The presidential primaries aren’t the only place where Republicans have been divided.
Turmoil among leadership at the Republican Executive Committee of Volusia County has cost the chairman his position in a conflict that bears more than a little resemblance to the fight for the GOP presidential nomination.
State party chairman Lenny Curry took the unusual step of removing Joe Stich as chairman of the local executive committee, an umbrella organization for at least 10 regional clubs that organizes volunteers and seeks to promote the party through community outreach efforts.
The decision, handed down earlier this month, followed a recommendation from the state Grievance Committee and more than a year of charges and counter-charges among members of the committee.
Among the allegations outlined in the committee report, Stich was accused of:
- Having “violated the loyalty oath” by backing an independent candidate over a Republican in a city election.
- Excluding more conservative Republicans from participating in the executive committee because he believed making the party more conservative violated Republican Party ideals.
Stich denied the allegations. “It was mostly a ‘he-said, she-said’ kind of thing,” he said of the hearing. “In the end, the grievance committee decided there was more credibility on the other side.”
Stich was stripped of his leadership post and prohibited from seeking election to any party position for two years. Vice Chairman Tony Ledbetter was put in charge until elections can be held within 60 days to name a new local chairman. Ledbetter said he will not seek the job permanently, and he doesn’t expect the turmoil to affect efforts to galvanize local Republicans in the fall.
“Even though this has happened, we’re in the best position we’ve been in 20 years to get out the Republican vote to support Republicans in November,” said Ledbetter, a lifelong Republican who runs his own business producing T-shirts and visors.
‘PROTECT REPUBLICAN VALUES’
The local imbroglio, as described in the state report and in conversations with local party activists, resembles the primary battle in more than a few ways.
At the national level, Mitt Romney enjoys the support of “establishment” Republicans, while Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have sustained their campaigns thanks to more conservative voters, including members of the tea party and 9/12 movements.
At the local level, it was Stich who played the role of establishment candidate — with even less success than Romney, based on the state report.
“Chairman Stich insists he has an obligation to ‘protect Republican values’ and to exclude Republicans who do not fit with his perception of Republican Party beliefs,” the report states.
Stich said he was a victim of a nationwide movement among ultra-conservative Republicans to take over local groups. The so-called “Precinct Project” seeks to have more conservative Republicans fill vacant precinct committeeman posts so that they have more sway in county executive committees and can support more conservative candidates in GOP primaries.
“This is happening not just in Volusia. They’re doing this all over the country,” Stich said. “The tea party and 9/12 people have sprung up because (they think) the Republican Party wasn’t as conservative as they should have been.”
Stich had come before the state Grievance Committee before; he was allowed to stay as chairman in 2010 provided he worked with a mentor, but the report says that he never followed through. The state Grievance Committee heard 16 hours of testimony regarding 11 separate grievances (or counter grievances) Jan. 12-13 before issuing its recommendation to the state chairman.
“He was in front of his peers,” Ledbetter said of the grievance process. “They’re the ones who made the ruling.”
Lynda Kroeger, the president of the Republican Club of Daytona Beach, resigned from her post as office manager and volunteer organizer for the executive committee following Stich’s removal.
“I don’t think he was treated fairly,” a tearful Kroeger said in a telephone conversation this week.
As an example, Kroeger cited an accusation that Stich was “bullying” female volunteers and staff members.
“That was a lie that was made up to make him look bad,” she said. “I worked there five days a week for three years. No one worked more closely with him, and I know that was not true. But how do you prove what’s not true? They piled up so many things against him.
“I hate so bad what’s happened to him. He just doesn’t deserve this.”
Local Republicans had been riding a wave of successes. Gov. Rick Scott was the featured speaker at the annual Lincoln Dinner last year; a high-profile visit from Mitt Romney highlighted an active volunteer effort leading up to the Jan. 31 Florida primary.
Registration totals for Republicans in Volusia stood at 109,427 in January, state reports show. That’s up only 3 percent from four years ago, but it’s not bad at a time when more voters are turning independent. Local Democrats over the same four years saw their numbers drop by 3 percent.
But those still active with the executive committee think local Republicans can do even better, especially if tea party and other conservative members are more involved.
“We now, moving forward, are a party with a big-tent philosophy,” Ledbetter said. “We’re going to make it easy for Republicans to join.”
Ray Sanchez, president of the Volusia 9/12 Project, said he anticipated that conservative groups would be working together more closely now, especially in preparing for the November elections.
“That remains to be seen, but I have a good feeling,” he said. “I think there will be a good mending of fences as we move forward.”
Ledbetter, who aided in the 2010 County Council campaign for Volusia Tax Reform founder Margie Patchett and is active with the 9/12 Project, hopes to see Republicans ramp up their efforts in local races.
While Republicans hold more than three-quarters of the partisan positions that represent the area at the national and state level, they don’t have the same level of success in local races. For example, six of the seven Volusia County Council members are Democrats, though the races are nonpartisan. With six of those seats up for grabs in the fall, Ledbetter hopes to change those numbers.
“The county wants nonpartisan races, but the only place it has to be nonpartisan is on the ballot,” he said. “We plan on making sure people know who the Republican candidate is.
“We’re going to turn Volusia County red,” he added, “from the County Council, to the state, to kicking Obama out of office.”
© 2011 The Daytona Beach News-Journal.