In the wake of the primary elections, tensions continue to mount among different factions of the Buncombe County Republican Party.
A relatively small but vocal group of longtime GOP leaders are targeting current party chair Henry Mitchell with criticism, charging that his misguided leadership of the organization is responsible for several grievances, including the recent defeat of Amendment One in Buncombe County (it passed statewide overwhelmingly) and last year's successful sales–tax referendum. Some are even pushing him to step aside and let someone else take the helm.
Meanwhile, Mitchell and many supporters point to a wide range of successes and improvements since he succeeded Chad Nesbitt in March of 2011, making the case that the new leader has gotten the party back on track after years of neglect under the very people who are now criticizing it. It's them, who should step aside, they argue.
Both sides agree on one thing, however: The current level of internal rancor won't serve the party — or its candidates — if it continues into the fall.
Different positionsLingering tensions over the sales-tax referendum, differing perspectives on social issues, and personality clashes are all at the heart of the conflict.
Robert Malt, who served a nine-month stint as BCGOP party chair in 2008 and 2009, notes that the party's executive committee, which includes precinct leaders, officers and elected officials, declined to take an official stance against the sales tax last year. The measure passed by a razor-thin margin of 500 votes and empowered the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners to raise the rate this April by a quarter-cent to fund capital projects at A-B Tech. Malt lead the main political action committee that fought against it.
"Had we had a chairman who stood up and said, 'no, we should take a position against it,' I'm sure the executive committee would've voted to take a position," he maintains. "They followed his lead, essentially. And a core plank of the Republican platform, is to not raise taxes. So if we're not for keeping taxes low, or not increasing them, what do we stand for?"
However, Mitchell counters that he was an outspoken critic, pointing to numerous media outlets who quoted him arguing against it. And Mike Fryar, a Republican who has made repeal of the sales-tax a central issue in his campaign for the board of commissioners in District 2, sings Mitchell's praises.
"He's the best chair we've ever had," Fryar asserts.
Malt also says Mitchell and the BCGOP's lack of organized response to a downtown Asheville topless rally that happened last summer was a major cause of consternation. Instead, a counter-protest was organized by a group that included Nesbitt and former Republican City Council member Carl Mumpower. (In a recent Facebook post, Nesbitt seems to concur with Malt that his successor needs to be replaced, but as of this writing, he hadn't yet returned a call from Xpress seeking comment.)
"Those were two pretty core issues," Malt says. "So to me, he's basically taking no leadership whatsoever. And people are very unhappy."
However, Mitchell argues that although the party, under his leadership, had higher priorities than fighting the topless rally, it hasn't shied away from important social issues.
He ticks off a long list of efforts he and the party made to support Amendment One, including outreach to the press, phone banking, sign/flyer distribution and coordination with local churches. The effort made a big difference in the local vote, Mitchell maintains, noting that although ultimately Buncombe County voters came out against it, the margin was much slimmer than opponents had hoped for.
Still, former first vice chair of the BCGOP and conservative talk host Don Yelton, has been making hay over the issue, arguing more should have been done.
Sour grapes?Mitchell brushes off the attacks as sour grapes from a group of people who miss the limelight.
"There's no civil war on our part, from the committee. ... The conflict is with Don [Yelton] Chad Nesbitt and Robert Malt, because I'm not pushing their agenda and doing what they want to do" he maintains. "They had their chance. … And they couldn't do anything. They weren't organized, had no committees formed, had no money in the bank, very few precinct chairs. … it was like a circus."
In contrast, Mitchell touts a long list of accomplishments over the last year. The party has organized several new committees and groups, retooled its communications team, opened a new headquarters in east Asheville, hosted several successful candidate forums, sent out mailing cards to thousands of newly registered voters and more than doubled its amount of precinct chairs to about 70.
"We raised more money in the first month than Nesbitt and Malt did in their whole tenures as chairmen," he asserts, noting that a February Lincoln Reagan fundraising dinner attracted over 250 people, raising over $12,000. "So we've got money in the bank."
He continues: "Don and them are out in left field, and we're rounding the bases. We're trying to get organized, and mobilized, and energized, and make a difference in November when we vote."
Without naming names, David King, a candidate for commissioner in District 3, echoed that sentiment when he spoke at the annual party convention in March.
"I'd like to thank Henry Mitchell for the dignity and respect he's brought back to the GOP," he declared, garnering applause. "And certainly I would like to follow through with that dignity and respect as a Republican commissioner."
Coming to a headIt looks like some of the tension may come to a head on Monday, May 21, when the executive committee next meets and will consider a "Security Amendment" that would bar anyone other than its members from attending meetings.
A draft of the resolution notes that "Opponents to BCGOP success are shown to use infiltration, intimidation and violence to otherwise disrupt, delay and destroy BCGOP efforts to build a well-organized approach to campaigning." And although Mitchell says, "It's not to restrict anyone or put anybody out," he adds: "Going in to the general election, we need to make sure we got the right people in there organizing and planning what we're going to do in November."
Asked if he's researched the privacy policies of other county parties, Mitchell, says "no," and jokingly notes: "Other county parties don't have the trouble we have in Buncombe County, because we have Don Yelton and Chad Nesbitt."
Yelton counters that the measure is akin to "creating a gestapo, where they control what you think, say and do." And Malt calls it "total nonsense."
Meanwhile, Mitchell recently penned a letter to Malt, lambasting him for actions he took during the primary under the auspices of Buncombe Forward, an outside conservative group he founded that endorsed and than retracted its support of commission chair candidate Glenda Weinert over the sales-tax issue (Weinert was defeated in the primary by JB Howard).
Noting that Malt continues to work on the GOP executive committee as a precinct chair, Mitchell wrote: "It is my opinion and that of others within the state organization, that BF [Buncombe Forward] was working directly against a Republican candidate in a primary and this action, by any member or officer of the BCGOP Executive Committee, will not be tolerated in the future."
Dorothea Alderfer also served on both the executive committee and Buncombe Forward, until recently, when Mitchell asked her to step down from her longtime job as the BCGOP's parliamentarian.
Mitchell says she was doing a good job, but he "just felt like it was time for a change, to give someone else an opportunity to get involved."
But Malt is convinced otherwise, maintaining: "It was obvious to everyone there that it was done in retaliation, to get back at Buncombe Forward, or get back at her for being a member."
The division within the party, according to Malt, "is just unbearable at this point."
And Mitchell agrees that something's got to give. Citing Malt, Yelton and Nesbitt by name again, he declares: "It's come to a point where enough's enough."
"And if they don't want to be part of the organization, and promote our Republican ticket, and get on the train ..." he continues. "If they don't want to get on board, then they can get off and out of the way."