Internal debate divides Haywood GOP
Some mainstream Republicans in Haywood County fear their local party is being hijacked by a far-right faction with extreme views on what limited government should look like.
The ascension of what some deem the radical right into leadership positions on the party’s executive committee is steering the party into uncharted activist territory, threatening to veer the party off course, they say.
“A lot of our established, elder Republicans, they won’t participate anymore, and they aren’t giving money, and it is a mess,” said Mitchell Powell, who recently resigned as the party vice chair.
Powell said anyone who’s not in lockstep with the party’s new activist faction is subject to public ridicule, and he’d personally had enough.
“During the meetings, I would have to endure constant attacks and smart-ass remarks,” Powell said,
SEE ALSO: Soul searching time for the GOP
But others see the movement as long overdue. The party has been too meek for too long in the Democratic-controlled political landscape in Haywood County — and it’s high time to start speaking louder.
“We don’t have time to be nice anymore,” said Jonnie Cure, a Haywood Republican precinct chair and conservative activist on fiscal issues. “We must be blunt, and we must tell the truth, and we can’t spin it and we can’t disguise it, and we can’t make it nice and pleasant and proper. Many of us appear to be caustic, abrupt and irrational, but we are not.”
Cure said it is her moral obligation — and the obligation of all fiscal conservatives — to speak up. The future of America is at stake, she said.
Cure is known for outspoken criticism of the county’s Democratic leadership. She’s been labeled a troublemaker by the establishment, but to her, citizens speaking out are simply democracy in action.
“If you speak softly, people don’t hear you. And if people don’t hear you, you turn up the volume. If you get ignored, you turn up the volume,” Cure said.
This year, Cure became a voting member of the Haywood County Republican Party Executive Committee along with other like-minded purists of limited government. Now, instead of a few lone voices sounding an alarm cry, they have tapped the party’s organizational structure to advance their message.
But some moderate Republicans fear the party is being exploited as a vehicle to advance radical conservative views outside the party’s core philosophy.
“Really they are more of an activist group,” said Kevin Ensley, a Republican Haywood County commissioner.
Haywood County has historically been a Democratic stronghold, a county where registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans two to one. But the tide has been shifting. The party is theoretically in a better position than ever to win elected offices at the local level, said Bill Wilke, a Republican who posted a respectable showing in a bid for sheriff two years ago despite losing the race.
But the party must get past the factionalism to realize its potential, Wilke said.
“My prayer is that it will not be overcome by those few who seem to focus a great deal of energy on personal attacks and disruptive meetings instead of the important policy issues of our time,” Wilke said.
Recent meetings of the Republican Party have devolved into arguments, name calling, quarrels over parliamentary procedure, accusations of backroom agenda setting and petty power struggles.
Eddie Cabe, a Haywood GOP precinct chair, disagrees with the characterization of a party in turmoil, however. It’s bigger and more energized than ever, he said.
“We are a very large group who will be a force to be reckoned with in Haywood. Most of our meetings are standing room only,” Cabe wrote in an email interview. “The future is looking bright.”
Far from being a vocal minority, Cabe said, he and other limited-government purists are in fact the majority on the party’s executive committee.
“We have proven it over and over by our votes. The Haywood County GOP has voted unanimously — or almost unanimously — in every straw poll,” Cabe said. “We are overwhelmingly voting together.”
But some longtime party operatives have stepped back from the confrontational tactics of the new activist faction.
“We have some people in there now that I just can’t go along with,” said Sara Warren, a long-time party volunteer who has been turned off by the melee. “Truly, I think they want us to walk out so they can have the party and reclass it as a tea party. They want us to leave.”
“They are just mud stirrers. They don’t want to move forward unless it is their way,” said Don Kelly, the former chairman of the local party. “It is so bad, they are more dysfunctional than the national Republican Party. They got a group of people in there that just overran it.”
Taking the reins
A turning point in the leadership of the Haywood Republican Party came in March, when a movement percolated up from the ranks of precinct officers to expand the number of seats on the party’s executive committee.
A change in bylaws gave every precinct chair in the county a seat on the executive committee — taking it from just eight people to more than 30 members.
That was the lynchpin for the activist faction to get into positions of power within the party and start to steer it in the direction they wanted, said Powell, the former party vice chair.
“They wanted to take control, and that was the whole plan,” Powell said.
Cabe sees it as just the opposite. In the past, the party was controlled by a small group. Now, it’s not. More people have been let in to the party’s power structure, making it less exclusive, he said.
But Powell said it was all part of an orchestrated strategy, one that began with getting their own cronies elected at the precinct level, with the end goal of usurping the executive committee.
Back in March, they recruited Powell to put his name in the hat for vice chair. Powell was invited to attend two dinner meetings where the groundwork was laid to pull off an expansion of the executive committee. At the dinners, they even rehearsed who would say what at the annual convention where the vote would go down. Powell said he didn’t realize what he was signing on for — in essence, a coup of the party.
“I don’t think like that, and I don’t have that in me,” Powell said.
Powell quickly fell out of favor with the group, however, after he refused to follow their instructions and vote how they wanted.
“I wanted to do the right thing for county Republicans not just for the personal interests of a small group,” Powell said.
The first sign of trouble came early. Powell had promised if he was elected party vice chair, he would step down as the chair of his Waynesville precinct. It’s the same precinct where Jonnie Cure lives, and Powell now suspects they wanted to move Powell along so Cure could get his seat as chair, which in turn meant a seat on the executive committee.
Powell initially resigned as precinct chair as promised, but he said Cure was named precinct chair at a meeting where she was the only person present. In essence, she elected herself precinct chair, Powell said.
Powell thought that was inappropriate, so he called for a do-over of the precinct chair election. Another precinct meeting was called, and once again, Cure was elected precinct chair, this time with a couple other party members from the precinct present.
Cabe said Powell is just trying to smear the local Republican Party and chalks up his criticisms to sour grapes. Cabe said Powell lost support within the party because he didn’t support its ideals and was actively trying to undermine them.
Cabe didn’t like Powell’s habit of videotaping Republican executive committee meetings, claiming Powell did it to intimidate the audience and later shared the videos with Democrats.
But Powell said he began videotaping the meetings in hopes that being on camera would lead to more polite behavior. Powell also wanted a record of what transpired to avoid manipulation of who said what after the fact.
Robust is good
The tug-of-war for control of the Haywood Republican Party is being spearheaded by half a dozen or so instigators that Ensley referred to as a group of bullies.
“No one wants to say anything against them because they are afraid they will come after them,” Ensley said.
They use mass distribution emails as a weapon to attack, ridicule and disparage people, Ensley said.
“You don’t know what they are going to sling or what they are going to say. People don’t want to be involved with something that is so negative,” he said.
Ensley has been skewered by some within his party for years for being too cozy with the Democratic county commissioners.
Ensley said he stays away from the monthly Republican meetings now — as do others — because it was just too unpleasant to be in the room. He was constantly on edge that someone would make a nasty comment to him.
But politics is not for the faint of heart, according to Tracy Coward, the former treasurer of the Haywood Republican Party.
“Our founding fathers almost came to blows and actually did come to blows,” Coward pointed out. “To have someone stand up and get vocal and a little obnoxious in some people’s opinion is pretty minor in terms of what’s happened in our government.”
Coward said the robust dialogue now occurring within the local party is a good thing.
“I think trying to temper free speech is the same as trying to squelch free speech. That made the top 10 list in the Constitution,” Coward said. “I don’t think there should be an attempt to temper or tone down the voices on either side, in any regards. That’s not the way the founding fathers did it.”
A party should be active and vocal. It shouldn’t mince its words or compromise its position in the name of getting along, Coward said. And the infusion of new energy is a positive in his eyes.
Cabe disagrees with the characterization that a vocal minority has carried out a coup of the party. Just do the math, he said. With the executive committee now numbering more than 30, it would be impossible for a small handful to lead the party down a path that went against the grain. In fact, the party is a better reflection of the county’s 12,000 registered Republicans now than it was in the past when only a handful had the power to vote on the executive committee, Cabe said.
The expansion has brought new ideas and new energy into the party, said Debbie King, an active member of the Haywood Republican Party.
“I was one of the ones who worked very diligently to expand the board. I feel it is important to have more voices,” said King.
Cure also defended the nearly four-fold increase of the executive committee’s ranks.
“Now it has become an inclusive board instead of an exclusive board,” Cure said. “We’ve gone from limited conversation to very robust conversation. A lot of people see it as awful. I see it as wonderful. Are you kidding? It is not bad — it is very, very good.”
But Cure admitted the party is going through growing pains, which can be painful at times.
“Will there be some infighting and hurt feelings? Of course,” Cabe added. It’s an unavoidable side effect of free speech.
“It does take time I think to adjust to a change, but I think very positive changes are coming about for our Republican Party,” King said.
Pat Carr, the chair of the local party, is also thankful for the new energy and growing ranks of the party.
“Like in any organziaiton, there are 20 percent of the people who do 80 percent of the work,” Carr said. So they can use as many warm bodies as they can get.
And she accepts that more people on the executive board mean longer meetings, more discussion, and even more disagreement.
“It brings a wider range of views. Sometimes, they are more divergent, and it takes a little longer to get consensus, but it gives a fairer representation to the folks those precinct chairs represent,” Carr said.
At a crossroads
Haywood County’s always been a tough sell for Republicans. Democrats make up 44.5 percent of the county’s 42,000 voters, while Republicans make up 29 percent. It’s a rare occasion for a Haywood County Republican to win elected office.
That’s changed, and it’s partly due to conservative Southern Democrats realizing their views are probably more closely aligned with today’s Republican Party.
“The Democratic party left them behind because they have gone so far left,” Carr said.
The influx of outsiders has also watered down Democrats’ stronghold in Haywood.
The number of voters registered as Democrats has dropped from 20,369 in 2008 to 18,630 today.
But some in the party fear that the progress made could now be squandered if the party doesn’t pick its battles wisely or strays radically right. Or if sharp-tongued offensive tactics leave a trail of burned bridges.
When asked whether the actions of a few could hurt candidates on the Republican ticket, Carr said that is always a risk for any party.
“It might, and they would bear the responsibility for that. They would bear the responsibility for that if they cast the party in a bad light,” Carr said.
Ensley fears the activist faction of the local party will scare good candidates away from running in the first place.
“If all we have is fringe candidates then we aren’t going to be able to win,” Ensley said.
The executive committee will eventually have to decide how much control to give the growing activist faction.
“People will have to realize if certain behavior is having a disruptive effect on the party,” Carr said.
Carr said everyone is entitled to express their opinion, but hopefully, the public wouldn’t see every opinion expressed by every Republican as reflective of the whole party.
“There are diverging views, and some people can be critical. Does that mean they speak for the whole party?” Carr said.
Carr said her role as party chair is to be impartial, however.
“I have to make sure everybody’s views are heard,” she said.
Blasted by email
Email warfare has become an omnipresent dynamic in the Republican Party fracas. Behind the keyboard, people say things they might not say in person.
At the party’s August meeting, Carr called Monroe Miller, a master of the email medium, to the front of the room and asked him to read aloud an email he had written with negative accusations against members of the executive committee, including Carr.
The undertone was clear: if you wrote it, be prepared to own it when you show up to the meetings in person. But Carr was promptly ridiculed in a mass email.
Cabe penned an email accusing Carr of trying to “intimidate, demean, and try to silence any questions or opposing views” that arise at the meetings.
“We have all seen this behavior all too many times from our Fuehrer,” Cabe wrote.
He then accused Carr of devoting the August meeting to a debate over party mechanics and meeting procedures instead of real policy discourse.
“You will not see anything getting done to help out our over taxed, debt ridden, under employed county. But if your (sic) looking for drama and comedy it’s better than The Bachelorette or Dancing with the Stars,” Cabe wrote in his synopsis of the party’s August meeting.
A month later, Miller penned an email to the Republican executive committee calling Carr a “hypocrite” and accused her of having secret meetings to control the party’s agenda. Miller referenced the resignation of vice chair Mitchell Powell as the “Great Mitchell Powell Melt Down” and posed the question: “Are we looking at the beginning of another Great Meltdown by Pat Carr?”
Some on the party’s executive committee had clearly had enough.
“I have requested multiple times to not be included in these type emails. I would like to continue to receive GOP updates, but not this infighting and personal attacks,” replied Tom Long.
“These attempts to destroy the Haywood GOP by a small group of malcontents will do just that. You folks go ahead while others of us try to build up the party but I will have nothing more to do with these slanderous and destructive messages,” Tony Beaman chimed in.
The incessant stream of emails lobbing accusations and criticisms border on harassment, according to Powell, who was called a “socialist joker” in one email by Cabe.
But Cabe said he stands by that statement.
“My e-mails are blunt, to the point, sometimes sarcastic, and never ever Politically Correct. If you can’t stand this, may I suggest you not open them,” Cabe said in an email interview.
However, when Commissioner Kevin Ensley announced he would block incoming emails from Miller, Cabe and others, Cabe took issue with that, claiming it violated his Constitutional right to redress his government.
Last month, an email by Miller ended up in Ensley’s inbox anyway, forwarded there by someone else. And in the email, Miller used the phrase “God Damned.”
“The reason I do not accept Miller’s emails is because of his profanity. I take the use of God’s name in vain with the utmost offense. This re-edifies my conviction of having him and his supporters (King, Cure and Cabe) blocked from my email account,” Ensley replied.
Cabe said email is a two-way street and that he has been on the receiving end of unpleasant emails himself.
Powell, at one point, wrote an email calling Cabe’s camp the “conspiracy group” and told them to go join the Libertarian party instead of destroying the Haywood GOP.
Powell claims any emails he wrote were only defending himself against the attacks. Powell warned the senders to back off. But Cabe in turn accused Powell of making threats.
Powell was not in lockstep ideologically with the far right faction of the party and found himself in the crosshairs.
“I was their whipping boy,” Powell said.
But the last straw for Powell was emails from Miller referencing Powell’s wife. Miller wrote Powell an email claiming Powell’s wife had followed him after a meeting to Barber’s Orchard, an apple farm that sells baked goods.
“I was tempted to ask her if she wanted to come home with me and have a piece of blueberry pie. Maybe next time,” Miller wrote to Powell.
Powell’s wife is at least 30 years younger than Miller.
When word got out about Miller’s reference to Powell’s wife, County Commission Chairman Mark Swanger approached Miller after a county meeting and told him he was out of line. Miller then penned a reply to Swanger.
“I don’t see what was perverse about this e-mail to Mitchell Powell! Why are you standing up for Mitchell Powell anyway? He is a Republican. You sure looked puffed up about it after the meeting tonight. You shouldn’t let stuff get to you like that,” Miller wrote to Swanger, a Democrat.
Miller added that he was working on a short story called the “mystery blueberry pie woman.”
Powell said he became the butt of a running joke by some in the party about Miller inviting his wife over for blueberry pie.
“That’s when I knew I had to resign,” he said.
Powell still considers himself a Republican and wishes the local party well but fears for its future if it stays on its current course.
“The continued bickering, discourse, accusations, and now personal attacks have caused me to rethink my desire to be involved with the current Haywood County Republican Executive Committee,” he wrote in his resignation letter to the party. “This type of behavior has an enormous negative impact on recruiting new Republicans and young Republicans.”
Powell closed his letter with a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Cabe said the facts don’t square with Powell’s accusation.
“I find this laughable due to the fact we have more people attending our meetings, more voting members, and are almost always unanimous in our actions,” Cabe said.
“Will there be some infighting and hurt feelings? Of course, there will be,” Cabe said. It’s a natural side effect of free speech.
While Cabe and Cure have long been members of the Republican Party, Miller is a relative newcomer. He’s no stranger to the county activist stage, however. Miller is a well-known critic and watchdog of county government. He regularly speaks at commissioner meetings but is perhaps best known for email manifestos portraying county leaders as inept and even corrupt.
The unabashed public criticisms of county workers has become a jaw-dropping spectator sport given the masses that are copied on his emails.
Miller was initially a lone ranger operative on a mission to ferret out missteps by county government. But he is now a regular at Republican Party meetings after changing his party status from unaffiliated to Republican last December.
“Miller was a registered Republican in the past, but had changed to unaffiliated in 2010. He changed back to Republican shortly after a verbal altercation with Don Kelly, the chairman of the local Republican Party at the time.”
When Miller showed up at a Republican Party meeting, Kelly told him he couldn’t be there, but Miller protested, and the exchange escalated.
“I did lose my temper, and I had to apologize,” Kelly said.
Miller changed his registration soon after. Miller did not return a phone message or email request for an interview for this article. In the past, Miller has said he doesn’t do interviews with the media.
Moderate Republicans in the party have fallen victim to perhaps the worst insult of all: the dreaded RINO label.
A clever acronym for “Republicans in Name Only,” RINO is typically used to describe a Republican for being too liberal, and most often it is lobbed by Republicans at each other.
Pat Carr, chair of the local party, said it isn’t helpful for conservatives to question each other’s conservatism.
“We can’t keep calling people RINOs just because they don’t agree with everything you believe,” Carr said.
Those labeled as RINOs see the letters tacked on to their name in all caps every time their name appears in the email chatter, which can be several times a week, if not a day, during the thick of exchanges.
On the flip side, moderate Republicans in the local party accuse the conservative purists of being so far right they’ve fallen off into Libertarian domain.
“To me Republicans are for limited government. They seem to want no government,” Powell said of the activist faction.
Powell said it would be impossible for them to run as Libertarians, so they have occupied the ranks of the Republican Party and are trying to move the party toward the radical right.
Eddie Cabe — one of those Powell was allegedly referring to — replied that it was “rude” for anyone to call him a “right-winger” or “too-far right.” Cabe had previously called Powell a “socialist joker,” however, and commonly affixes the RINO letters to Powell’s name.
Kevin Ensley, the lone Republican on the Haywood County Board of Commissioners, has been disparaged by party purists as a RINO for years. Local Republicans have actually campaigned against him.
“Kevin has voted almost lockstep with the Democrats on the county commissioners. So to call him a moderate gives moderates a bad name,” said Kevin Coward, former treasurer of the local party.
The anti-Ensley faction splintered the party in the last commissioner election. Ensley critics within the party were chastised for dogging a Republican candidate instead of presenting a unified front.
“Let’s get behind our slate and go forward,” said Don Kelly, the former Haywood party chair. “Kevin Ensley is not the most conservative Republican, but he is a Republican. I would pick him right out of the box, honest, true to his word.”
Coward, however, doesn’t understand why the party — let alone an individual in the party — should be obligated to back a candidate if they don’t truly represent their ideals.
“Apparently in the bylaws if you have an ‘R’ after your name, the party has to back him,” Coward said. “I did not like being told I had to support a candidate because of their political affiliation.”
When a volunteer at party headquarters was overheard telling people not to vote for Ensley, there was a short-lived movement to get that person kicked out of the party for lack of loyalty, but they didn’t press the issue.
It’s not unheard of for a party to boot out someone they think misrepresents the party, or at least strip them of a leadership position. It happened just this week, with the forced resignation of Don Yelton — a Republican precinct chair in Buncombe County — for making allegedly racist comments on “The Daily Show.”
The state party threatened to initiate a removal process against Yelton if he didn’t willingly resign.
Staking out positions
So what earned Ensley’s ilk the label RINO, and what earned Cabe and company a Libertarian label?
Ensley isn’t fiscally conservative enough for the limited-government purists. He hasn’t slimmed county government down enough. He hasn’t lowered property taxes. He votes for spending projects, like a new Department of Social Services building or property for a ball field complex.
Ensley supported a tax increase on overnight hotel rooms to fund tourism attractions, like league-caliber ball fields. And he supported hiring additional school resource officers even though it would cost the county more money.
But these are just hallmarks of what a county government does, and not a sign of extravagance, Ensley said.
Cure, a limited government purist, doesn’t believe there should be any county funding for recreation, not even Little League ball fields. It’s simply not a core, critical function of government.
But that’s not a mainstream view of the party, according to local party chair Pat Carr. Plenty of fiscally conservative Republicans support parks and recreation.
“Employers are not going to bring their industry to a town that is a desolate backwater where their employees are going to leave every six months because there is nothing here for their kids to do,” Carr said.
The party has broached new territory this year by taking a stance on local issues facing the county. In the past, the local party stuck to its core mission of recruiting conservative candidates to run for local races and helping get them elected, Carr said.
Cuts both ways
New leaders within the party are pushing it into a more activist role, calling for straw polls, position statements and even formal resolutions weighing in on controversial issues at the county level.
Some party members fear the activist faction pushing for straw poll votes is presenting a skewed picture of reality to the executive committee, who are duped into voting without a full set of facts. The activist faction then uses the straw poll as ammunition to wield in their criticism of county government.
Others believe the newfound voice of the party should be celebrated.
“The process at the meetings is changing, alliances have been formed, groups of like-minded Republicans have naturally formed and they are enthusiastically participating in the process,” Cure said.
What’s wrong with the party weighing in on pertinent local issues and attempt to influence decision-making for the better, Cure asked?
But some long-time volunteers and leaders with the local party who are now on the outside looking in say they don’t recognize what they see.
“I feel like they are trying to cause confusion and they like that,” said Sara Warren, who served for almost two decades as the lone Republican representative on the Haywood County Board of Elections.
But Warren and her husband are torn emotionally. Two weeks ago, just as he had done for years, Warren’s husband was out of the house by dawn the day of the Haywood County Apple Festival to set up the tent for the Republican Party’s booth.
“He said he doesn’t want to walk away from the party,” Warren said.
Don Kelly, former chairman of the local party and a longtime volunteer, said many of the worker bees within the local party don’t feel welcome anymore.
“So many people that really worked now are not fully involved,” Kelly said.
Kelly didn’t make a bid for chairman again when his term was up in March, knowing he didn’t stand a chance with the new guard of Republicans. Still, he wants to see the party succeed.
“I hope for our sake we pull together and get people elected,” Kelly said.
But moderate Republicans aren’t the only ones backing away from the local party. The infighting within the party has lost it members on the other side as well.
Patti Best, another longtime Republican, is changing her party affiliation to independent because it is too moderate.
“I feel the Republican Party as a whole has become less conservative over the years. But they certainly don’t represent my understanding of what a conservative is,” Best said.
Best said the local party establishment has continued to support of Republicans like Ensley, and that signals to her the party isn’t in line with her own views.
Tracy Coward, a pure conservative and Constitutionalist, stepped down from his role as party treasurer earlier this year. But he didn’t have a problem with the party’s new-found activism role, its goals or its direction.
“To resign from anything because people were speaking out would go against everything I believe in. Just like any family, you are going to have arguments and disputes and I expected that and welcomed that,” he said. But, “I did not expect the pettiness that I experienced.”
Coward would never shy away from constructive discourse, even if it was unpleasant. But in this case, the discourse was counter-productive, focused on personalities instead of issues.
“I did not like the infighting going on in the party. It was seriously divided,” Coward said. “I was not going to waste my time on petty issues when we have too many important things to address.”
Coward’s replacement, Steve Barchie, drew a blank when asked about the tug-of-war for party control that he was stepping into the middle of.
“I’m not too much aware of that,” said Barchie, whose first meeting was in October. “I can get along with pretty much everybody. I just want everybody to work together.”
Who the local party picks to replace Powell as vice chair will be litmus test of the party’s direction. Will the executive committee tack further toward the activist faction, or back to the center? Carr, the party chair, said her role at this juncture is to give everyone a voice and remain impartial.
“I have to make sure everybody’s views are heard,” Carr said.
That said, decorum should be practiced.
“I would hope that folks learn to disagree without being disagreeable,” Carr said. “If someone doesn’t agree with every single point of your plan it doesn’t make them your enemy. I am hopeful at some point there will be movement toward a common perception.”