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The Alabama Republican Party: Thorns among the roses

By Larry Sims

On February 21st, the Alabama State Republican Executive Committee elected a new leader. Terry Lathan from Mobile was elected state party chair, defeating former State Rep Mary Sue McClurkin. She will succeed Bill Armistead who has chaired the party since 2010.

Prior to 2010, state party elections meant little to the general public. Party faithful invested significant emotion in the process, and elections were conducted just among the members of the state committee using mail, email, and telephone calls with an expectation of a measure of respect. This year, however, was marred by negative emails, direct mail, and inner party maneuvering including a “Ballot Investigation Committee” aimed at discrediting Chairman Armistead.

With the election of 2010, the GOP established a strong hold on state and local offices. Today, Republicans hold all state-wide elected offices, a supermajority in both houses of the legislature, and a solid base of local elected offices. Near total control of state politics has raised the stakes, and local GOP activists on the State Executive Committee have to be considered one of the most potent political forces in the state.

After living in the shadow of the Democrats for most of Alabama’s history, war worn GOP veterans now get a chance to smell the roses. The negative tone of the inner-party elections has made it clear that thorns are also thriving.

Alabama has made the transition from a one party state (Democrat) to a one party state (Republican). The players have changed, but the rules remain the same. In 1949, Dr. V. O Key wrote “Since the competition in the South is all within a single party, each election forces that year’s factions to build a new coalition from the ground up. Parties can do it cheaper since they already have a base and a set of loyal volunteers.” Key’s book Southern politics in state and nation is known as the “Bible of southern politics” by political scientists. Key wrote extensively about the nature of one party politics and the advantages used by the majority party to stay in power.

Because the stakes are higher, inner-party elections have become more intense. The negative efforts were not a product of the candidates. Both Lathan and McClurkin seemed to share mutual respect for each other. The smear tactics were directed at Armistead and those close to him by an anonymous mailer which attempted to tie Armistead to a slate of candidates which included Lathan. Also, an Ad Hoc committee appointed by the State Steering Committee to investigate ballot issues concerning Armistead released its report to the entire state committee by email on Thursday February 19th, without approval of the entire steering committee.

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In a March 3rd article in the Franklin Free Press, John Pilati writes “With its growth and influence at an all-time high, Alabama’s Republican Party finds itself in uncharted waters.” Described as a ‘meteoric rise”, Pilati details the accomplishments of the party during Armistead’s tenure.

In addition to obvious success at the state level, the GOP made inroads into Democrat strong holds by electing more than 200 local Republican officials. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment was the defeat of democrat power broker, State Senator Roger Bedford by Dr. Larry Stutts. Armistead took the lead in recruiting Stutts and assisting in funding his campaign. Oddly enough, Armistead did this in the face of opposition from some members of his own party.

In four short years, the State Headquarters was relocated to a stately two story building on Lorna Road in Birmingham. Armistead negotiated the purchase, and in a short time raised money to pay for the headquarters building. Armistead left the party with no debt and over $200,000 in the bank. During his tenure, Armistead maintained a daily presence at the headquarters, often working long hours with no pay.

Armistead was reelected to a second two year term in 2012 when he defeated Matt Fridy. Opposition to Armistead included high ranking state officials, but he won approval by a significant margin of committee members.

Party insiders were keenly aware of opposition to Armistead from a minority of the State Steering Committee members. The Steering Committee is made up of officers elected by the state committee and congressional district organizations. Also, heads of auxiliary groups like the Alabama Federation of Republican Women (AFRW), College Republicans, Young Republicans, and Alabama Minority GOP (AMG) are members. The core of the opposition to Armistead appeared to come from the auxiliary groups.

According to the minutes of the State Steering Committee, five members were appointed to a “Ballot Investigation Committee”. They were Frances Taylor, AFRW Chair, Phillip Brown, AMG Chairman, George Williams, Senior Vice Chairman of the State GOP, and two Armistead appointees, Terry Lathan and Virginia Doyle. Lathan would later resign, and Cole Lawson, College Republican Chairman was appointed to replace her. Breaking with tradition by questioning wording of the State GOP Bylaws, the Steering Committee refused to allow Chairman Armistead to appoint the ad hoc committee.

The report released two days before the party elections alleged that Armistead had become involved in recruiting executive committee candidates to oppose members opposed to him. It also attempted to tie Armistead to the Alabama Education Association (AEA), an organization long viewed as an enemy of the state GOP, although many current GOP office holders have a long history of accepting AEA money.

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The report itself was not approved for release by the Steering Committee, and the timing raised suspicion. The language in the report seemed to be laced with allegations backed with little evidence. Basically, it followed a “he said she said” format with little in the way of actual proof.

In an email to state committee members Armistead described the report as “shameful.”

Also, a mailer criticizing Armistead and four candidates for State Executive Committee offices hit member’s mailboxes the last week before the election on February 21st. The mailer was sent in the name of “concerned Republicans for ethical practices.” Don Wallace, Troy Towns, Harold Sachs, and Terry Lathan where all targeted by what appeared to be baseless allegations.

Pilati made reference to the anonymous post card and Lathan’s response. “Lathan said actions such as those rip apart party unity and create divisions damaging to it effectiveness.” An unnamed source within the Republican Party has indicated that the author of the negative mailer has been identified as a member of the State Executive Committee.

Larry Sims is a former member of the Alabama House of Representatives who teaches political science at an Alabama Community College

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