Rashad Richey was still wearing the political fixer’s uniform – dark blazer, crisp collared shirt and a well-worn cell phone clipped to his belt right next to what looked like sheriff’s office identification. He wore political braggadocio like a suit, too – an eagerness to describe himself, his work as political director for the Georgia Democrats, his radio talk show, the people he had just met and the people he was meeting tomorrow.
Richey and I ran into one another a few months ago at a gathering of broke young progressive staffers out for drinks at Cowtippers. Richey slid over to us as we nursed post- policy grind beers. I think he bought the round.
Weirdly, that may speak to an underlying reason Richey got canned last week. The party is broke. Richey’s $50,000+ annual salary – second highest after the executive director – appeared increasingly hard to justify, especially because of the way the DPG has to carry it. That, and the specific way his arrest record dovetailed into concerns about the party’s perceived relationship with women moving into the 2014 Senate race, may have made him the wrong man at the right time.
There’s no mystery about Richey’s rise in Georgia politics. The charismatic 32-year-old has old-school ground game and the energy of youth. He knows which politicians have birthdays in May. He can recall the demographic makeup of an Atlanta planning unit with equal facility.
Richey is appealing the decision to the full committee, and he has supporters. Regardless of the outcome, he will have employment offers in politics, assuming he doesn’t already have one in hand, both he and others said.
Former staffers have knocked him for focusing on training county parties on technical matters instead of concentrating on strategy. But there are few complaints about the quality of the work he did in outreach and education. “He’s a fine young man who understands politics,” said State Rep. Virgil Fludd, Democratic caucus leader in the Georgia House. “He’s helped me get more people engaged.”
However, there are questions about how he got the job in the first place.
Bloggers began tearing into Richey last year when they discovered he had multiple arrests. He pleaded guilty to two counts of simple battery and trespass in 2007. He spent about a month in jail in 2010 for a probation violation while on the payroll of Gail Buckner’s campaign for Secretary of State. Chairman Mike Berlon and Richey landed in their Democratic Party of Georgia roles after Buckner’s unsuccessful run. (Berlon resigned last month amid scandal around his law practice.)
“My first online interaction with Richey was with his mugshot,” said Amber English, former president of the Young Democrats of Atlanta. English approached Richey at a party meeting in 2010, when he was working on the Gail Buckner campaign. “I walked up to the table with the Gail Buckner sign. He was talking about a potential job, and asked me to send my resume. I went home and the first thing I saw when I Googled him was his mugshot.”
A potential distraction. That’s how acting Georgia Democratic party chairwoman Nikema Williams described Richey, without elaborating. Both she and other senior party leaders have been very careful not to go into details of the termination out of concern for potentially violating employment law.
But the inference is clear.
Richey fought back aggressively. He sued bloggers Andre Walker of Georgia Politics Unfiltered and Melanie Goux of Blog for Democracy for libel, along with former Young Democrats of Georgia president Jane Bradshaw. The suits were later dropped, but they’ve left bad blood with the YDG leadership.
He also spearheaded a change in Georgia law to ban websites from charging money to get mugshots removed. He’s quite proud of the law, not just because it prevents an abuse, he said, but because it’s also a demonstration of his political skills.
It may seem unfair to raise the issue but I really think that when placed into context, female party members’ concern about Richey explains part of what’s going on here.
Black voters in particular might dismiss his record as the product of racial disparities in arrests and convictions in Georgia. “We all have pasts, people can change,” English said. “I was unnerved because other people didn’t seem concerned.” Under other circumstances, his misdemeanor convictions could blow over as venal sins.
But these are not other circumstances. Two contending, viable Republican candidates for an open U.S. Senate seat – Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey – are solidly in Todd “legitimate rape” Akin and Richard “God intended rape” Mourdock territory in terms of their potential to enrage voters who love women.
In the 2012 election in Missouri, Romney won the state and won roughly 2 out of 3 white voters. But in the Todd Akin-Claire McCaskill Senate race there, a third of white female Romney voters and a quarter of white male Romney voters crossed parties to vote for McCaskill. Joe Donnelly beat Richard Mourdock by six points after similarly stupid comments in Indiana. Romney won the state, but about one in six white male Romney voters crossed over to vote for Donnelly, as did about 22 percent of white female Romney voters. Obama lost Georgia by eight points in 2012.
Michelle Nunn is being presented as Kryptonite to a Paul Broun candidacy. The rationale is obvious: if an antiabortion madman wins the nomination, find the most powerful voice for women’s rights available.
Imagine how that might be undercut by Republicans if the Democrats’ state political director is perceived as someone with a Chris Brown problem. It’s an analogy Richey thinks is inapt, of course – Richey said he has spent years traveling the state, speaking frankly with students about his failings and how to avoid them. “I actually changed the core nature of who I was. I’ve found that if I focus on helping others, that it helps me stay true to the change that I made myself.”
But imagine how acting chair Nikema Williams, who resigned outright from her role as vice president for public policy at Planned Parenthood Southeast in order to avoid distractions while she straightens out things at the party, might nonetheless view that distraction.
Add to that the problem of Richey’s salary. After being hired, Richey record caused him to fail the Democratic National Committee vetting process. Normally, the DNC helps kick in cash to cover some staff salaries. DPG was forced to carry his salary itself because of the failed vetting. And the DPG is broke. The party likely has less than $20,000 in cash on hand.
Dealing with distractions at the party seems to be the rule of the day. Williams more or less immediately sacked the executive committee, removed board members appointed by Berlon and laid off two paid staffers. (Notably, Richey wasn’t laid off – he was fired outright.)
After speaking with members of the committee, Democratic politicians and others involved in the party, two schools of thought about her moves are emerging.
One holds that Williams is overstepping her temporary authority, making decisions that exacerbate factional infighting and that may very well be reversed later.
“The Chair has an unambiguous right to surround herself with people she gets along with,” said Steve Perkins, a party activist. “I suspect firing Rashad, is probably political score settling, but that’s OK. The State Committee hasn’t raised a fit about it. It has sort of been factored in.”
Another view – Williams is purposefully clearing the decks so that whoever wins the chair doesn’t have to be the bad guy.
“Our party is much better off when we all focus on the same goal, electing Democrats,” Williams said. “Every decision that I have made and will make will be through the lens of, will this move our party forward and increase Democratic victories up and down the ballot?”
In either case, the party is plainly beginning to orient itself toward the 2014 and 2016 races with an eye toward cultivating a base of support among disaffected female voters. We’ll see where to fit guys like Richey into that game plan.