The race for the Republican National Committee chairman is coming down to the final hours. And the contest could well turn on the issue of race.
That was perhaps inevitable, given that we have just elected an African American president and that the Republican Party is at a low point in its ability to attract minority voters. The decision on Friday by 168 Republican committeemen will have much to say about how the party is perceived and whether the public regards the GOP as a force to be reckoned with or a throwback to less pluralistic time in American history.
A number of the candidates, either explicitly or implicitly, are struggling with the race issue and attempting to offer themselves as the leader of a party which must become more diverse if it is to win races in an increasingly diverse electorate.
Two African American candidates, Michael Steele and Ken Blackwell, are oft-mentioned front-runners. Neither has explicitly appealed on the basis of race, and indeed when another candidate, Chip Saltsman, was roundly criticized for sending out a CD with a racial themed “joke,” Blackwell declined to join the media fray in criticizing him. However, both men offer the GOP the opportunity to shed its image as a purely southern, all white party.
Michigan GOP Chair Saul Anuzis has been attuned to the party’s difficulties with minorities. He has spoken frequently of his upbringing as a Lithuanian immigrant who can reach out to ethnic groups not previously attracted to the Republican Party.
Katon Dawson, head of the South Carolina GOP, has a more difficult task. When it was revealed that he belonged to a “whites only” club, the Forest Lake Country Club, for over a dozen years, a minor media firestorm erupted. Dawson played the “media card” — claiming the issue was an artificial concoction of the mainstream media. He also moved to quell concern by obtaining the endorsements from two African American committeemen.
Nevertheless, many Republicans remained worried. As one Republican insider without a candidate in the fight put it, “Dawson is a ticking time bomb.” Among the issues is a 2003 interview in which he explained his political coming of age:
I’ve always been involved in politics. And I guess it goes all the way back to my school career and education. I, in the 1960s was a product of school segregation, where we took our schools and completely disbanded them, and made racial equality. Fifty-Fifty. And the kids had no choices. They closed Booker T. Washington, Blease [Graham, moderator of the forum], down here. A pretty good school. Closed it and sent the students to A. C. Flora, across town. And they did it over the summer because the laws had been changed by the politicians. And, the day that school opened, we were on CBS news with the buses turned upside down, and one of them lit on fire. By folks who didn’t want to go to school there. Not folks who did.
The end of that story was, I was standing in a bathroom in public school. … This scar over here [pointing to his forehead] was from a baseball bat. I will tell you it was a pretty harsh environment. Government reached into my life and grabbed me and shook me at the age of fifteen. I remember how blatant it was that government just thought that they knew better, that government just thought they knew better what to do in my school. And I can’t say it was so much racial. I can say that people had a lot of stuff thrust on them because politicians thought they knew better. Whether they did or didn’t, I don’t know. But from that day on I’ve always been politically active, and wanted my voice heard. Not always right. And my opinion is not always consistent with everyone else’s. but I care greatly about the State we live in, and greatly about the idea of freedom.
It does not take much imagination to foresee that MSM outlets (and even conservative ones) will be consumed with a racial storyline if Dawson is selected. If Dawson prevails, the media could not be expected to ignore the irony that during the Obama presidency, the GOP selected a chairman who was motivated to enter politics because he resented the federal government’s forced integration of the South.
In addition to his already disclosed past membership in the all-white Forest Lake Country Club, Dawson was also an officer in 2004 of a social club, the Camellia Ball (which holds events at the Forest Lake Country Club). According to information obtained by PJ Media (including photos), the Camellia Ball is an exclusive social organization with no minority members, which presents débutantes to South Carolina society. According to a source familiar with the Camellia Ball, there is no explicit all white charter, although it has been all white “by tradition, choice and practice.”
When asked for comment specifically about membership in the Camellia Ball, the Dawson camp repeatedly refused to respond one way or the other to the report, contending that it was just “gossip.” Those refusals to respond were followed by two emails from the executive director of the South Carolina GOP, Jay W. Ragley, challenging the decision to run the story, but which also refused to address the substance of the allegations:
It’s disappointing that you’d consider a two-week-old posting on a gossip blog run by a paid political consultant enough grounds to pursue a “story” on this historic [inauguration] day.
I said I would take that as his official statement and again asked for any further comment and whether I could take the story’s facts as true. I received this response:
You’re not a credible journalist because if you were, you would be writing a “story” on facts and not innuendo from a gossip blog. From your former writings, you clearly think you must always be right and everyone else must always be wrong.”
However, a longtime South Carolina political figure responding to our inquiry stated, “They don’t exactly use it in the print promotions, but the Camellia Ball has always been all white. This isn’t a big secret in South Carolina.”
(It is not clear whether these issues or other factors caused the top elected Republicans in his state to sit on the sidelines throughout Dawson race, despite a letter obtained in draft form by this reporter, sent by Dawson’s operative requesting formal pledges of support from Governor Mark Sanford and Senators Jim DeMint and Lindsay Graham. No endorsements were forthcoming.)
There is no clear front-runner for the RNC chairmanship at this point, although Dawson has been mentioned as one of the favorites. It remains to be seen what effect, if any, these revelations will have on his candidacy.
The RNC candidates are vying for credibility on a variety of issues ranging from technology and party building to conservative credentials and media skills. But in the end it may well come down to which contender can help the GOP solve its problem with minority voters — or at least not make the problem worse.