Showdown at GOP gulch: Tracing the origin of turmoil in the Haywood Republican Party
A shake up in the Haywood County Republican Party has pitted mainstream party members against an ideological “patriot” faction.
The patriot faction recently lost its grip on the party, following a mass ousting from the party’s executive committee during this year’s annual precinct gatherings. But what drove the two branches of the local party apart and resulted in the patriots’ ousting isn’t easy to sum up.
Ideologues at heart, the patriot faction is unwilling to compromise their sworn devotion to God and the Constitution and will attack anyone, even in their own party, that waivers from their strict definition of conservative values.
“If they don’t get their way, they cause a storm,” said Haywood GOP Chair Henson. “You either join them and go along with their bull or you are corrupt and a communist and all the other names they call people.”
• Catch up on last week’s story on the ousting of the patriot faction here.
But political philosophy is only a small part of the internal turmoil the Haywood GOP has been through. The disputes often seemed less about values and more about personality.
Sworn enemies are now on the same team, and long-time friends have turned on each other.
“Politics makes strange bedfellows,” remarked Phillip Wight, a Maggie Valley Republican.
“I’m kind of the middle. I’ve watched the merry-go-round go around and around,” Wight said. “Why are there two sides? Where’s the leadership that can’t keep these people together? You have to make these people work together, not create division.”
The wedge started small and culminated — a disagreement here, a dispute there. The strain built and distrust grew. The smallest of missteps were perceived as malicious. Innocent oversights were perceived as intentional snubs.
Eventually, the perceptions became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“I tried for six solid months as hard as I could try. But that bunch was not going to work with anybody,” Henson said.
Meanwhile, the patriot faction feels betrayed.
“There’s a lot of hard feelings,” said Paul Yeager, a member of the patriot faction.
Henson and Yeager nearly came to blows one night this winter in the parking lot outside Haywood GOP headquarters in Waynesville. The meeting was tense from the start — the patriots convened the meeting to strip Henson’s name from the party’s bank account, but Henson declared the meeting illegal and walked out. The next morning, members from both sides were waiting outside the door of HomeTrust Bank when it opened — one side there to take Henson’s name off the account and the other side there to ensure that didn’t happen.
But the parking lot drama that ensued the night before was over something else entirely: the location of the next meeting.
It seems innocuous, but where to hold the meetings was symbolic of a festering power struggle.
The patriot faction wanted to hold the party meetings at the party headquarters, which they’d fought to keep open after last fall’s election.
“We had begged and requested, with emails and phone calls and texts and everything, to keep headquarters open,” recounted Jeremy Davis, a leader of the patriot faction.
But to the mainstream branch, the headquarters were merely a clubhouse for the patriot faction to hold court and wanted to terminate the lease. The patriot faction won out, but it wasn’t easy.
The lease on headquarters expired in December and couldn’t be renewed without a vote by the executive committee. Henson refused to hold a meeting, thus preventing a vote.
But the patriot faction did an end-run around Henson. They used a petition clause in the party’s by-laws to call a meeting themselves — on a Wednesday night no less, when several from the mainstream faction would be at church — and forced a vote to keep the headquarters open.
Nonetheless, Henson refused to sign the lease in the party’s name. Debbie King, the party’s vice chair, refused as well. So the party’s treasurer, Richard West, who’s a member of the patriot faction, executed the lease in the party’s name.
But the battle still wasn’t over. Henson then refused to hold party meetings at the headquarters. Instead, he declared the patriots’ meeting at headquarters illegal and announced the next official meeting would be held at The Colonial Theatre in Canton instead.
That was the final salvo for Yeager.
“Since the executive committee as a whole voted to rent this space, it was reasonable to expect we would have meetings there,” Yeager said.
Instead, Henson was going to use party funds to rent meeting space elsewhere.
“I said, ‘Has that expense been authorized? Why are we paying to meet there?’” Yeager, who followed Henson outside, recounted. “I badgered him with those questions over and over as he was leaving. Granted I was aggressive, but I was verbally aggressive by asking the same questions.”
Henson responded with a threat. He took off his jacket, and Yeager took off his glasses before they were talked down.
Henson later said one reason to have the party’s meetings at The Colonial was so he could have an off-duty police officer present.
“People said they wouldn’t come if we didn’t have a police officer there. That was the only way we could get people to come,” Henson said.
But Davis said that was a ruse by Henson to portray the patriots as hotheaded rabble-rousers.
A long and twisting road
Henson and the patriots weren’t always at odds. The patriots endorsed and embraced Henson as party chair two years ago. It was their uprising within the party that got Henson elected as party chair in the first place.
But Henson is now the third party chair in a row to come under fire from the patriot faction.
“Anyone in authority is who they attack,” said Kevin Ensley, a Republican county commissioner who’s long been in the crosshairs of the patriot faction for not being conservative enough in their eyes.
The party’s vice-chair, Debbie King, was once closely aligned with the patriot faction, as well. But not anymore.
“Her name is worse than mud to liberty lovers in Haywood County,” Davis wrote on Facebook recently.
Ironically, King spent years cultivating and empowering the patriot faction. King brought them into the party’s inner leadership circle four years ago during a push to give precinct chairs a seat on the executive committee.
“I thought by bringing precinct chairs in we would bring new energy into the party and people would get more involved if they had a voice,” King said.
It worked, King said. The number of people involved in the party grew substantially.
“I do think their energy brought things to the party,” King said.
But it was a double-edged sword. The executive committee had grown to nearly 30 voting members, an unwieldy number in the best of circumstances.
Scores of mainstream party members were driven away by the patriot faction, and ultimately King had to choose. She switched camps and worked to oust the patriot faction and reunite the party.
King has tried to distance herself from the patriots and says she never approved of their methods.
“I told them ‘Guys we can deal with the issues without attacking the person,’” King said.
But Eddie Cabe, a leader of the patriot faction, called King the “puppet master.” King orchestrated the patriot takeover of the party — including the attempted impeachment of former party chair Pat Carr, Cabe said. But King is now in cahoots with Carr, who is back in an officer’s position as the party’s newly elected treasurer.
When asked if she ever apologized to Carr, King was surprised.
“Apologize? Apologize for what?” King said.
During a lengthy interview, King declined to answer questions about why she severed ties with the patriot faction, but did offer this in an email statement.
“My goal is the same as it has been in the past; to work with our great team of volunteers and continue building a strong unified Republican Party in Haywood County,” she said. “Although we may not all agree on all of the issues, we should be able to disagree agreeably.”
Henson said King was left with no choice.
“She worked for months trying to get them to go a different way,” Henson said. “But she turned because she is not going to go along with something that’s wrong. She wasn’t going along with them because they didn’t want to do what’s right.”
Stand by me
Despite subtle signs that Henson and King were abandoning the patriot faction, the last straw came just before the election. While volunteering at the polls, Cabe was allegedly marking off the names of some Republican candidates from the party’s voter guide. Parties commonly pass out so-called “palm cards” as a cheat sheet for voters heading into the polls.
But the patriots believed a couple of Republican candidates weren’t conservative enough and shouldn’t be promoted by the party.
One was County Commissioner Kevin Ensley, who’s long been targeted by the patriot faction as a RINO —Republican In Name Only. Another was U.S. Sen. Richard Burr.
Henson eventually heard scuttlebutt about their names being crossed off palm cards. He also heard that Cabe and Richard West, a patriot who was party treasurer at the time, made disparaging comments about Ensley and Burr to voters who stopped by party headquarters.
In the past, Henson had disagreed with Ensley for being too moderate. But the party is nonetheless obligated to support its official slate of candidates.
“I can’t let them do that as chairman,” Henson said. “I told them ‘You can’t do that anymore’ and they said they wouldn’t. But then a week later I heard they were doing it again.”
King sided with Henson.
“I respect the vote of the people in the primary election, and as a party we need to support them. We can’t be marking those people off if my candidate didn’t come through,” King said.
So Henson went by headquarters and took away Cabe’s and West’s keys, and banned them from handing out the party’s official palm cards at the polls.
Cabe said Henson over-reacted after supposedly getting complaints from Burr’s office.
“He was all tore up he said ‘Oh they’re going to sue us’ and he took our keys,” Cabe recounted.
Cabe said it was a slap in the face.
“I have stood in the snow and rain, worked almost every day of early voting, all day, from the time the polls opened to the time the polls closed, handing out palm cards,” Cabe said.
Cabe said it was his moral imperative to be honest with voters, rather than toe the party establishment’s line. Davis sympathized with that position.
“If you hand someone a Republican palm card with the name of a candidate you know has done things in direct contrast to the Republican platform, then you have lied to those voters by omission,” Davis said.
Another dispute between the patriot faction and mainstream branch in recent months arose over finances, specifically over T-shirt sales. Aside from personal donations, the sale of T-shirts and hats at festivals and events were the party’s primary source of revenue.
Davis happens to own a silkscreen business. He ordered the hats and shirts through his own company and splits the proceeds with the party — keeping half to cover his own costs and giving half to the party, according to Davis.
“In all honestly, what I got back probably didn’t cover the cost of the shirts,” Davis said.
But some were uncomfortable with the arrangement. They began to question the money Davis was paying himself out of the party’s coffers to cover the printing costs.
“He says he donated half to the party. But we have no way of knowing that for sure,” Henson said.
According to campaign finance reports, Davis was paid $4,500 by the party during 2016, and in exchange supplied 310 T-shirts, 84 hats and a few hundred bumper stickers and buttons.
Davis said it was ridiculous to question the arrangement, which he felt was generous on his part. The party had no upfront costs, and only had to reimburse him for the inventory that sold.
“I kept telling Ken the right answer here is ‘Thank you,’” Davis said.
There’s no question the patriot faction spent a lot of time selling T-shirts at festivals and events.
“We went to every event and festival we could get into,” Cabe said.
Cabe said it was nonsensical to suggest they were keeping back some of the T-shirt money.
“Ken told me ‘How do I know you’uns aren’t going out here selling T-shirts and putting money in your pockets?’ And I said ‘Ken, do you think I would spend the whole day going out here dragging the tent around and sitting out here all day for a few dollars off T-shirts?’” Cabe recounted. “I was very disappointed. I was hurt that someone I’d worked so hard for would think I’d stick T-shirt money in my pocket.”
Davis, a military contractor, also donated three rifles to raffle off as a party fundraiser “that I made not one red cent on,” he said.
Davis regularly traveled to gun shows with the T-shirts in tow.
“While Jeremy was selling guns we were selling T-shirts. And that’s how we were able to bring in so much money,” Cabe said.
Exactly how much money the T-shirt sales brought in for the party is unclear based on a review of campaign finance reports filed by the Haywood GOP.
The party brought in $17,500 in donations the second half of 2016. But several thousand dollars were simply donations and had nothing to do T-shirt sales. Subtracting those contributions, and subtracting the $4,500 Davis got for providing the merchandise, it seems possibly the party made a few thousand dollars off the merchandise sales — which squares with Davis’ accounting, but the system was based on trust. Davis said he couldn’t say for sure what was made.
“Who does know then? You are supposed to keep records,” Henson said.
In December, mainstream members of the party demanded an internal audit. They also called the campaign finance branch of the N.C. Board of Elections and complained of shoddy record keeping, triggering an audit by the state election office as well.
The patriots saw it as a malicious move.
“None us can figure what they think had gone on. I personally feel like they were trying to fabricate fervor,” Davis said. “They are going to run with the narrative that there is something wrong with the finances when it’s just not the case.”
While T-shirt sales netted the party a few thousand dollars, many private donors didn’t step up to the plate because the patriot faction was running things and they didn’t want to donate, Henson said.
“Ken would say ‘I can raise more money out of big donors than anybody in this room can.’ We kept saying ‘Then do it Ken, show us,’” said Joy Diettle, a member of the patriot faction.
The real story
Henson said it is a shame that the patriot faction has detracted from the real story.
“The true story should be how strong the Republican party is in Haywood County,” Henson said. “Them people are history. We have the strongest local party in the state now. That’s the story.”
Indeed, it’s a historic turning point for local Republicans. For two centuries, they’ve been a minority in Haywood, outnumbered 2-to-1 by Democrats. But that’s changed over the past 15 years. Voter demographics have shifted — in part due to an influx of outsiders, and in part due to Southern Democrats defecting from their inherited party.
But the volatile and hostile climate created by the patriot faction was keeping the party back when it should have been poised for growth, Henson said.
“Now that they are gone we can accomplish anything,” Henson said. “Before you had to beg to get 10 or 15 to come out.”
Henson said the patriots not only turned off would-be donors, they made it harder to recruit Republican candidates to run for local office, despite the party’s increased toehold with the electorate.
“We’ll be able to get more candidates if they know they won’t get jumped on by their own party. People weren’t going to get out there and take a bashing like this,” Henson said. “Nobody wants some predator to keep hunting them down on social media and the internet every day.”
The patriot faction uses Facebook, mass emails and blogs to maim the reputation of its foes and shame Republicans they believe have violated true conservative principles. Henson called Cabe a “predator.”
“He is hunting somebody today to light into and start hurting,” Henson said.
Diettle said people in politics should have thicker skin.
“When you became the Haywood County GOP chair you gather up a chair on the Facebook front porch. If you can’t take the comments of passersby, don’t sit on the front porch,” Diettle said, referring to Henson.
An inauguration party in January was a grand testament to the party’s turning point. More than 300 attended.
“Inauguration means new beginning. Everyone was so excited,” said King.
Although Trump wasn’t everyone’s first choice in the primary, “It was a unifying time to have a celebration for the new direction the country is going,” said Lynda Bennett, the new Haywood GOP secretary.
The event was symbolic for other reasons as well — reasons that were unspoken but evident to all.
The inauguration party was invite only, and blatantly excluded the patriot faction.
Henson said some people specifically asked if the patriots were coming to the party before committing.
“They said ‘Well are they going to be there?’ because if they were, they weren’t going to come,” Henson recounted. “They weren’t going to come around that bunch.”
This is the second installment in a story about the new direction of the Haywood County Republican Party. Coming next week: is the two-party system in America too narrow to encompass the full spectrum of views?