“I’ve been a Republican my whole life, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Fred Wheeler from his wheelchair outside the Newton County Courthouse after he was told he couldn’t participate in the local Republican Party’s convention on Saturday.
Wheeler, 70, is just one of more than 120 local Republicans who were selected by their precincts to serve as delegates at the February 7 mass precinct meeting, in accordance with the Call and Georgia Republican Party Rule 1.1, but later were told that they didn’t meet local party membership requirements to participate in the county convention. The list of disqualified delegates not only includes local Republicans motivated to get involved due to a recent controversy related to the county government, but also former county party chairmen, elected officials, and Republican donors.
Many of the disqualified delegates showed up at the county convention on Saturday, designated as “guests” by the credentials committee and told to sit in a designated area behind a strip of yellow tape. A motion was made, per Robert’s Rules of Order, and seconded to amend the list, at which point the chair, Delia Fleming, went into recess without a motion or second. Upon coming back into the room, she called the meeting back to order, ignoring the motion to amend.
Because the county convention was being run in a way that’s inconsistent with the Georgia Republican Party’s rules and Robert’s Rules of Order, delegates left after the credentials report was accepted. Though the Call for the convention clearly states that the public is welcome to observe, one “guest,” Stan Edwards, an elected Republican school board member in Newton County, left the room after a delegate motioned to him in a way that suggested that he needed to leave the room in which the county convention was being held.
Local party bylaws state that “[a] member in good standing shall be a dues paying member who has accrued 30 Merit Points of active participation in official Newton Republican Party activities as defined by the Merit System prescribed in Exhibit I.” Points are awarded for various activities, including attendance at monthly meetings, for which two points per meeting are given.
The Newton County Republican Party hosts approximately 11 monthly meetings per year, including the annual Christmas dinner. Assuming one were to attend every monthly meeting, they would earn 22 points, which, provided they’ve paid the $25 annual dues, is still short of the dual 30-point requirement to be considered “a member in good standing.”
Points may be awarded for other activities. Five points, for example, are awarded for being a registered volunteer at a local party event. There are, however, few opportunities during the course of a year to earn them, particularly in off years.
For Wheeler, who hosts a monthly meeting of local conservative activists, the “Lunch Bunch,” at an easily accessible coffee shop on the Covington square, the logistics of attendance at party meetings are difficult. A paraplegic, he’s been confined to a wheelchair, the result of a life-threatening medical issue, since 1991.
The Covington Women’s Club, where the Newton County Republican Party hosts its monthly meetings and many other events for which points may be awarded, was built in 1915. While it has a modern kitchen available to those who may rent it for meetings and events, the building, which rests on a raised foundation, doesn’t have a wheelchair ramp at either of its two entrances, making it an extraordinary task for Wheeler to get into the building.
Though he did attend the mass precinct meeting on February 7, Wheeler had to be lifted off the ground and brought up the concrete steps to get in the building. This was made possible by a few of the small group of young men, most of whom were also disqualified as delegates, who also attended the mass precinct meeting.
Attending the meeting regularly, however, is difficult to gauge. Wheeler doesn’t always know who’s going to be there to help him get up the stairs and into the building.
Another local resident and activist, Andy Allen, 46, also attended the mass precinct meeting with his wife, Elizabeth, who regularly comments in this space. He and his wife, both conservative Republicans, are the parents of a young child with a disability.
The Allens have, since the birth of their son, split their activism to take care of him, though occasionally, they hire a babysitter in circumstances in which they both need to attend. As one might imagine, this can be an expensive task if they want to meet the strict requirements that define a “member in good standing” according the Newton County Republican Party bylaws.
Though they hired a babysitter and both attended the mass precinct meeting, his wife, who is the more involved of the two, met those requirements and was accepted as a delegate while Allen was disqualified.
“Over the years, I’ve been involved in the Republican parties in Rockdale and Newton,” Allen said on Saturday. “I go to meetings when I can, but I don’t understand why they’re turning me away.”
There’s another problem that has turned up. The merit points data collected for each member of the party may not be accurate.
This author, who is a dues paying member of the party and has been involved since late summer of 2013, requested a full accounting of his merit points for 2014. After going back through personal records to compare the data sent by the Newton County Republican Party, there were some discrepancies found, enough to dwindle the points allocated for last year to 28, two points under the 30-point requirement.
Allen explained that the root of the problem is the merit point system. “I think merit points are counterproductive. I get that they want people involved, and so do I, but everyone has families, jobs, and other things going on that may prevent them getting enough points to participate,” he said. “The current system just isn’t setup to consider that.”
Wheeler agreed, but added that another problem is the political atmosphere in Washington. “People feel like they can’t change things there, and they give up,” he explained. “It took something on the local level – something the people who showed up last month and today feel like they can change – to get involved.”
“We were turned away. That’s wrong,” Allen said. “That’s not how we grow our party.”
An appeal to challenge the disqualification of delegates was filed late last month and, after a delay, denied by the county party committee on March 9. It will be sent to the Fourth District Committee in the coming days, with additional complaints.