COLUMBIA — At 7 p.m. on a brisk Tuesday evening in early March, a small furniture truck all but eclipses the Columbia headquarters for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign at Parkade Plaza. “Aaron’s,” reads the logo on the side, “Driving Your Dreams Home.”
At the moment, it doesn’t matter. Though a Web site lists this as the time and place of the next Paul meeting, the doors are locked, the lights dim. Behind papered-over windows, one long collapsible table sits empty on astro-green plastic carpet, and an artificial wall of signs made with stencils and spray-paint lie on their sides in the background, heralding the Ron Paul Revolution. The largest ones are just tall enough to obscure the vast unused space behind, where 25-foot ceilings stretch toward some lonely and distant origin. To an outsider peering in, it is a curious still life, like stumbling upon the back lot of an abandoned Broadway production.
MultimediaHear audio clips from a credentials committee hearing in Jefferson City, in which Ron Paul supporters question why their seats are being invalidated. Each convention and caucus is normally governed by Robert’s Rules of Order, according to party documentation. But Paul supporters say their points of inquiry were ignored at several of the caucuses and district conventions, as if they weren’t seated there at all. An audio recording of one dramatic case at a Texas district convention has been widely circulated on YouTube, and Debbie Hopper says a similar incident was also recorded at the 2nd District Convention in St. Charles.
1. Primary – Feb. 5thDespite a popular perception that whoever wins a primary automatically wins the support of a state, Missouri state law does not require that the primary determine anything. It’s specifically called a “preferential primary” — and parties are left alone to determine its rules and significance. In Missouri, Republicans and Democrats each hold their respective primaries in February, but they are conducted very differently. The Democrats divide delegates among the top vote-getters via proportional representation; though Obama “won” the state, he took only a few more delegates than Clinton. The Republicans have a winner-take-all system — whoever gets the highest vote percentage can expect to win all 58 delegates, even if they don’t have an actual majority. In 2008, John McCain won only 194,000 of the state’s 589,000 votes.
2. Caucuses — Mar. 15thIn March, the Republicans hold county caucuses to elect delegates to congressional district conventions and the state convention, which in turn end up determining presidential electors and national convention delegates. The caucuses are also important because they offer an opportunity to propose changes in the state party platform and in the delegate selection process. Samuels and other Republicans who didn’t support McCain wanted to change the rules to proportional representation, or to eliminate the stipulation that all delegates must pledge to vote for McCain. According to Samuels, the Republican caucuses aren’t usually well-attended because of a common perception that they don’t matter much in comparison to the primary. This year, Ron Paul supporters surprised Republican leadership by showing up en masse — they say they initially filled as many as one-third of the delegate seats. However, many of those seats were later contested and invalidated by credentials committees.
3. District conventions — Apr. 19In April, each congressional district in the state holds a convention. Here, the first national delegates and presidential electors are actually nominated. Columbia falls within the 9th District — its convention in Mexico produced three national delegates and three alternates.
4. State convention — May 30 - Jun. 1The final major event before the national convention. The Republicans will meet in Branson this year to finalize their slate of electors and national convention delegates and adopt a state party platform. All of these processes are overseen by party committees, most of which are not directly elected and some of which are appointed positions. One important example is the credentialing committees, which have the power to disqualify elected delegates if they are suspected of not being committed to the ideals of the party. Many who claimed seats at the March caucuses, including Mike Bellman, were later disqualified for these reasons. Sources: MOGOP.com (Missouri Republican Party Web site), Revised Statutes of the State of Missouri, Missouri Republican State Committee Bylaws
Ron Paul’s Major IssuesThe Economy — Lower taxes for individuals and businesses — Less government spending — Opposed to the Federal Reserve Bank Immigration — Increased border security — No amnesty — No birthright citizenship Foreign Policy — Against the War in Iraq — Opposed to free trade organizations — Less compliance with the U.N. and the International Criminal Court Heath Care — Less socialized — Allow more competition from smaller providers Social Security — Cut government spending of S.S. money — More personal control over where money is invested Abortion — Anti-abortion — Wants its legality to be decided by state/local government Gun Control — Staunch 2nd Amendment advocate — Voted against the Assault Weapons Ban Education — Disband the Department of Education — Localize education funding Source: RonPaul2008.com
It was the second time I’d found the Paul office in this lonely state. Later, I’d learn that the original meeting time had been changed twice to accommodate the most dedicated of Paul’s followers, the ones who plopped wads of $20 bills into a letter-sized envelope to pay for the office’s March rent. Some of them were around long enough to remember the first meeting, at Lucy’s bar in McBaine more than a year ago, or the weekly IHOP congregations that became the norm soon afterward.
Tonight, they are much closer to their last. Though 997 other MeetUp.com groups have been formed in 799 cities, and Paul has garnered almost $34.3 million without accepting corporate donations, most media analysts consider him an afterthought at best — and, at worst, a joke. In one of his stronger showings nationally, Paul pulled just 5 percent of Missouri’s vote in the February Republican primaries by running on a constitutionalist platform that advocated such politically suicidal stands as legalizing marijuana and bringing back the gold standard.
But his self-reliant attitude and brutal honesty has made him a cult figure among those who believe in the small-government tradition of Taft, Goldwater and Reagan. He’s never supported the war in Iraq, supporters say. He’s never voted for an unbalanced budget. He wants to control the borders and stop the weakening of the dollar. And his stubbornly un-P.C. speeches during the few early debates to which he was invited made him a YouTube phenomenon.
On this night, Mike Huckabee followed the example of Giuliani and Romney, dropping out after gathering a less-than-expected 255 delegates in the early primaries. Paul has nearly 10 times less, but his campaign vows to press on. The race is now down to two — even if, for all practical purposes, it is down to one.
The next evening at 7:15, the seats at the Paul campaign headquarters are full and all of the lights are on. At the head of the table, William Samuels sits upright wearing gold-rimmed glasses and a plain black baseball cap, outlining the weekly agenda.
Samuels, a civil practice attorney, has been active in Columbia politics for decades. His only campaign for public office ended in 1988, when he was soundly beaten by incumbent Roger Wilson in a bid for state senator. (Samuels blames a lack of special interest money and conspiracy on the part of local banks and newspapers for his defeat.) His diction is often punctuated by inverse maxims and literary allusions; he says that his real ambition in life was to become a great writer. At one point, while qualifying a rather dubious comparison between McCain and Philippe Pétain, the decorated French World War I hero who later signed away two-fifths of his country to Hitler’s armies, Samuels covers himself with a quote from Oscar Wilde: “Exaggeration is merely the truth that has lost its temper.”
Wilde seems like an odd reference for a man who argues for gun rights and says that cultural diversity is threatening American democracy. But then again, nobody in this room is quite a conventional Republican. In fact, there seems to be a unified disdain for the party’s local organization (or lack thereof), especially the steak dinner events put on by the Pachyderm Club.
“Republicans in this county don’t have a particularly good record of winning local elections,” Samuels says, adopting a slight sarcastic smile. “But they sure know how to have lunch.”
Tony Ramirez, seated to the left, was among the last wave to climb aboard the Paul bandwagon in its organized form. As a custodial manager working at Columbia Regional Hospital, he says his rotating shift schedule rarely permits him to attend the weekly meetings. Tuesday’s gathering is his second, but he is already considered the guru on immigration reform — a critical issue that Paul’s people think has the best chances of converting tepid McCain supporters, libertarians and moderate, on-the-fence Democrats. Behind a full, dark beard, Ramirez’s eyes seem tired and quiet, but he is full of things to say.
Ramirez, now 33, was in 10th grade when LAPD officer Tina Kerbrat was shot by an illegal immigrant gang member outside Sun Valley Recreational Park, six blocks away from Ramirez’s house. From that point on, he says, he couldn’t ignore the headlines. In the morning, when his father, John, was done reading the paper, Tony would snap it up to follow local crime and politics. Though he had relatives still in Mexico, Tony’s mother’s parents came to California in the 1940s through the standard naturalization process, and he says he has often been suspicious of those who break the rules.
“I only want people coming here the right way,” says Ramirez, who regularly submits news stories and reports about immigration and illegal workers to the Yahoo! activism group Closed Borders. “When I went to school there were kids that didn’t know English. Signs were in Spanish. Many of the high-population illegal alien communities were dirty and crime-ridden.”
Ramirez has called Missouri home since he was 18, when he enlisted in the Army and was assigned to his first duty station at Fort Leonard Wood southeast of Rolla. He became a combat engineer and later spent time in Germany. But he insists his own service background merely echoed beliefs that his father, a Vietnam veteran, and brother (also John), a reservist, had impressed upon him from a young age.
John Paul, no relation to the candidate, is 52 years old and sits at the opposite end of the table from Samuels in a camouflage hunting jacket and muddy brown hiking boots, clutching a roll of duct tape. His carbon-dusted hands begin to tell you his story before he does. Normally, he uses them to repair furnaces and air conditioners throughout the city, and tonight he’s come straight from work to attend the meeting.
John Paul has never been involved in a campaign before. He first heard about the local Ron Paul effort through his friends Herman and Tom, who aren’t present. Though he doesn’t speak up much during the meeting, he’s been actively involved with the campaign for nearly a year, and he recently helped put up one of the massive 10-by-40-foot banners that run along I-70 near mile marker 136, a few minutes outside of Columbia. (At $6 per square foot, each cost the group $2,400.)
After the others leave and turn out the main lights, John Paul stays to continue on a series of impassioned political rants. How come we don’t take more pride in our own Constitution? What if they call YOUR name in the draft? Why doesn’t the media take Ron Paul seriously?
Keys on a ring jangle as he follows me out of the office, locking up the glass door behind him for the night. He expresses his frustration that a news release wasn’t picked up by the local papers and admits that thus far, the campaign has been somewhat of an uphill battle. Everything is now dark, but there is a glimmer of light in his eyes as his tone veers toward a conclusion.
“Oh, we’re not out of this race yet,” Paul says. “Not by a long shot.”
Rallying to recruit
Another week passes; this one an hour shorter because of daylight saving time. Now at 7 p.m., the light of late afternoon fills the Paul compound with warm hues and long shadows. But once again, the room is empty.
I’m about to arrange for a ride home when Samuels emerges from his truck with a piece of paper in hand. “We’re moving it to Wendy’s,” he says, moving to post a notice on the door. Due to a mix-up with the key, the meeting group has been locked out of their own headquarters.
When I get there, the meeting is small enough to fit at a single round table, where forwarded e-mail printouts are spread between fountain cups and my Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger. Less than three days are now left until the March 15 caucuses, and the focus has narrowed to last-minute logistics, from how many voters each member has recruited to who’s buying the Slim Jims. Even though the news wires have been widely reporting for days that their candidate is dropping out of the race, there is no sense of defeat here except laughter — especially when the topic turns to the expected turnout of Paul-friendly voters.
“Can we dig up corpses?” someone asks. “Inflatable people,” suggests another. A man named Bruce asks me, half seriously, if I am a Republican.
Leading the discussion this time is 33-year-old Amy Bremer, whose trendy North Face jacket, shirt-clipped sunglasses and blonde hair stand out against the usual congregation of mostly older men. An engineering supervisor at 3M, she became the local campaign coordinator before she had ever voted in a presidential primary. And yet, for all her inexperience, she is an ideal leader: well-spoken, personable and young enough to connect with the more progressive college-town crowd. Moments after I introduce myself, she pulls out her flip phone to show me a picture of a student smiling at a Ron Paul sticker pressed onto his white binder. “He used to have an Obama sticker there,” Bremer says, grinning, “but ours was bigger, so he put it on top.”
This time, the meeting runs short — Bremer has to take a conference call with other coordinators around the state. The few others in attendance agree that any free time in the coming days should be spent manning the phones, recruiting anyone to help flood the caucuses with friendly faces.
Navigating though obstacles
They didn’t lock the doors, says Bremer, until 10:39 a.m. on Saturday, March 15, nearly 40 minutes after the Boone County caucus was supposed to be closed. But the Republican Party enforces those rules, and they are easily adjusted. When a large Paul contingent showed up at the American Legion Hall on Route WW, Bremer and Samuels said cell phones were out en masse, ostensibly to alert other Republicans that trouble was afoot.
Two days earlier, MU’s College Republicans had sent out a mass e-mail advising members that Paul supporters were preparing to make a run on delegate seats. The subject line contained all the instructions that were necessary: “Do you like Ron Paul? If not, please caucus!!!”
At the end of that Saturday, 25 of Boone County’s 55 delegates to the state GOP convention were occupied by Paul loyalists. Their more aggressive tactics were mostly sniffed out — for example, targeted amendment proposals that would have disqualified McCain from being nominated. But they did push through a proposal to change Missouri’s delegate slate from winner-take-all to proportional representation, a measure that would boost Paul and divest McCain of at least 36 delegates. And many of the amendment proposals that did not succeed in Boone County were successful in high-population areas such as St. Charles, Greene and Jackson counties.
These guerrilla victories, however small, are the reason Republican leaders are quietly swatting at Paul months after CNN and MSNBC left him for dead. Stuck awkwardly with a frontrunner who, not long ago, discussed defecting to the Democrats, Paul is the pesky little ex-Libertarian who may yet be the closest reflection of conservative values on the ballot. There is no realistic chance of that propelling him suddenly to a nomination, no matter how many times Paul’s proponents point to a certain Great Emancipator who had only 22 delegates going into the convention. But their efforts could be enough to ruin the solidarity that the party needs after eight-years of an unpopular presidency.
Just a few days after I first met William Samuels, Tony Ramirez and John Paul, and before I’d ever spoken to Amy Bremer, congressman Ron Paul, R-Texas, had already informally conceded.
“Though victory in the conventional political sense is not available in the presidential race,” he told supporters via a March 6 YouTube address, “many victories have been achieved due to your hard work and enthusiasm.”
The group still meets Thursday nights at the Heidelberg for the time being, but these days only a few attendees stop by consistently. By April 16, when John Paul drove to the Missourian offices to attend a citizen’s panel about election coverage, his frustrations had almost overridden his relentless optimism.
“Do we really think Ron Paul can still win?” He paused. “Maybe.”
Longer this time.
“But we’re not gonna stop fighting.”
It may seem pointless to some. Not to Mike Bellman, a Columbia Public Schools computer technician who drove to the 9th Congressional District convention in Mexico, Mo., at 8:30 Saturday morning, April 19, only to find out the delegate seat he earned at the caucus was being marked invalid because he used to be a Libertarian committeeman. Not to Samuels, whose motions were all denied and who was nearly refused entry because he was several minutes late, though there is no such precedent in the party rules. Not to Deb Wells, the state Ron Paul campaign coordinator, or Debbie Hopper, the national field coordinator, who were both deferred by state Republican Executive Director Jared Craighead’s office when they attempted to examine open delegate records for evidence of unsubstantiated rejections. When I asked Craighead about the incidents, he blamed a “compressed time frame” and too much data for the delay.
For them, the last remaining hope for change is Missouri’s state convention in Branson starting May 30, but there is no reason to believe that it will be conducted any differently. The Missouri Republican Party Web site lists John McCain as their only presidential candidate.
In the face of this, some keep fighting for Paul himself. Others, it seems, have unified around the strict constitutionalism that he espouses. If nothing else, Samuels says, Paul’s legacy from this election year will have been getting voters like Amy and John involved in the political process for the first time.
The great canvas signs still fly along the highway, but the Parkade office now sits bare, awaiting its next tenant. As some watch their candidates shake hands faster and stand on higher podiums, graduating from bumper stickers to yard signs, Paul’s most faithful will have to take their biggest dreams home with them. And yet, through forwarded e-mails, small get-togethers, and phone-line lobbying, many will continue to strategize and promote the Revolution against entrenched powers, even in their own party. Bremer says that it would be “irresponsible” not to. As Samuels puts it, the things they believe in did not start and will not end with one man’s candidacy.
Or, as Ron Paul said on YouTube: “Elections are short-term efforts; revolutions are long-term projects.”