Stompers founder Chad Nesbitt, a longtime local conservative activist, says the approach is intentional. "We've been listed as the Buncombe radicals; we've been labeled that by both the leadership of the Republican Party and the Democrats," he notes. "There's a lot of conservatives and Christians out here who have had enough of the way politics is in general, and they're looking for someone to get out here and fight -- and our organization is a fighter."
A television and radio producer who's the stepson of longtime state legislator Martin Nesbitt, Chad Nesbitt says growing up within the Democratic Party's inner circles helped shape his conservative beliefs. "My entire family were Democrats. I've been to all these lavish dinners and cocktail parties up into my 20s."
Since the Stompers' formation in August, this aggressively right-wing group has grabbed headlines, churned out short films and television ads -- and made no small number of enemies across the political spectrum. And if the Stompers are militant in their rhetoric, their detractors are equally harsh in their criticism, calling group members "ignorant" or "theocratic bigots."
Meanwhile, the State Board of Elections is investigating charges that the group has broken campaign rules.
Undaunted, Nesbitt now hopes to take the Stompers to the next level -- and he's spoiling for a fight.
"The way things have been going -- especially in the city of Asheville and the state, with the liberals running things ... it's been going down the tubes. That's why we've taken such an aggressive stance," he explains. "When you come to [the Carolina Stompers Web site], you can see that elephant chomping on his cigar, flexing his muscle. You can see he's pro-U.S.A., and you can hear his trumpet roar. That's to let people know that we're out there, we're supporting these kids -- and we're ready to do battle, if necessary."
Hitting a nerve
The Stompers first made a splash at the state level in September, with ads blasting the Democratic Party's annual Vance-Aycock Dinner. One of the event's namesakes, Charles Brantley Aycock -- the governor of North Carolina from 1901 to 1905 -- was an avowed white supremacist who participated in the 1898 Wilmington race riots that left at least 22 dead and overthrew a democratically elected city government. The ads struck a nerve, and State Treasurer Richard Moore, who plans to run for governor next year, urged the party to change the dinner's name.
After Moore's announcement, the Stompers declared victory, canceling a planned protest of this year's fundraiser. But the ad also brought the Stompers to the attention of the State Board of Elections. North Carolina law requires groups endorsing or raising money for specific candidates to register as political action committees, which the Stompers haven't done.
Unlike most political groups, the Stompers are set up as a for-profit corporation that aims to disseminate conservative opinions. According to Nesbitt, most of the Stompers' funding comes from individual donations, membership dues -- which range from $35 a year (for "Super Stompers") to $500 ("Mega Stompers") -- and fundraisers. Because the group is so new, it doesn't have official membership figures yet, but it plans to hold a membership meeting soon, he reports. The group's members include former state Sen. R.L. Clark, former state Rep. John Rhodes and other longtime conservative activists and business owners.
Meanwhile, Nesbitt isn't letting up. He's planning a documentary on the Wilmington race riots, arguing that conservatism is a better bet for minorities.
"The Democrats, for years, have been lying to minorities -- about their past and future. We want to bring attention to that and hope they'll see the light and come join us conservatives," he explains. "We find that more conservatives are on the Christian end, and we've found that most blacks are on the Christian end."
Nesbitt isn't the only longtime conservative activist who's joined the Stompers.
Zora Hayes, who serves on the local Republican Party executive committee, says Nesbitt's enthusiasm drew her to the group. The Stompers, she says, have prompted her to "re-enter the fray." "We need to stomp out corruption," she says. "The Democrats have been in power in the state and the county way too long."
Another key concern for Hayes is "ending the killing fields of abortion. We wouldn't need to import Mexican labor; our children could use those jobs."
Buncombe County resident and perennial gadfly Don Yelton, who has also signed on, says the Stompers are going after the traditional power elite.
"Where I grew up, out in Jupiter, I remember the powers that be coming around and handing my father a slip of paper telling him who to vote for," Yelton recalls. "Chad saw the other side of that -- he was around the people writing up those slips of paper. Whatever your political belief, we can all be for more transparent and open government." Group members, he notes, are a diverse lot: "Chad and I don't always agree; all of us have different views."
As for the promise to "stomp" liberals and "RINOs," Yelton says that, too, is directed at the local powers that be. "If you look at who has the power in this county, it's Democrats and a few select Republicans; that's who we're targeting. They should be open about what they're doing with our tax dollars, whether it's federal, state or local. If it's a nonprofit, we should see where they're getting their money from. I think we can all agree on that, whether you're liberal, conservative, gay, straight, what have you."
But Yelton's emphasis on "getting people together" on common issues, as he puts it, contrasts starkly with the reactions from the objects of the Stompers' rhetoric.
The Stompers' ads have also sparked controversy at the local level. A spot posted on YouTube and aired on WLOS depicted then City Council candidate Elaine Lite participating in a protest with members of Coven Oldenwilde, a local Wiccan group, around a magnolia tree downtown that's slated to be cut down by a developer.
The ad (which can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=5iFmbrnhjt0) mockingly depicts "Pegan [sic] witches praying to a tree" and "Liberals hugging a tree." It also zeroes in on Lite, identifying her as a City Council candidate -- which she maintains is a violation of state campaign rules, since the Stompers aren't registered as a PAC.
"It was obvious what they were trying to do, how degrading they were trying to be," says Lite, calling the Stompers "hateful people" and the ad "asinine" in its approach. "They have no issues -- that's why they're grasping at straws," she asserts.
Nesbitt, however, says the ad didn't particularly target Lite. "That's a big misconception -- it was showing how crazy this town's become," he explains. "Here's a candidate who's running for City Council and she's dancing around a tree, hugging a tree with a bunch of pagans and liberals. That's nuts."
Nesbitt also says the Stompers' status as a for-profit corporation is completely legal. "There's certain things you can do as a corporation that you can't do as a nonprofit," he notes. "We've considered becoming a [political action committee], but we'd still be a corporation." As for the banners for conservative candidates posted on the group's Web page, they're not endorsements, says Nesbitt. "If other candidates approach us and they're conservative, we'll put their banners up too."
The State Board of Elections is investigating complaints about the Stompers, says Kim Strach, the agency's deputy director for campaign reporting. Because the ad fingering Lite did not specifically endorse a candidate or encourage people to vote for a specific cause, "It's not what we would call express advocacy" and thus didn't violate election rules, she explains. But the state is continuing to look into "exactly what kind of group the Stompers are," says Strach.
Religion is another a major issue for the Stompers, who list "Christian values" as one of their principal tenets. That was another thing that struck Lite about the ad.
"I'm not pagan personally, but what if I was? So what?" she asks. "This is old, tired tactics that play to people's ignorance and fear. It's time for a change." Lite says she'd be willing to debate the Stompers -- via YouTube (where they've distributed their videos), in public or through some other medium.
Nesbitt, however, says the Stompers see American culture as based on "Christian values," not secular ones. "You look at our laws, most were based after the Ten Commandments," he notes. "I'm glad that when our military is out there fighting for us, I know most of them are praying when they're going into battle."
Asked what he thinks about soldiers like Pat Tillman, an avowed atheist who left a pro-football career to join the Army Rangers and was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2003, Nesbitt notes: "He was fighting for this country, just like Christian soldiers are -- fighting for religious freedom. That's something you don't have in a lot of other countries. I pray for his soul and for his family."
Yelton, meanwhile, comes down more overtly on the side of religion. "When they took prayer out of the schools against the will of the majority, that's when things really started crumbling," he maintains. "Every civilization has prayed to some god."
(Although federal law prohibits state-sanctioned prayer in public schools, individual prayer isn't barred unless it disrupts a class or school activity.)
Would the Stompers ever consider cooperating with conservative adherents of other religions on certain issues? "I've never seen a pagan conservative; I've never seen a Muslim conservative," says Nesbitt, adding, "The answer is no."
Conservatives vs. libertarians
Blogger and activist Tim Peck says he finds the Stompers' approach "juvenile and dishonest," citing the anti-Lite ad as an example. Peck asserts that Nesbitt formed the Stompers to soothe his wounded ego after his unsuccessful bid to become chairman of the Buncombe County Republican Party.
In March, Nesbitt was bested by retired Army Col. Mike Harrison. The election, says Peck, represented a schism in the party between the more libertarian camp and "the hard-line religious right." Nesbitt "and his cronies would harangue [Harrison] at every meeting of the executive committee."
But Harrison stepped down under pressure about two months later, and in June, the executive committee named Mark Delk to serve out his term.
But according to Peck, who describes his own philosophy as libertarian, the struggle left Nesbitt with "a chip on his shoulder" that prompted him to found the Stompers. "He anticipated being the voice of the Republican Party and ... the heir to that chairmanship," Peck asserts. "When he couldn't get it legitimately, he decided to create his own organization, which he would deem the 'true Republicans.'"
Nesbitt paints a different picture, however. Though he denies that the infighting led to the formation of the Stompers, he adds, "We certainly felt like the leadership of the Republican Party wasn't aggressive enough."
He also takes a dim view of libertarians. And though he said at the time that he was satisfied with Delk's appointment, Nesbitt went on to form the Stompers shortly afterward. He now labels both Delk and Harrison (both of whom, says Peck, tend more toward the libertarian camp) as RINOs.
For his part, Peck says the Stompers "have a chip on their shoulder when it comes to libertarians -- and that comes from theocratic bigotry. Libertarians believe in limited government, individual rights and the free market." But Stomper-style Republicans, "when they're in power ... support legislation that violates personal liberties, like your ability to engage in voluntary, nonviolent personal exchange between consenting adults -- be that use of recreational drugs or sexual practices. They oppose gay marriage, they oppose homosexuality. ... They're moralistic, and it's very dangerous. I think the Carolina Stompers exemplify everything that's wrong about the Republican Party in Buncombe County."
In Nesbitt's eyes, however, the Stompers were created "to do what the Buncombe GOP should be doing." As for libertarians, he calls them "a bunch of crackheads. Seriously, I've never seen anyone so intent on peddling dope to kids. When it comes down to it, the libertarians believe in no laws at all."
Father vs. son
Nesbitt and his stepfather have frequently been on opposing sides of the issues. But the most recent direct clash involves the Stompers' attack on a proposed amendment to the State Employees Nondiscrimination Act. Co-sponsored by Sen. Nesbitt, the amendment would add sexual orientation to the rights protected by the law.
Chad Nesbitt describes the Stompers' opposition to the bill as part of a larger effort to combat the "homosexual agenda" and what he sees as its consequences.
"A teacher could go to school dressed as a transvestite and there'd be nothing the school principal could do about it," says Nesbitt. "Same thing with bathrooms. If a guy thinks he's a girl, he could go into the girls' bathroom and there'd be nothing the parents could do about it. That's wrong -- that's a mental problem these people have -- and they're trying to push it on our children."
Yelton sounds a similar note, proclaiming, "I don't care about someone's private life. If you want to have sex with a duck, as long as you buy it and it's of legal age, then that's your business. But don't push it on others."
Asked to explain how the bill constitutes imposing one's lifestyles on others rather than simply protecting employees from being fired for their sexual orientation, Nesbitt replied, "My wife's a hairdresser, and in that line, we know people that are gay, but those people have never pushed their lifestyle on our family, and we've never pushed ours on theirs."
The emphasis on what they see as threats to their children's future pervades much of the Stompers' rhetoric, from the Web site to their public statements. Indeed, Nesbitt says he realized he was a conservative the day his daughter came into the world. "When she was born, I realized that abortion was wrong and that entire philosophy that the Democrat Party's been feeding me for all these years was a lie," he says.
Another recent issue the Stompers got involved in concerns Leonard Smith, the former music director of the Sycamore Temple Church of God in Christ in Asheville. A sex offender, Smith had been offered a reduced sentence as part of a plea bargain. Nesbitt credited the plea bargain to Smith's Democratic Party connections.
The Stompers also participated in a protest outside the courthouse organized by other groups, which attracted bipartisan support, including both conservative Asheville City Council member Carl Mumpower and left-wing former Council candidate Lindsey Simerly. Both Yelton and Nesbitt praised Simerly, a lesbian, for coming to the protest (which she attended with her girlfriend). In the aftermath, the plea bargain was withdrawn, and on Nov. 28, Smith was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Asked about his relationship with his stepfather, Nesbitt said: "Martin and I don't see each other except at Christmas. I'll see my mother probably three times a day, but when I go over there, Martin's either in Raleigh or with his racecar venture in Swannanoa. He's rarely home. I doubt we'll see him this Christmas after what we're doing now."
"Leading by example"
Although Asheville is heavily Democratic, Nesbitt says he thinks the Stompers can make inroads by appealing to what he sees as more traditional, conservative Democrats who are losing influence within their own party.
"The problem is that the old-time Democrats are dying out, and they're being replaced by this liberal, socialist, even communist group," he says.
Yelton, meanwhile, feels that what he sees as the Stompers' patriotic message could resonate across the political spectrum. "We used to have the belief in this country that America is great," says Yelton. "That's disappeared. Whatever else you believe, you should agree on that. If we don't believe we're great, we can't ever become great."
Nesbitt said the reaction to the Stompers was immediate.
"We haven't had our membership meeting yet; we're still getting the word out," he notes, adding, "We're leading by example -- and people are responding. We've gotten e-mails from Iowa, Georgia, all the way to Oregon asking, 'How can we get Stompers in our state?' We're looking into that."
For the moment, however, Nesbitt is setting his sights on South Carolina. He's planning a "Cannonball Run" style fundraiser: driving to Raleigh, then Myrtle Beach, and then back to Asheville.
"Our cars will be decked out with stars and stripes. We'll get a lot of media attention," he predicts.