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A blog that takes a look at West Chester area government, politics, and community events.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The battle for the soul of the Chester County Republican Party

It's no secret that the county GOP is in the midst of an ideological battle. On one side are the social conservatives, who believe that the government should promote a conservative Christian agenda, restrict gay rights, and ban abortion. On the other side are the social moderates, who have little interest in restricting gay rights and banning abortion. (Where the "traditional" Republican values of fiscal conservatism and self-determination fit into all this I'm not sure. Perhaps both sides profess them?)

This battle rarely breaks out into the open, due to the GOP's instinctual desire to present a unified front. But a few weeks ago, it did.

The Republican committee people from the West Chester Area School District held a meeting at which they interviewed six school board candidates and endorsed four of them (there are four seats up this year, and the only incumbent running for reelection is a Democrat). Those four candidates, however, weren't the ones that certain socially moderate Republicans on the school board wanted to see endorsed.

School Board President Jim Smith, a Republican, said he wanted to see the Republicans endorse Sue Tiernan, who has been a teacher, principal and administrator in the district, and Gary Bevilacqua, a long-time parent volunteer at district schools. Smith was upset that over these candidates the Republicans endorsed Sean Carpenter, and IT professional who recently founded the Pennsylvania Conservative Council. Carpenter is also a photographer for Warrior's Watch and A Hero's Welcome, groups that arrange homecoming parties for U.S. Military personnel and give them motorcycle escorts to and from the airport when they leave for and return from duty. While what these groups do is honorable, their right-wing ideology is undeniable. (Their members often spend Saturday mornings on the courthouse lawn, marching under the banner of the Chester County Victory Movement).

In a newsletter article Carpenter wrote last week, he said that the GOP's decision to endorse him and the other three for school board represented a victory for the conservative wing of the Republican Party and a defeat for its liberal wing.

"This is exactly how we want to take back the Republican Party — using superior preparation and ideas to win these battles," Carpenter wrote. "This is how we get office holders we can support with pride, rather than ones that are an embarrassment to us all."

When School Board President Smith saw the newsletter article, it raised his ire. As I reported on Sunday, Smith said that by choosing Carpenter over Tiernan or Bevilacqua, the local Republican Party proved it cares more about promoting right-wing ideology than about the quality of education in West Chester schools.

"A small group of radicals has taken control of a party I dearly love," said Smith. "West Chester's schools provide excellent education, and we have the lowest tax rate in the county. These qualities need to be maintained. Obviously that's not recognized by the core of committeepeople who seem to be controlling the selection process."

Why was Smith so mad? No where in Carpenter's newsletter article did he say what he believed the values of the party's conservative wing to be. But he did say that all four School Board candidates (the others are Heidi Adsett, Maria Armadi-Pimley, and John Wingerter) had been "recruited and coached by Gwenne and her group, and it is only with her group's guidance that we succeeded."

Carpenter was referring to Gwenne Alexander, of Chester County Action, a local PAC. Anyone who's familiar with county politics knows that if you're associated with Chester County Action, there's a 99.9 percent chance you're a right-wing Christian conservative.

I called Alexander last week, and she said that while Chester County Action is particularly interested in the West Chester Area School Board race, it has not actually given its recommendation to the four endorsed Republican candidates. She also said that Carpenter wasn't entirely accurate in saying she was responsible for fielding him and the other three who got the endorsement.

None of the endorsed candidates, except Carpenter, said that Alexander had given them any special coaching. Carpenter later said he probably shouldn't have written that Alexander had coached the candidates.

Board President Smith, however, said he was sure that Chester County Action was responsible for the endorsements.

"I am disappointed with the party as a whole, and with Gwenne Alexander," he said. "It's a disgrace that the party doesn't really care about the candidates it puts forward."

(I didn't make it clear enough in my Sunday article that while Smith is worried about the message the GOP seems to be embracing, he said he hasn't met all of the endorsed candidates and doesn't want to categorically say that they're not qualified to sit on the school board. He said he has never met Adsett or Armadi-Pimley, and therefore has not had an opportunity to form an opinion of them. And, he said, he believes Wingerter, who spent his life in public education and served as superintendant of the Marple-Newtown School District, would probably make an excellent board member.)

Chester County Action's website provides a nice synopsis of the battle going on within the county GOP.

From the About Us" section: "We know that the endorsement of the local Republican Party is extremely powerful in Chester County. Consequently, it is important to have an organization that will recruit and train conservative, pro-life people to get involved in the political process ... Our goal is to educate voters and to encourage conservatives to get involved in the political process. We are confident that when voters understand the whole story, we can prevail. Our challenge is formidable however. For over four years, a different organization has been working against the values we hold so dear. As a result, this group has targeted conservative, pro-life committee people for their seats on the local Republican Committee. Unfortunately, several conservative committee people lost their positions." (Note: for clarity, I've changed the order of the sections of this quote. On the website, the part before the ellipses appears after the part after the ellipses.)

I wrote an article last April about how moderateshad just taken several committee seats from social conservatives. My article provides a concrete example of what Chester County Action is talking about.

In the article, which appeared on April 26, 2008, I reported that two groups were battling for the Republican Committee's Malvern-area seats. I had a lot of trouble deciding what to call these two groups. One group clearly identified themselves as "fiscally conservative social moderates." The other group said they sought only to promote "party unity," which they defined as the inclusion of both social conservatives and moderates in the Republican tent.

Compare what's described in the following paragraphs to the battle Chester County Action describes in the above quote:

[Socially moderate committee candidate Bill Noll] said he was for a party that was dedicated to "fiscal conservatism, good government, open access and public involvement." He said he thought the party should refuse to "pursue an agenda of co-opting the local government for social policies."

Those social policies, Noll said, were "issues regulating reproductive rights, issues regulating gay marriage restrictions, things like that."

[Party unity committee candidate Kelly] Geiger, who identified herself as a pro-life Catholic, said she, [party unity candidate] Bensley, and the other members of their slate are dedicated to unifying the local Republican Party and allowing both pro-choice moderates and pro-life conservatives to hold seats on the committee.

Geiger called [former Republican committeeman and social moderate Henry] Briggs, Noll and their political associates "divisive," and she said they refused to support candidates who don't "view social issues the same way they do.

"Henry (Briggs), for example, never worked for Rick Santorum, and he takes shots at George Bush in his newspaper column whenever he can," Geiger said. "That's not the role of a committeeman. The role of a committeeman is to get Republicans, regardless of their ideological differences, elected to office."

In this particular Republican Committee battle, the party unity people lost three seats to the moderates. During a high point in the battle, the police had ask two of the party unity candidates not to return to the property of a social moderate candidate. There was also some lawn sign nonsense. Capture the flag for adults.

Whew. This is a very long way of saying, "Pay close attention to this year's West Chester School Board race."

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A protest that never happened

The American Sheepdogs, a local right-wing group, issued a call last week for people to come to the Feb. 23 West Chester School Board meeting to speak out against the "Day of Silence" the West Chester East Gay-Straight Alliance plans to observe on April 17.

While the school board meeting attracted a larger than usual audience, no one spoke about the Day of Silence.

A number of audience members did applaud after a woman from West Chester requested that her home-schooled son be allowed to participate in the Henderson High School band. I'm not sure that there's a connection. Some local Republicans and Democrats, however, believe that conservative activists from the school district are beginning a push to promote home schooling and charter schools, the eventual goal being to greatly shrink the role of traditional public education.

In any case, the American Sheepdogs' call to protest contained some rather strong wording. Before I take a look at it, I should explain what the "Day of Silence" is.

It's a day, observed nationally, during which participants keep silent in order to protest discrimination and violence against gays, lesbians, and the transgendered. The West Chester East Gay-Straight Alliance plans to end its observation of the day with a coffeehouse-style open-mic event. This event will symbolically "break the silence," according to a press release the from Alliance.

The Sheepdogs argued that while bullying is bad, the it's also bad for students to take day-long vows of silence. This seems reasonable. If I were a teacher (and I have taught in the past) I would be irritated if several of my students refused to answer questions or verbally participate in class. But the Sheepdogs' criticism was rooted in something other than a desire for effective teaching.

According to the call to protest, which first appeared at,

"[T]he real mission of this movement [the Day of Silence] is to indoctrinate public school students with the radical agenda of the left by teaching that being gay is an acceptable behavior. What’s worse is that all of this is done on school time in taxpayer funded school buildings. Make no mistake that bullying is wrong and kids who bully other kids should be punished accordingly, but clearly the leftists are hiding behind the bullying idea to push their radical agenda through the public schools across America. It’s time to take a stand for core conservative Christian values by demanding that schools teach our children, not indoctrinate them."

Other criticisms aside, I don't think it's only the radical left that believes "being gay is acceptable behavior."

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