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Editorial: Armistead Lost Battle on the Internet Long Before His Defeat At Republican Summer Meeting

By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead actually said on the podium at the Alabama Republicans annual summer meeting,

“The blogs and websites are trash. Don’t get on them.”

In the days and weeks before the fiery showdown between Chairman Armistead’s old guard of social conservatives and a younger group of party activists the Alabama Republican Party Chairman actually followed his own bad advice.

Chairman Armistead and his faction on the steering committee were promoting new by-laws which would strip state steering committee members of their ability to speak out against any provision on the GOP platform and a second bylaw change which would prohibit elected officials from serving on their county or the state’s executive committees.

When I spoke at length with Chairman Armistead on Tuesday, he angrily denounced me for one article I had written on this issue that Monday. Steering Committee member Jeff Peacock had written an expert piece on facebook detailing why Republican Executive Committee Members should reject the controversial by-law changes being pushed by ALGOP Chairman Armistead and his faction.National GOP/libertarian Political Consultant from Hartselle Stephen Gordon had written a similar piece in an open letter to the GOP executive committee.

My job as a reporter is to inform the readers of what is happening in the fish bowl of Alabama Politics and this clearly was shaping out to be the biggest story of the week; whether the Alabama Political Reporter had covered it or not.

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I informed the Chairman that morning I had received a press release from the Alabama Federation of Young Republicans opposing his policies and that I would be publishing an article based on that release on Wednesday. Armistead said that I should get both sides of the story and I agreed, begging him to send me a press release with his justifications for the unprecedented changes to the Republican Party by-laws. I was up late that night and even took the added effort of sending an email to the ALGOP press secretary asking them for any justification for the new rules that are effectively gagging members of the state steering committee and stripping hundreds of Republican elected officials from their posts on the state and their county executive committees.

Armistead and his people never issued a statement or returned my requests for an interview. Rather than getting out front on the issue and stating their case publicly like adults, Armistead and his staff hid out at Republican headquarters vainly hoping that their silence would make the story go away. Their unprecedented political incompetence throughout this sad debacle was simply stunning to behold.

Meanwhile supporters of embattled ALGOP steering committee member Stephanie Petelos, who serves on the steering committee due to her position as the elected Chairwoman of the Alabama Federation of College Republicans, and the target of Armistead’s wrath for her support of extending marriage rights to homosexual couples, waged a masterful social media campaign on Twitter, facebook, blogs and political websites. So vast was the coverage that it even spread out to old media, like talk radio and the mainstream media; in many cases far beyond Alabama. Her supporters skillfully turned the debate from gay marriage to free speech and whether the Alabama Republican Party could tolerate free and open debate.

Expert political operatives like Gordon, Chris Brown, Matt Jenkins, and Alabama Federation of Young Republicans Chairman Clayton Mark Turner were joined on social media by a small legion of volunteers that included Peacock, State Senator Cam Ward, former ALGOP Press Secretary Shana Tehan, and Alabama Minority GOP Chairman Phillip Brown in a combined communications effort that would cost a small fortune for someone to attempt to duplicate.

Meanwhile Chairman Armistead’s camp relied on a sad whisper campaign to get their weak and disjointed message out. It was a hopeless mismatch.

Gordon wrote afterward, “ Not only do I believe in an open and transparent process, I live in the 21st century and this is how we communicate these days. For the people in the party can’t accept this, too bad. We won this issue on the internet. We won Free the Hops on the internet. We will continue to win issues and campaigns on the internet. The genie is out of the bottle and burying one’s head in the sand won’t bring us back to the days of rotary dial land line telephones. And to the people who CAN’T understand it, you may wish to consider stepping out of the way so those of us who understand communications processes developed beginning toward the end of the last century can take over.”

Armistead foolishly violated any concept of basic military or political strategy by challenging the libertarians, the young Republicans, and the college kids with his by-law aimed at removing Miss Petelos while at the same time taking on older establishment types who were the targets of his ban on elected officials serving on party executive committees…many of whom were voting executive committee members. This created the very odd circumstances where both groups were forced to unite in common cause against Armistead, who apparently was gambling that he could win the day solely through the power of his own personal charisma.

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By Saturday, over two hundred people (including many state executive members) were proudly wearing “Vote No” stickers on their attire. Rather than just dropping the whole matter and referring the poorly thought through bylaw changes back to committee as any more politically savvy person would have done, the Chairman and his visibly aging group of supporters charged ahead into a debate they were never prepared for and had absolutely no hope of ever winning. 

Bonnie Sachs, who originally co-sponsored the by-law change: No member of the state steering committee can publicly oppose a motion of the state executive committee, argued that members of the steering committee should be held to a higher standard and if you want freedom of speech you shouldn’t be on the Alabama Republican State Steering Committee.

Meanwhile one opponent of the rule thundered, “We are not the Third Reich. We are not the Taliban.”

When they couldn’t pass the by-law change (which requires a super-majority) they attempted to pass it as a resolution which requires a simple majority. Easily 75% of the executive committee members present yelled out “NO” in opposition to the controversial proposal. Finally somewhat coming back to this reality, the measure to remove elected officials from party positions was dropped by it’s sponsor, Elbert Peters.

One elderly supporter of Armistead’s proposal said, “Our party is at a critical pivot point as the Democrat Party dissolves, and they are at that point, that they will invade our party. Are we going to have a conservative party known as the Republican Party or are we going to let the Democrat party take over our party?”

That man (I regret that I did not get his name) was right on several points. The Alabama Democratic Party has fallen to the point that they won’t even respond to basic questions left on their voice mail like: Did a candidate qualify today in a state House special election? and the email address on their official website hasn’t worked in many weeks. We go weeks and months without them putting out a press release about anything. Any money donated to that hopeless cause simply goes to pay the past due interest on debt service…debts some of which reportedly go all the way back to Seigelman’s (D) failed lottery campaign. Their party is hopelessly officially fractured between the Alabama Democratic Majority, the Alabama Democratic Conference, and the Alabama Democratic Party…..all of whom compete for money from the same dwindling pool of in-state donors and the AEA. The Dems have virtually no chance of unseating Governor Bentley or unseating the Republican super-majority at this point barring divine intervention, much less getting funds down to their probate judge and sheriff candidates at the county level. None of this has gone unnoticed by candidates or the interests that fund campaigns.

For decades, career seeking politicians turned to the Alabama Democratic Party because it controlled the county courthouses and the legislature even while the state was voting for Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, Dole, and the Bushes in presidential elections. Now the Alabama Republican Party is the de facto party of the state of Alabama outside of the state’s Black community.

Saturday’s intra-party battle was about whether that Alabama Republican Party tent was going to be a small tent where only a certain slate of viewpoints are allowed or whether the Party was going to be a big tent where many viewpoints and persons are allowed and even welcomed. The “big tent” camp favored by both Republican establishment types (whose focus is simply on them winning re-election) and by Republican youth (who are increasingly dissenters on many of the social issues) won on Saturday and the conservative old guard were left noticeably shocked, confused, and unprepared for this moment.

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Following the by-laws vote, a triumphant Stephanie Petelos told the ALGOP Executive Committee that: “It is easier to drive young people away from the party than it is to bring them into the party.” Armistead’s attempt to drive young Petelos away from the party led to his sad, poorly executed purge attempt and has catapulted the 22 year old to near rock star status within the Alabama Republican Party. Clearly she is now the best known member of the ALGOP Steering Committee next to Armistead himself and is likely a future Chair of the Alabama Federation of Young Republicans if she remains in state and wants the position.

Chairman Armistead, the fractured and divided ALGOP steering committee, or whoever leads the Alabama Republican Party going forward needs to learn to master the internet (you can study the 2012 Mitt Romney campaign for near total internet incompetence). You would not choose to go to war in 2013 without an air force consisting of the best planes, drones, and missiles you can get. Likewise no competent political campaign should surrender facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere entirely undefended to their opponents.

This is 2013…not the long ago world of 1964 (that Armistead seemed to be pining for all weekend) and if you are not on the blogs and the websites you can bet that your opponents (and your voters) will be.

Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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