Politics 2002Week of December 23

OREGON UPDATE Less than two months after the November elections and barely a month before the GOP State Committee in Oregon was set to decide the fate of embattled Chairman Perry Atkinson, there were some stunning new developments in the Beaver State. First, surprising everyone, Atkinson announced last week that he would not run for re-election after all. Then, almost immediately, Atkinson’s challenger also exited the race. After declaring that she would not be a candidate for chairman, former House Speaker Lynn Snodgrass threw her support to state legislator Kevin Mannix, who lost a heartbreakingly close race for governor in November to liberal Democrat Ted Kulongowski. Up until that point Mannix had not been in the chairman race. Medford radio station owner Atkinson clearly felt he was going to face a stiff challenge from Snodgrass, who had the backing of Sen. Gordon Smith, Rep. Greg Walden, and other party heavyweights. Sources also told us that the chairman was concerned that going through with a pitched battle might endanger the political future of his son, State Sen. Jason Atkinson, who is considered one of the party’s rising stars. One party source who requested anonymity insisted that, contrary to earlier reports, Atkinson’s pro-life stand was not the cause of the controversy that swirled around him. “Lynn was also pro-life, but she gets a bad rap because she once kept some pro-life measures from coming up for a vote on the grounds that the governor [pro-abortion Democrat John Kitzhaber, who was termed out this year] would veto them,” our source said. “And besides, Kevin Mannix was pro-life and made no secret about it running for governor, so it really isn’t an issue. The issue is the wretched financial shape of the party organization and the management record of Perry and his executive director. Still, no one is calling Mannix “Mr. Chairman” before the January 11 state party conclave. Incensed by the back-room dealings and intrigues involving Atkinson, Snodgrass, and Mannix, staunchly conservative State Party First Vice Chairman Al King has become an insurgent candidate for the chairmanship and vows he won’t back out of the race. Klamath attorney King is not to be underestimated. Two years ago, when most party leaders supported opponent Jeff Smith for first vice chairman, King won the post in a dramatic upset. OAKLAND COUNTY ORGY Being one of the five most Republican counties in the nation does not always mean also having a well-oiled, smoothly functioning Republican organization in place. One obvious case in point is Oakland County, Michigan, where the GOP holds most offices and usually turns out healthy margins for its statewide candidates, but where many Republicans are not happy with their party. To religious conservatives, the longstanding poster boy for what is wrong with the local GOP is County Party Chairman L. Brooks Patterson, who also serves as county executive. In fairness to Patterson, the former prosecutor and radio talk show host has a record as a conservative and in past bids for governor, U.S. senator, and state attorney general has run as an anti-tax, pro-gun, pro-life, and pro-death-penalty candidate. He is one of the few politicians to back the death penalty in the first state in the nation to outlaw capital punishment and where statewide officeholders from Republican Gov. John Engler on down are anti-death penalty. But, in a clash that traces its origins to 1988, when Michigan Republicans split like a giant amoeba and sent two delegations to the national party convention (one favoring the elder George Bush, the other for Pat Robertson), religious conservatives argue that Patterson is hostile to their candidates and causes. Last year, Patterson called on the state legislature to include sexual orientation in hate crimes legislation and opposed the efforts of pro-family groups to put the party on record in opposition to human rights ordinances in Ferndale and Royal Oak. Patterson maintained, however, that he was not taking a pro-gay stance but rather that it was simply not the county party’s business to get involved in local issues. SHADES OF ’88 On November 19, a countywide GOP convention met to elect a new Executive Committee (which has 49 elected members and 49 ex-officio members). Cultural conservatives proved they had brought the bodies to the meeting when the delegates elected Auburn Hills Mayor Tom McMillin, past Michigan head of the Christian Coalition, as convention chairman over Patterson. McMillin thereupon moved to adopt a new rules package that, most significantly, had the 49 elected members of the Executive Committee chosen at-large rather than from state legislative districts—an alteration that, critics charged, made it easier for the cultural conservatives to win the slots. Opponents of the change charged that the rules for election of committee members were in the by-laws and could not be changed by a convention. When they were changed, a group stormed out of the conclave—in eerie echoes of ’88—and held a rump convention. McMillin & Co., who did not continue their convention, retaliated by filing suit in Oakland Circuit Court seeking an emergency injunction to prevent the meeting of the alternative Executive Committee. When Judge Wendy Potts refused to issue one, the McMillin forces went to the appellate court. But a three-judge panel unanimously tossed out their injunction request and the Patterson-run Executive Committee met two weeks ago. After all the turmoil, Patterson stunned his supporters by declining another term as chairman. The committee then elected without opposition Paul Welday, longtime top aide to Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R.-Mich.), as the new county chairman. In an attempt to close the breach, the 44-year-old Welday, best-known to conservatives as manager of Ronna Romney’s U.S. Senate bid in 1996, promptly announced that one of McMillin’s closest allies, the Rev. Keith Butler, would be joining his leadership team as publicity chairman. TONY PAYTON, R.I.P. To those who had worked with Tony Payton or just been well-acquainted with him, it was hard to believe that the man known as the “Errol Flynn of political consultants” had died suddenly at his Arlington, Va., home, Dec. 2, 2002. With his love of fine restaurants, encyclopedic knowledge of wines, his Charles Kuralt-like treks across the country, dislike of neckties, and a smile that seemed as wide as the Grand Canyon, the 62-year-old Payton appeared to have bought the franchise on life. A third-generation newspaper reporter and U.S. Army veteran, Kansas-born Michael Antoine Payton worked for various publications in Arizona, California and Nevada. At 25, he became editor of the Gardnerville (Nev.) Record-Courier and won 15 awards as a member of the Fourth Estate. But, like so many young people of his generation, Payton was attracted to politics by Barry Goldwater and, while a reporter for the Orange Coast (Calif.) Daily Pilot in 1964, he devoted most of his free time to volunteer campaign work on behalf of the Arizonan. In 1970, Payton made the leap to full-time campaigning as press secretary to conservative Republican Lt. Gov. Ed Fike’s losing bid for governor of Nevada. Two years later, Payton managed the congressional campaign of another conservative GOPer, Realtor and fellow Gardnerville resident David Towell. In a major upset, Towell won and brought Payton with him to Washington as his top aide. After the disastrous “Watergate Year” of 1974, when the GOP was down to holding less than a third of the seats in both Houses of Congress and one poll showed only 18% of voters considered themselves Republicans, Payton took on the job of Western field director for the Republican National Committee. Gradually, the GOP began to recover from its losses and eventually take a majority in the Senate and the House, as well as win four of the last six presidential elections. Payton hung out his own shingle in 1977 and, as a private consultant, handled more than 50 triumphant races for the House and Senate. Nearly all of Payton’s clients came from the right of the Republican Party—among them Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, whose dramatic 1996 comeback to Congress after a 12-year absence was orchestrated by Payton. The breaks in Payton’s years in private business came when he served as chief of staff to former Sen. (1976-82) Harrison Schmitt (R.-N.M.) and present Sen. Conrad Burns (R.-Mont.). Friends who mourned him observed with poignancy that death had taken Tony Payton just a few weeks after the mid-term election in which he oversaw five winning campaigns.