LETTER: Missouri Republican Party put a damper on dissent at state convention

Monday, September 8, 2008 | 11:26 a.m. CDT; updated 8:34 a.m. CDT, Monday, September 15, 2008

This letter has been modified to correct a grammatical error.

At the Republican National Convention, all of Missouri's 58 delegates arrived pledged to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) whom we had voted 2-1 against in the primary. The Missouri Republican Party settled this at the state convention in Branson with the closest thing I have ever seen to a police state in America: a carnival of low testosterone Stalinism.

For the first time, I saw uniformed armed guards patrolling a Republican convention. They had the local sheriff's department and an unarmed but uniformed private agency. Brief cases, rucksacks, cameras and recording devices were barred. I also saw a woman's handbag searched. And despite air conditioning, more than 1,000 people who were packed into one large room got hot after a few hours, yet even plastic bottled water was banned.

Delegates always sit by Congressional districts. Never before, however, had I seen districts roped off with delegates penned like livestock as pages and adult volunteers attempted to keep us all in our seats. At political conventions people always mill around to communicate, coordinate strategy, etc. But, somebody wanted to crush this routine politicking so vital to American democracy.

One of the volunteers said, "We have to keep order."

Was I in the right place and time? Or, en route to Branson, had I made a Twilight Zone wrong turn and come to 1930s Italy?

Trouble began when the GOP State Committee presumptuously decided all Missouri delegates to the Republican National Convention must vote on the first ballot (there hasn't been a second ballot since 1948) for whomever placed first in the February preference primary although, legally, the state convention — not the committee — is the highest authority of any Missouri political party.

Republicans badly need to reform their "winner-takes-all" presidential primary system which gives us candidates like Bob Dole - last seen in a Viagra commercial. Some argue against changing to proportional representation with each candidate getting a number of delegates about the same as his share of the primary vote because Democrats do it. This sounds almost like a French general saying, "We don't want tank divisions in our army. That's what Germans do."

Motions for rule reform with proportional representation won in several local caucuses around Missouri. Sometimes the common people have common sense.

State GOP organization leaders reacted ruthlessly. Among the worst abuses was the Second Congressional District Convention where according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 20, almost half of the delegates, mostly from St. Charles County, were purged for not supporting McCain's nomination. The story had a photo of pretty Emily Platt, 18, asking, "Where is the room for dissent within the Republican Party?"

At district and state conventions, chairmen crassly disregarded their own party's rules to prevent rule reform motions from even being debated and voted on.

I know of no precedent for 375 delegates, almost one-fifth among 1,976, receiving letters challenging their credentials and summoning them on short notice to "hearings" in Jefferson City on May 5.

The Jefferson City News-Tribune quotes Rob Lee, of St. Louis, as saying "It's just harassment. When you ask them, ‘What are you challenging me for?' They refuse to tell you. You have no idea what you're defending yourself against." Challenged delegates said allegations were vague, sources unidentified, and "hearings" took place in a closed room with no one allowed to witness or record anything.

It galls one to see the party of Lincoln resembling fiction by Orwell or Kafka.

Some of these same elected delegates plus others were challenged at the state convention. In violation of GOP rules, they could not vote until after the effort to bring rule reform to a vote had been blocked. With so many pro-reform votes not cast, reform was blocked with a cheap, vicious trick. Aside from a few bizarre anomalies such as former state Sen. Franc Flotron of St. Louis County, only delegates for Congressman Ron Paul (R-Texas) were challenged; they had spearheaded the rule reform movement.

Paul's campaign had no chance to make any challenges of its own because members were refused access to caucus records.

With these and other legally dubious, morally reprehensible tactics, some party leaders disgraced and fractured the Missouri Republican Party, an already beleaguered party, and prevented or delayed reform. Worse yet, they got away with it and set an ominous precedent for future conventions and perhaps even other parties.

They could have nominated McCain anyway by playing fair; they gained nothing by playing dirty. It may someday come back to haunt them.

William Edward Samuels is an independent columnist, attorney and former visiting law professor in Russia with the Yale-affiliated Civic Education Project. He is a Boone County Republican committeeman and chairman for the 23rd legislative district.


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