Alabama Republican Party chairman Bill Armistead has a message for card-carrying members of the party: If you support gay marriage, stay in the closet.
Last week, Alabama Republican Party committee members Don Wallace of Tuscaloosa and Bonnie Sachs of Double Springs sponsored a proposed amendment to the bylaws of the Alabama GOP that would remove any member who publicly supports a position that doesn’t matchup with the party’s most recent platform adopted at the Republican National Convention in Tampa last year from its steering committee.
Sachs’ husband, Harold Sachs, is the most senior staffer in Armistead’s office, bringing the amendment even closer to home.
Reportedly, the proposed amendment was conceived after comments made by current University of Alabama College Republicans Chairwoman Stephanie Petelos to al.com after the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act last June.
“I think a lot of people would be actively for it if they didn’t live in fear of backlash from [Republican Party] leaders,” Petelos said in a June 26 story by Melissa Brown. “We don’t want to go against the party, we love the party. We’re just passionate about a whole list of other issues, that’s why we’re involved.”
Petelos is the daughter of Jefferson County manager and former Hoover mayor Tony Petelos and holds a spot on the Alabama GOP’s steering committee as a result of being elected as the University of Alabama College Republican chair.
This whole incident drew some national headlines, but not in a good way. Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins depicted it as a “generational civil war within the heart of Dixie.” And this incident will likely continue to be ammunition for detractors of the national Republican Party and the conservative movement.
Nonetheless, it is a problematic situation for Armistead. On one hand, the Republican Party is on a crusade to grow the tent, be more inclusive and thus be more competitive in national elections. But in statewide elections, taking this route doesn’t do much to grow the party.
As of last November, after Republican Twinkle Cavanaugh defeated Democrat Lucy Baxley for the presidency of Public Service Commission, the Republican Party holds all statewide elected offices and six of the state’s seven congressional seats. So how do you grow it from here?
Embracing gay marriage won’t make Alabama’s 7th congressional district turn red anytime soon. Nor will it make any of Alabama’s larger municipalities more winnable for conservative-leaning candidates in those non-partisan elections.
Both of those are where the demographics tend to be dominated by African-American voters and have been problem areas for Republicans. To top it off, the African-American community has been one of the last holdouts for opposition to gay marriage.
A March 2013 Pew Research Center for the People and the Press study found 40 percent of African-Americans support gay marriage and 48 percent are opposed to it. However, that same study found 49 percent of whites supporting gay marriage and 43 percent opposed to it.
Although that data isn’t necessarily reflective of the black electorate in Alabama, there doesn’t seem to be much of a political upside to having a Republican Party more open to endorsing gay marriage. The Alabama Republican Party functions as a political apparatus with the goal of winning elections for Republican candidates.
That being said, Alabama Republican Party chairman Bill Armistead, along with Don Wallace and Bonnie Sachs handled this one poorly. Outside of openly supporting a Democratic candidate, there’s little justification for trying to shut down an opposing viewpoint.
In defense of his position, Wallace has publicly argued that his intentions were to have everyone on the same page of the same playbook.
“When the College Republican chairwoman made official statements in conflict with the party platform’s support for traditional marriage, as well as the governor and Chairman Armistead, I believe that requires action by the Republican Party on both procedural and moral grounds,” he said to the Montgomery-based website Yellowhammer News.
Since the party had taken control of Montgomery in 2010, internal bickering within the Alabama GOP hasn’t been unusual. Early this year, there had been an ugly behind-the-scenes power struggle between opposing factions to determine who would be the party’s chairman — Armistead or attorney and part-time University of Montevallo professor Matt Fridy.
Armistead won handily in a 221-159 vote, but not without facing the opposition of almost every major Republican officeholder in Montgomery, including Gov. Robert Bentley, Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives Mike Hubbard and Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey.
After his win, Armistead had promised to mend fences and bring the party together. However, based on this latest effort to shut down Petelos’ outspoken support for gay marriage that promise appears to have been broken, at least for the time being.
It’s always good to have these internal debates about policy. You can argue the merits for and against gay marriage all day long, not that it hasn’t ever been done before. However did the Alabama GOP think this strong-arm tactic of introducing an amendment to the party’s bylaws would go unnoticed?
This will ultimately sort itself out. But the damage has been done. Liberal activists on MSNBC and elsewhere will likely key-in on this seemingly meaningless squabble to strengthen their case that the Republican Party and Alabamians are homophobic Neanderthals using extraordinary measures to stifle debate and that’s un-American. Then they’ll say, “Don’t be an un-American homophobic Neanderthal, vote Democrat.”
That isn’t doing the intended mission to win elections any benefit. But on a larger scale it isn’t doing the state of Alabama any favors. Learn how to agree to disagree.