Friday, May 30, 2014

"The Right Leadership at the Top:” The Records of the Georgia Republican Party Chairman

Note: In February of this year, the Russell Library embarked on a one-year project to process the records of the Democratic Party of Georgia (Georgia Democrats) and the Georgia Republican Party (GAGOP), funded by a generous grant of up to $58,777 from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). In her second blog post for the project, archivist Angelica Marini highlights the role of Chairman of the Georgia Republican Party and the records that illustrate the Chairman’s influence.

In 1995, Rusty Paul, fresh off stints in the federal government, took part in a competitive race for Chairman of the Georgia Republican Party. His campaign literature promoted grassroots activism, political training, and how, as Chairman, he would lead the party to “the next plateau” as “the right leadership at the top.” This statement speaks volumes about how the party viewed itself as an organization at the time. And the records of the Georgia Republican Party show a political organization dedicated to grassroots political action and local politics in the 1990s, but also one that favored top-down, business-style leadership. In particular, the Administrative and Political series in the GAGOP Records provide a unique view of how the party transformed with the election of new executive officers and their appointed administrative staffs and reflect important changes in grassroots leadership, management styles, and fundraising and finance.

The Administrative series contains files of the men who served as Chairman from 1980 to 1998: Bob Bell (1983-1985), Paul Coverdell (1985-1987), John Stuckey (1987-1989), Alec Poitevint (1989-1993), Billy Lovett (1993-1995), and Rusty Paul (1995-1999). (Sue Everhart, the first woman to be elected to this important leadership role, served two terms from 2009 to 2013.) These files contain correspondence, memos, publicity releases, meeting minutes, and major reports and political plans. Additional materials in the Political series consist of candidate and issue research files, convention materials, and district and county files. Taken together, these records offer researchers countless insights into the political leadership, organization, and focus of individual Chairmen and their staffs.

The records of Alec Poitevint, for example, reflect a Chairman who was involved in nearly every aspect of party management. Records from Billy Lovett’s administration are interspersed with the records of the political director, implying a leader who was directly involved with and focused on campaigns. In contrast, the records of Rusty Paul’s chairmanship show a significant redevelopment of planning and political direction for the party as a whole.

Delegate tallies hurriedly scrawled on an Alec
Poitevint bio sheet reflect the quickly changing
fortunes in a chairman's campaign.
The 2013 Rules of the Georgia Republican Party outline the duties of the State Party Chairman and stress the importance of this position. He is the “Chief Executive Officer, chairman of the State Committee, chairman of the State Executive Committee and spokesman of the GRP.” (Rules of the Georgia Republican Party, 2013) He convenes and presides at the State Committee meetings and conventions, and he appoints committees and the positions of General Counsel, Finance Chairman, and other members of the state party staff. While the State Chairman is obligated to appoint individuals to committees and carry out the administrative business of the party, he is also asked to be a “spokesman of the GRP.” Being a spokesman for the Georgia Republican Party includes leading the party in a general direction and providing a solid political plan.

The Georgia Republican Party elects its Chairman at state party conventions held every two years in odd number years. Some of the election cycles for the Chairman position could be quite competitive. Rusty Paul was first elected at the 1995 convention dynamic and remembered it as raucous and fun. He recalled a dynamic convention atmosphere and an election that required a lot of movement; Paul said that “the whole process of watching a convention and how it functioned; it’s not like an election. I mean there’s the ebb and flow of support back and forth. And, you know, you’re on your walkie-talkie listening and you say, well, the delegation in this area has got some questions and you hustle over there to answer questions.”  (Reflections on Georgia Politics Oral History Collection, ROGP 121 Rusty Paul) The elections were often highly competitive as the party grew in size and political strength.

Some conventions could be raucous and fun, but Georgia Republicans at the 1989 state convention were still dealing with political divisions caused by the Republican presidential nominating conventions. In 1988, supporters of religious conservative candidate Pat Robertson threatened to derail the Georgia convention over the presidential nomination. In 1989 delegates at the state party convention were still factionalized and it took four ballots to elect Chairman Alec Poitevint. Files from the convention in Poitevint’s records illustrate how close the election for Chairman was that year; numerous typed and handwritten vote counts taken throughout the convention recorded various election possibilities. A number of convention materials, like the biographical information about Poitevint, have delegate tallies scrawled on them. These recorded vote counts reflect the immediate political campaigning that Rusty Paul described in his interview. As candidates dropped out of the race Poitevint and his team were able to tally up more supporters as delegate votes swung to those still in the race.

In the 1990s Republicans in Georgia experienced very real change in their political landscape. Redistricting based on the 1990 census reflected an explosion in suburban growth in Georgia, a population that largely voted Republican. In 1992 and 1994 Republicans had enormous electoral successes.  As the Georgia Republican Party grew, the state conventions also grew in size and scope. At the 1995 state convention in Savannah -- the first Georgia GOP convention to attract lobbyists -- the growing pains of the party were apparent and the competition for the chairmanship was keen. Candidates that year represented old and new Georgia Republicans -- Christian conservatives, the state party establishment, an expanded base of suburban voters, and newly Republican rural voters.

In that hotly contested 1995 election for Chairman, top candidates had garnered statewide media attention by accusing each other of dirty tricks. Of the four candidates running for the position, Rusty Paul was the perceived outsider and underdog. Paul had plenty of political experience, though. He managed Jack Kemp’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988 and served as a Bush appointee in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, in the early 1990s. He didn’t think he would win but thought running would be a good way to get back into state politics.

"Rusty's Contract With The GOP" makes the
case for Paul as the party's next Chairman.
“The way we would select a chairman of the Republican Party,” Paul explains, “is different than any other office. I mean, you run around the state like you’re a statewide candidate but instead of talking to voters you’re talking to people who are likely to be the delegates to their local conventions. Whether it’s their precinct caucus, or their county convention, their congressional district convention, and then the state convention.”  (Reflections on Georgia Politics Oral History Collection, ROGP 121 Rusty Paul) Paul’s commitment to running for the office of Chairman was in part what got him elected. His distance from perceived problems in the state party, his experience managing political campaigns, and his political plan for the party made him an appealing choice. His campaign literature focused on making a positive impact on Georgia politics. Paul capitalized on recent Republican successes and pitched “Rusty’s Contract With the GOP,” a la Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract With America, in his campaign literature.

The Administrative and Political Series together shed light on the personal leadership styles of the individuals at the top of the party. As a result, these records provide researchers a fuller, more complex picture of the GAGOP as an organization.

Next up:  The role of the GAGOP’s Executive Director and the development of political plans…