacher unions. “There were so many protestors I began telling my children, ‘that’s just a parade for daddy.”
He relayed how the teachers union tried to recall him. And about his legal wranglings with the feds — “we beat the Justice Department in federal court” — over his education reforms.
“When Eric Holder took us to court, I went up to Washington, D.C., and said, ‘This is cynical, immoral and hypocritical,’” Jindal said. “I’m not sure I’ll be invited back to the White House.”
After the afternoon’s convention agenda was tended to, delegates returned for dinner with Hastert and Huckabee. The former Speaker was announced early on, and maintained his top-billing Saturday night slot, but it was fairly obvious that Huckabee — the former governor, preacher, presidential candidate, bass player, Fox News personality and late sign-on to the convention — was the main attraction.
“Denny Hastert is a past name,” Allen had noted earlier. “Not many people probably remember who he was.”
Huckabee spoke first during the evening meal session. The amiable Republican ran through a mix of political observations and comic relief. And he killed.
Huckabee talked about foreign relations: “Nobody trusts us anymore and nobody respects us anymore and nobody fear us anymore.”
And about millennials: “A lot of them voted for Barack Obama because he promised hope and change and right now they’re just hoping they can find some change in their parents’ couch.”
About the American Dream: “We need to raise a generation of kids that are optimistic and hopeful about the future and where they don’t have to worry about daddy not having a job.”
About bobsledding on a 2002 Winter Olympics course in Utah: “We got up to top speed and he said, ‘Governor, are you ready?’ I said, ‘To what? Meet Jesus?’”
And about nicknames: “They tried to call me Gov. Corndog for a while.”
Huckabee also discussed a recent trip to China. He said while he had reservations about the nation, he found the infrastructure and economy to be “pretty amazing.”
“So, they’re buying Prada and they’re buying Louis Vuitton,” Huckabee said. “It’s like Fifth Avenue on steroids.”
The governor drew lines between China and America, arguing that while China had made improvements, the U.S. was sliding in the wrong direction. He charged that history was being scrubbed in the U.S. — “we forgot to tell this generation that this country was founded as one nation under God” — similar to the information blackout surrounding the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising in China. He drew parralls between legalized abortions in the U.S and China’s one-child policy.
“Here’s what I came back with: China is becoming more like America use to be and America is becoming more like China use to be,” Huckabee said. “I don’t worry that China is becoming strong, I worry that America is becoming weak.”
Huckabee also urged convention attendees to strive for that same American Dream that Jindal had described earlier. The American Dream he too recalls from his childhood.
“We were living in a country in which we believed America could put its mind to anything and do anything,” he said, leaning heavily on the country’s 1969 moon landing.
The pitch was simple: elect Republicans, return to a more idyllic Eden. It’s not too late, there’s still hope.
“I’m convinced, by the way, that this country is not on its last leg,” Huckabee said.
Enjoying a moment
in the hornet’s nest
While the political celebrities brought in for the convention’s keynote addresses got attendees’ attention, it was the in-state leadership that seemed to really raise a room’s temperature.
Huckabee and company were surreal celebrities to watch while enjoying a meal. The likes of Speaker Tillis and Gov. Pat McCrory was something to get do get down right worked up about.
Delegates from across the state filled Harrah’s event center to hear the men speak. Tillis — North Carolina’s contribution to the GOP’s aim of upsetting the U.S. Senate’s Democratic majority in D.C. —would take the opportunity to request support in his race against Hagan, while McCrory would simply bask in the glow of the state’s Republican revolution he helped lead.
The attendees were psyched. And they were assured that McCrory was backstage “fired up” as well.
The governor didn’t disappoint when he took the floor.
“I want you to know, I am enjoying every single moment,” McCrory exclaimed.
The governor relayed some advice he received from advisor Jack Hawke, who died last November: even when things get rough, enjoy the moment.
McCrory then proceeded to list off a number of reasons why he was enjoying himself so much currently, building Hawke’s advice into a refrain. He talked about hugging veterans and lower corporate tax rates, he talked about fracking and increasing teacher pay.
“Jack, I’m enjoying the moment!” McCrory said.
The governor touched on health care — “This week I met with over a hundred doctors who came over to the mansion, doctors who are concerned about Obamacare” — jobs and the swelling wave the state’s Republicans seem to have been able to ride in recent years.
“If we continue this way,” he said, “this is going to be a Carolina miracle.”
After McCrory’s pep talk, the room awaited the man the state party is pinning their national hopes to. Tillis waited out his lengthy introductions, spending time on the sideline posing for selfies with supporters.
When the senate candidate took the stage, he let delegates know he was excited about the race.
“Interestingly enough,” Tillis said, “I’m from Mecklenburg County, which is known as the ‘hornet’s nest.’ Well, Barack Obama and Kay Hagan have stirred up a hornet’s nest!”
Across the state in Raleigh where the Democratic convention was being held almost simultaneously, Sen. Hagan also stressed the stakes of the race and rallied her own troops. She never mentioned President Obama.
Tillis, however, made a point of tying his rival to the President, as well as the Democrat-controlled Senate.
“In North Carolina, does a senator who votes with Barack Obama represent our values? They’ve had it their way for the last six years and now it’s time for us to have it our way,” Tillis said. “And ladies and gentlemen, that’s why I’m running for U.S. Senate.”
Nowhere to hide
from the hidden
Republican-spearheaded legislation has sparked protest for more than a year in Raleigh. Weekly displays and demonstrations have become commonplace at the state’s capitol. During the Cherokee convention, protesters were provided an intersection next to a closed down steakhouse at the intersection of Paint Town Road and Casino Trail.
The Canary Coalition, a Western North Carolina environmental organization, applied for the appropriate protest permit from the tribe a couple of days before the convention began. They were joined at the intersection by local firemen pacing the turn lanes with boots held up in hopes of donations.
“They thought they were safe from protest,” said Avram Friedman, head of the Canary Coalition. “We’re here to tell them they have nowhere to hide. Take note of the big sign we have.”
Nearby the cluster of demonstrators was a tent sporting a sign: ‘McCory, Tillis, Berger Nowhere to Hide From What You Have Done.’ Nearby, a cardboard cutout of Rep. Mark Meadows, the Republican congressman from Cashiers, rested against a street sign, holding tea bags and burning $100 bills.
“The agenda of the current leadership in Raleigh is backwards, bringing us backwards in time,” Freidman said.
The protesters raised issue with lawmakers’ decisions regarding issues such as healthcare, education and fracking. They complained about recent voting laws and cuts in social programs.
“I grieve for those lawmakers who have lost their moral compass,” said Maggie Valley resident Mary McGlauflin.
Protester Steve Norris held a sign that read ‘Welcome to N.C., the new Trail of Tears.’ He acknowledged it was a delicate comparison to make in Cherokee.
“This isn’t quite that bad,” Norris allowed. “Except some people say a few thousand people may die because of not expanding Medicaid.”
During his convention speech, Gov. McCrory had noted a recent encounter with another group protesting Republican policies.
“Yesterday, I was really enjoying the moment,” the governor said, describing the confrontation. “One guy was yelling at me, just screaming at me and he was expecting me to walk away and so was my staff. And I said, ‘No, let’s go talk to him.”
McCrory discussed fracking with the protester. He explained his position that the state can “no longer sit on the sidelines of energy exploration” and the protester laid out a case to the contrary.
The governor told the state’s Republicans that he’s getting accustomed to such vocal and consistent opposition to the party’s politics.
“I hear from the left-leaning protesters, the left-leaning editorial writers, The New York Times, Rachael Maddow, Bill Maher and other self-proclaimed geniuses,” McCrory said.
He defended the party. And urged North Carolina Republicans to stay their course.
“We’ll duck and weave, but we’re gonna charge forward in a respectful way for this state,” McCrory said.
The North Carolina GOP managed to snag some solid B-list conservatives. They came to inspire. They came to enlighten. They came to pose for souvenir photos with delegates.
Formerly the governor of Arkansas, Huckabee ran for president in 2008. He hosts a show on the Fox News Channel, is the author of multiple books, plays bass in a band named Capitol Offense and is considered by some a presidential contender.
While at the N.C. GOP convention, Huckabee talked about lessons on behavior modification he learned from raising children and owning pets.
“If there’s a behavior you want more of, reward the behavior,” he said. “And consequence the behavior you want less of.”
Huckabee made reference to his father — whom he noted was a patriotic man — and what he considered to be fairly successful discipline methods.
“The man laid on the stripes and I saw stars,” he said.
Huckabee said he thought North Carolina was acting appropriately in its tough-love approach to cutting unemployment benefits.
“Once people were not getting paid for not working, they found something that was better than the nothing they were getting,” said Huckabee.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal
Jindal in considered to be a potential presidential contender in 2016. He enjoys popular support in his home state and on the national Republican stage.
During his visit in Cherokee, Jindal discussed fellow Louisianans — and “personal family friends” — the Robertson family of “Duck Dynasty” fame. The governor recalled how he was “one of the loudest defenders” when Phil Robertson recently took heat after making anti-gay remarks during an interview.
Jindal pivoted from “Duck Dynasty” to President Obama’s campaign remarks about conservatives clinging to guns and religion.
“I know it’s suppose to be a joke,” he said, “but in the state of Louisiana we’ve got plenty of both guns and religion and we’re proud of it.”
Not only was Bennett the secretary of education under President Ronald Regan, he also served President George H. W. Bush as the nation’s first director of the National Drug Control Policy, otherwise known as the national drug czar.
“Great job, crazy title,” Bennett told convention attendees.
Bennett joked that he had dubbed his wife and kids as the “czarling” and “czardines.”
The former drug czar also talked about recent shifts toward rethinking drug laws he was once focused on upholding. North Carolina legislators, he said, should resist considering softening the state’s laws pertaining to marijuana.
“Colorado and Washington will be a mistake,” Bennett predicted.
Hastert’s appearance at the Cherokee conference wasn’t a red-hot affair. The former Speaker of the House is more schlumpy than sexy. During his remarks, the one-time high school coach laid out his four P’s of politics: Passion, Purpose, Persistence, Patience.