Coming off the escalator to the top floor of the Raleigh Convention Center, site of the state Republican party convention last weekend, one of the first people to greet you was a delegate from New Hanover County with literature for one of the candidates for state party chair. He was a genial gent who made a good first impression for his man, Guilford County Republican Chair Marcus Kindley. And his name? "It's Ollie Schreiber," he said easily, quickly adding as his political identifier: "Like Ollie North."
Ah, yes, the unrepentant Iran-Contra conspirator and hero of the Republican far right. It was an apt beginning to a convention marked by dark appeals to patriotism from the John Birch Society, Americans for Prosperity, the "Tea Party Revolution" planned for July 4 in Raleigh, and from rarely seen Dot Helms, widow of the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, who called for "truth squads" to expose what's happening in America. "My friends, I think we ought to be shouting from the rooftops," Mrs. Helms declared during a luncheon tribute to her husband. "We are being rushed headlong into socialism."
On the eve of the convention, Public Policy Polling of Raleigh reported that a higher percentage of conservatives in the state identify as Democrats (26 percent) than moderates do as Republicans (20 percent). "As long as that's the case," said PPP analyst Tom Jensen, "it's going to be very hard for the GOP to turn around its recent losing streak at the polls."
The convention showed clearly, though, that rather than reach out to attract more moderates, the Republicans are intent instead on solidifying their conservative base. The "liberal media," warned outgoing party chair Linda Daves, hitting a popular theme, "is trying to brainwash us" into being ashamed of America and abandoning basic Republican principles.
Those principles—she listed them as God, country, family and responsible conservative leadership—are the means by which the party can regain power and "stem the tide of socialism," Daves said.
Behind the scenes, rank-and-file delegates agreed that rock-ribbed conservatism, with no appeals to the "mushy middle" (as newly elected chair Tom Fetzer termed it), was the correct course. But there was lots of disagreement over whether such conservatism should demand Christian orthodoxy or take a more libertarian form, emphasizing small-government economics but a more "live and let live" attitude on such social issues as gay marriage.
Younger delegates, like Derek Wilson, a 29-year-old technical writer from Raleigh, were inclined to the latter view. "A lot of people [are] at heart conservatives," Wilson said, "and believe in small government, lower taxes and keeping government out of people's lives. But they don't always understand what that means, in particular with things like drug laws and gay marriage and other things where you're trying to put government in people's lives."
Wilson, for example, tried to persuade the convention to debate pending legislation (House Bill 1380) that would legalize and regulate the use of marijuana for medical purposes. The pushback, when he spoke, was against decriminalizing drugs—not the same issue. "It doesn't make sense to deny people who are sick or dying something that would help them and would have fewer side effects" than other, legal pharmaceuticals, he continued. But too many Republicans are so close-minded they can't even consider the arguments.
Phil Jeffreys, a former Wake County commissioner who was unseated in the 2006 elections, similarly complained that Republicans "always shoot themselves in the foot" by following party leaders who emphasize religious dogma in their opposition, for example, to abortion rights, and never getting around to the issues most voters are concerned about.
"They put religion and abortion first," Jeffreys said, "and a lot of people haven't made up their minds about what they believe about those issues—the message to them is, if you don't believe what we do, you can't be a Republican."
Said Jeffreys firmly, "We should be a political party, not a religious party."
Fetzer, on the other hand, declared his allegiance to "the sanctity of life and a Biblical definition of marriage" in his quest for the party chairmanship, adding that America, though tolerant of other religions, "is a Christian nation." That's code to Republicans that he won't waver in his opposition to abortion rights or according equal rights to gays under the marriage laws.
Like his three opponents for the post, Fetzer never used the words education, health care, environmental or any others with a public dimension. They all offered lower taxes, small government and free enterprise as the answer to every policy question—if they remembered that there are policy questions in the first place.
Ex-Raleigh Mayor Fetzer's close win over Chad Adams, a John Locke Foundation staffer, was a victory for the traditional, and generally older, side of the party long linked with the Christian evangelists and uncomfortable with the Ron Paul brand of libertarian Republicanism espoused by many of Adams' supporters. (Paul is a Texas congressman and '08 presidential candidate.)
Fetzer's name was put into nomination by former state Sen. Fred Smith, an unsuccessful candidate for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, who quoted from the Bible about keeping the faith and "press[ing] on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me," which is not unlike, Smith said, the prize of defeating "the liberal Democrats."
To retain his support on the "traditional" side, Fetzer was forced to deny, in an e-mail to convention delegates and a subsequent lawsuit against a Wilmington radio host, that he's gay. It was the first time Fetzer publicly addressed the rumor, which he said has circulated because he has never married.
He denied it so vehemently, however, that he conveyed not only his desire to be known as straight but also his disdain for gays. "The fact that I'm 54 and single does not mean that I have to put up with vicious rumors that I'm gay," he wrote. "There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to support any of the scurrilous allegations made in the anonymous attack on me."
Fetzer, in an interview with the Indy after his election, was asked whether Republicans were signaling to gays that they're unwelcome in the party. Not at all, he said, repeating that Christians are "the most tolerant people." But he reiterated that he was forced to sue talk-show host Curtis Wright because "he lied about me in a very vile and vicious way."
That said, Fetzer said Republicans now should emulate the Gipper, Ronald Reagan, who was always pro-life and allied with the Christian right, but who built a winning coalition with conservative Democrats by emphasizing economic issues. Given the state of the economy, Fetzer predicted, "The battleground in the next election will be the economy."
Adams, a former Sanford County commissioner, was hurt in the race for party chair when he admitted what the e-mail gossips were saying about him—that he'd had an extramarital affair.
African-Americans were a rare sight among the 1,600 delegates, perhaps numbering a dozen in all. But two were candidates for party chair and vice chair, respectively. Bill Randall, a retired Navy veteran, ran a distant third behind Fetzer and Adams. After rejecting any comparisons to Colin Powell, Randall said he prefers to be likened to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. "Where's the courage to say there's nothing wrong with the Confederate flag," was one of his most applauded lines. (Powell's name elicited unfriendly murmurs.)
Timothy Johnson, though, was elected vice chair despite the late-breaking—but nonetheless widely disseminated—news that he was convicted of felony assault on his first wife, 13 years ago in Ohio. Johnson, the Buncombe County (Asheville) Republican chair, told the Indy in an interview prior to the voting that he was sentenced to 18 months probation. "I didn't deny it. It happened. It's unfortunate," he said of his response when the Asheville Citizen-Times broke the story last week.
He hadn't revealed his conviction previously, "Because it's nobody's business. It's like asking, Did you have sex with your wife last night?" he said, equating a felony with an activity that's not a crime.
With his second wife standing by, Johnson said: "The only person I needed to tell is my current wife, which I did."
Johnson said opponents were out to "smear" him for an old mistake, but he hoped that Christian delegates would hear, when he spoke to the convention, that he has learned his lesson, and they would forgive him.
And they later did, repeating the same benevolence they extended 20 years ago to Ollie North. For a lot of Republicans, obviously, not all laws are created equal.