County political conventions are notorious for being very bland spectator events. However, for the Schuylkill County Republican Party, the committee convention held on Saturday at the Shoeneman Complex in Pottsville was anything but. Billed as a turning point in the direction of the local party, the biannual event ended up being long on drama as two competing wings of the party clashed over proposed by laws changes for much of the late morning, but ultimately came up short in producing actual progress as the most significant of proposals were tabled for a later date. I asked the party establishment to “don’t go breaking my heart” in the lead up to this event. They obliged, instead choosing to leave me waiting at the window for the car to pull into the driveway all night long like a teenage girl who gets stood up on prom night.
The most contentious and exciting portion of the convention came when the By Laws Committee presented their recommended changes to the full committee. Forced to examine the way in which the party structure works by various critics in the media (like myself) and malcontent voters at the polls, the committee was asked to consider six modifications to the committee by laws. Three of these issues were specifically important to me personally as I have been advocating for them since my first letter to the editor of the Pottsville Republican and Herald appeared in November of last year.
PROPOSAL: Shrink the size of the Executive Committee to a more manageable number.
The Executive Committee is a body within the County Committee that is tasked with the day to day operations of the organization. Comprised of party officers, state and county elected officials, nominees for public office, and regular committee members appointed for extraordinary work and dedication, the 135-member board of party elites is actually larger than the 140-odd member County Committee which is elected by rank and file Republicans in the primary. I have argued that the Executive Committee is too large and unmanageable and as a result has become ineffective in its charge. Due to its size, it cannot seem to get anything done from an operational standpoint, which creates a power vacuum that the War Board has been obliged to fill.
The By Laws Committee said “given recent criticism of the Executive Committee as a whole, the County Committee should be provided with the option of retaining or eliminating the Executive Committee.” To me, this was a false choice. No one has ever said that the EC should be eliminated, I and others have merely asked that it be parred down to a more manageable size, so it may reclaim the reigns of daily political operations from the War Board. Yet, this is how it was presented to the convention. Not surprisingly, there was no debate and no motion to eliminate the EC. Status quo upheld, captain.
PROPOSAL: Modify or eliminate the candidate endorsement process.
I have been a staunch advocate of open primaries. I am of the belief that in order to rebuild our local party, we must open up the electoral process to everyone and make it free from cronyism and elitism by allowing candidates to come forward and battle for the party nomination without interference from GOP elders. In my view, endorsements by the county committee put challengers to incumbents and newcomers who are running against established names at a distinct disadvantage from the starting gate. The effect is that qualified people who could be key assets to the party don’t even bother trying to breakthrough because they don’t have the connections to be competitive in the endorsement process.
Currently, this is how it works: The elected members of the County Committee have ZERO say in the matter. This task specifically falls upon the above mentioned Executive Committee. The EC meets a mere week after nominating petitions are handed in and usually only days after the candidates publicly kick off their campaigns. There is no debate, no back and forth. The candidates are given a few minutes to pitch their platform to the members before the vote.
In the past two election cycles, this system has proven to be flawed as voters have rejected some of these endorsements on primary day. In 2006, Gary Hornberger defeated endorsed incumbent Bob Allen for the 125th district nomination (he was later beaten in the general by Tim Seip). In 2008, Hornberger did it again, this time beating EC endorsee Jamie McGovern. In addition, Scott Thomas and Maria Casey slipped into the GOP state committee by defeating endorsed candidates Mary Labert and Boots Hetherington in November. As a result, the By Laws Committee said, “we feel that the County Committee should be presented with the option of keeping the endorsement process as is, to eliminate endorsements, or require a candidate to receive the endorsement of both the County Committee and Executive Committee before receiving such an endorsement”. In addition, Rep. Dave Argall (R-124), who sits on the By Laws Committee, stated that for state representative endorsements only committeemen from the respective districts in contention would have a vote to endorse on the County Committee side.
Members debated their options for nearly an hour, going back and forth over the effects of various options in front of them. Hornberger stepped forward first to recommend a change to a two tiered system. Former GOP chairman and Hornberger rival Dan Daub surprised many, including myself, in agreeing with Hornberger and being the loudest advocate during the entire debate for the change to a two tiered system. His plan called for the EC to make a recommendation to the County Committee who would act to either approve for reject the candidate. If the County Committee rejected the candidate, the EC could choose to recommend another candidate otherwise an open primary would ensue. I liken this to the relationship between the President who makes nominations to the federal bench and the Senate who confirms those nominees.
Daub’s idea was supported by State Committeeman Scott Thomas, who was not afforded time to speak despite furiously waving his hand at Assistant Chairman Howie Merrick, who was facilitating the debate. This lack of acknowledgement led to an angry exchange between Merrick and Thomas outside the convention hall. Thomas, who stands all of about 5’2″ and 100 lbs., withstood overly boisterous screaming, namecalling, and finger pointing by the much older and larger Merrick in the hallway (the doors to the convention room had to be closed due to how loud he was).
Deer Lake Committeeman Joe Sterns applauded Daub’s idea as a good start, but recommended implementing a system similar to that of Lancaster and Berks Counties, where endorsed GOP candidates have been very successful in general elections. There, the respective executive committees make a recommendation to the county committee, then the county committees has the freedom to either confirm the recommended candidate or endorse an entirely new candidate, but they must do so by a super-majority vote. The difference between this plan and Daub’s idea is that the County Committee is not constrained by what the EC does, they merely stand as an advisory body. The county committee has the ultimate authority to endorse the candidate of their choosing.
This is where barbs started to fly. One older committeeman blew off any attempt to make changes. He said, “this is the way we have always done it, I don’t see any reason to change it. Not endorsing candidates makes us look weak”. Others (also older members) expressed fear that if an open primary was declared that the County Committee would not be able to collect the “endorsement fee” from the candidates (which usually runs about $3500).
Finance Chair Jason Ghergel chimed in as well stating, “not endorsing a candidate is not the end of the world either politically or financially. The voters are the ultimate decision makers. If we can’t agree on who to recommend to them, let them decide for themselves.”
Howie Merrick disagreed. Though he was supposed to be acting in the capacity of representative for the By Laws Committee who presented their recommendation to the full committee, Merrick interjected into the debate and posed his own opinion (which differed from that of the By Laws Committee). He argued that the Executive Committee was a better body to make endorsements because its larger than the County Committee, has some crossover members from the CC, and contains state and county elected officials who are in a better position to know what the voters want because of their standing in the community.
The best exchange of the debate came between Merrick and Sterns. While Sterns was discussing what Lancaster County does, Merrick interrupted by saying. “Who cares? We are different. This is Schuylkill County, pal.” To which Sterns responded, “Yeah Howie, they are different, Republicans actually win elections there”.
Frustratingly, despite having the most open and honest debate in years, nothing changed. Early in the debate, Mary Labert made a motion to change to a two-tiered system. However, she kept changing her mind as to which two-tiered proposal she wanted. She had to restate her motion probably five or six different times, each time using different language. Finally, Maria Casey stepped into the role as parliamentarian to take control of the proceedings and clarify the motion. Yet, Labert could still not concisely express what exactly she was moving to do. So, it was voted down.
After a flurry of members shouted out motions to be considered, Chairman Bob Ames stepped in to settle things down. “It is clear that a vast majority of you want to change this system. However, right now there is too much confusion with the options in front of us for the committee to actually make an informed choice,” said Ames. “So, I move that we table this issue until such time as the By Law Committee can write down all the options presented here today and provide example of how each would work in a given situation.” Once tabled, Ames stated that because endorsements would not become an issue again until after the fall election, he would call a special convention between then and the date nominating petitions are circulated for the 2009 primary.
As the debate raged, I monitored the reactions of the members in attendance. From my perspective, if put to a vote, I believe that the committee would have voted for Daub’s plan. However, because Labert could not make an intelligible motion and refused to yield the floor to anyone else, Daub’s plan was never considered. I understand why Ames stepped in when he did. He wanted to have the members vote on the plans with them laid out in writing in front of them. But my question to Howie Merrick would be, why in world didn’t you do that to begin with? The answer is simple. He thought that the committee would only approve of those ideas that he spoon fed them, so he didn’t bother writing any of the other options down. I guess that when the committee rejected his idea and was only considering Daub’s and Sterns’, that teed him off a bit, which led to his reaction to Scott Thomas outside.
PROPOSAL: Completely eliminate or restrict the proxy voting system to members being permitted to hold three proxies.
I have covered my opinions about this at length on this site, see Proxy War Within the GOP. Because the endorsement debate took so long and because Rep. Argall “knew that the proxy debate would be very similar in length and fervor” he made a motion to table deciding proxies until Ames’ special convention later this year. The motion was carried. You could hear establishment loyalists give a big sigh of relief as they dodged a pair of reformists bullets within minutes of one another (at least until the special convention).
Thank goodness for people who can’t clearly formulate simple motions or else the GOP might have actually enacted some real change!
Please see part II of my coverage later today, where I cover the proposals that actually did pass (and they were actually changes for the best) and the results of the party elections.