Recalling My Experiences Running for, Winning, and Serving As Director at Large of the Davidson County (Nashville) Republican Party
I make for an unlikely elected Republican officer. As an experimental and avant-garde punk rock vocalist best-known for touring the countryside singing and screaming my head off with my band Look What I Did alongside grindcore, death metal, hardcore, and punk bands on 12 full United States tours, I hardly frequent the same events as many of those in the caucus that eventually chose me to represent them in the Davidson County Republican Party. I am and always will be a lifelong member of the punk rock community, the one which has given the world so many new ideas and fostered opposition to establishments for decades.
Throughout my life, I’ve spent far more time debating against anarcho-syndicalists and their wholesale endorsement of the use of violence to destroy very real private property rights in indie record shops or at benefit shows for initiatives like Food Not Bombs. My foray into Republican politics probably started more as a form of protest than anything else, but once I got my foot in the door, it became clear that, for those interested in freedom, only the Republican Party has the appropriate organizational structure to give rise to an insurgent libertarian mainstream movement. I wasted plenty of time supporting third parties (see: discussion clubs, unfortunately, due to the unfair laws in every state that prevent third parties from competing) given that they produced all the presidential candidates I voted for prior to 2008.
After the success of Congressman Ron Paul’s presidential campaign in ’08, our local libertarian crowd had blossomed into a full-fledged movement, so we organized and decided to try to run for office in the GOP’s county board which essentially governs the platform and finances of the party. There was a spirit of protest as we are not and never were George Bush-style Republicans, but at the same time, restoring the GOP to the legacy of Barry Goldwater or Robert Taft isn’t half bad in the mind of anyone who cares about freedom. With leaders like Ron Paul and Gary Johnson on the national stage, it was clear that the Republican Party was and still is ready for libertarian influence.
Running for Office
Matt Collins, known as “The Collins” among many in the liberty movement, was preparing a run for chair of the Davidson County Republican Party. He asked if anyone would be willing to serve on the board if he were to be elected as there was a possible but unlikely outcome where the chair appoints the board. At this point, I presumed this outcome would not occur, but few people seemed to be willing to step up to take on this challenge, so, being the risk-taker that I am, I agreed.
I attended Republican events to begin this process. I started off by largely just being quiet and being seen. I dressed as nicely as I could, which is difficult for me as I am used to being able to wear obliterated jeans and ratty T-shirts everywhere in my daily life. However, taking the time to dress respectably does prevent political insiders from making huge assumptions about you.
I feverishly studied Republican political rhetoric. I learned exactly why the seasoned activists who got their start in Young Americans for Freedom went wild at Goldwater’s call for “extremism in the pursuit of liberty” against the then establishment-Republicanism of Nelson Rockefeller in 1964. I pored over the speeches written by Pat Buchanan that made so many sitting US presidents look like anti-establishment rebels. The respect for things Republican-past paid off as many of those old Goldwater faithfuls became fast allies of the insurgent libertarian Republicans. They had been fighting against the centralization of power in the party structure for decades, and, to them, we seemed like the reinforcements.
Winning Has Its Complications
After two controversial and hotly contested conventions, Matt Collins won the first Vice Chair position, and many of the rest of us were elected to our respected positions from the floor. I was able to secure enough votes to be declared the Director at Large of the Davidson County Republican Party. I hadn’t expected to win, so when the news was announced to the couple hundred bona fide Republicans, I was deeply shocked.
What now? I was elected to do a job, so it was time to learn how to do it. For those who may be thrown into the same position, here are a few things I learned:
- • Be friends with everyone. Political differences are best when debated politely and in the right context. Even if you feel someone has political views that cause harm to others, it is important to realize that your only hope of changing their mind is found in friendship.
- • Just because someone voted for an establishment Republican in the past or was in favor of the Iraq War does not mean they are a “neoconservative.” Neoconservatism has a specific definition, and, by applying it liberally to anyone who endorsed the Iraq War in those confusing and heated moments of emotion after 911 creates more neocons than it destroys. People in local politics do not get phone calls from the Bilderberg Group or the Council on Foreign Relations, so there is no reason to make a conspiracy out of everything and start calling people names. I thought the war was a mistake back then too, but nobody’s perfect and blame won’t make friends or stop the next war from happening.
- • Choose your battles, and make sure you have the political capital to win them. It’s one thing to vote your conscience and your principles, which I would absolutely encourage, but initiating motions or pushing for resolutions should be done in a focused manner. Pick around three major issues to focus on, and then spend the rest of the time highlighting where you agree.
- • Spend the first few months observing and saying as little as possible. Watch for who is friends with whom, and which caucus influences which elected officials. This information will prove useful.
- • Do the job you were elected to do. If you run for party leadership, then your job is to increase the party’s power. Obviously you don’t want to spend your time doing things that disagree with your principles, so just don’t show up to those events. It is a volunteer type of thing, so you can just withdraw consent from certain types of functions. I received plenty of emails to attend functions that were totally outside of my principles, and I did not go to those.
- • Use the “Reagan Card” when necessary. The Reagan Card is any quote or reference from Ronald Reagan which affirms your point. In Republican politics, this functions somewhat metaphorically like a stun grenade that silences opposing arguments.
Ultimately, I became friends with a lot of people that I initially thought would try to drive me out of the party. Those who were at first decried as establishment neocons by people I knew were later working on the campaign for our first higher-profile local libertarian-Republican candidate, Dr. Steve Dickerson. As a fiscal conservative who is an anesthesiologist with unconventional positions such as being in favor of gay adoptions, he was an absolutely solid candidate that deserved the hard work I put in to help.
When we were planning the Republican picnic, I noticed that our straw poll was missing a noteworthy potential candidate named Dr. Ron Paul. I reminded the board that Ron Paul supporters would attend the picnic and donate money to attempt to win the straw poll, which the party would then have. Seconds later Dr. Paul was added to the straw poll. That meeting barely had a quorum, so no one else probably would have offered his name that day.
Given the difficulties we experienced when Matt Collins was voted out of the party for making comments about Zach Wamp during the primary season, I would ultimately suggest that friendly and cooperatively-spirited activists should work inside the party while more protest-oriented activists work outside. This is not to say that Matt Collins’ activism was ineffective. I think he is one of the most successful advocates for pure freedom in Tennessee, but from the inside, you can change minds, so that is an important opportunity to take advantage of by engaging in friendly discourse.
The Rand Paul style rhetoric works great inside the party, and that type of thing is what most GOP faithful want to hear. For example, if you believe that the War on Drugs is not only a failure but a moral crisis deserving repeal, it might be best to describe those views by saying that you would prefer policies that are “tough on violent and property crime.” The GOP electorate likes tough political rhetoric, and, when you are advocating for the cancellation of a policy, it is best to describe it in terms that sound like an increase in value to the taxpayer.
So, looking back on my successful and now-complete two-year term as Director at Large of the Davidson County Republican Party, I feel like I understand much better than most why the South Carolina GOP debate audience cheered an end to the wars and the War on Drugs. It is because, behind the scenes, people like myself and others have been hanging out with Republicans and changing their minds.
I got to write speeches for candidates. I helped initiate a set of morning breakfast events called “Eggs and Bacon” Summits with State Executive Committeewoman Beth Campbell and former Metro councilman Rod Williams, both of whom I now consider great friends. The state party chair Chris Devaney personally complimented me on those summits, and other counties began to copy our formula. Nearly every Middle Tennessee Republican politician spoke at those events that I helped start, including current governor Bill Haslam. Ultimately, I wanted Nashvillians to be able to talk to these candidates so they could make an informed decision, but by having a hand in creating them, I gained a lot of credibility in the party, and my views were thusly considered to be a part of the “big tent.”
I made lots of great friends across many ideological divides, certainly too many to name here, and, in the end, the experience was worthwhile and valuable for liberty. I would encourage others to follow suit. I did not choose to run again as I have become busy both with playing music and starting a new online and mobile music service called gazzmic which is now in the developmental stages. This is a personal side note, as I had intended to run for city council in Nashville in 2011, but, given that I have an opportunity to create private sector jobs during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, I think it would be more productive to focus on that than to try and run to create a single government job for myself. However, I will only be postponing my campaign, as I still intend to run for Metro Council in 2015 when I have more time.
In conclusion, to those who want to join the Republican Party for the express purpose of driving it back to the true roots of freedom, the Constitution, fear not! If I can do it, a punk-rocker with nothing socially in common with the stereotypical Republican, anyone can. It just takes an open mind, a friendly attitude, and careful attention to political rhetoric and technique. We will have liberty in our lifetime.