California Republicans Face Another Civil War

California Republicans are in another bitter struggle over who will become their next state party chairman. With the state convention to be held in Sacramento next month, the battle between state Vice Chairman Bill Back and Silicon Valley lawyer Duf Sundheim has grown ugly and mean-spirited. The reason: In an electronic newsletter published in 1999, Back and his supporters included an article by Bill Lind of the Free Congress Foundation titled, “What If the South Had Won the Civil War?” (For full text of the article, see page 20.) The brief speculative article went unnoticed until it resurfaced last month in the midst of the chairmanship race. Coming on the heels of Trent Lott’s controversial remark about Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential bid, publicity about Back’s distribution of the Lind article spawned predictable cries of racism. “Does the African-American community have any value to the leadership of the party when leaders send out something like this not considering at all this would be offensive?” declared State Party Secretary Shannon Reeves, who is black and a past head of the Oakland NAACP, in a three-page letter to fellow party officials. Asking why Back would distribute an article that had “absolutely no relevance to California, nor to Republican politics,” Reeves lumped the Lind article and Back’s publication of it to “Republican leaders who consort with the Council of Conservative Citizens, highlight stump speeches at Bob Jones University, reminisce about segregationist campaigns and sympathize with bigoted views.” Previously neutral in the Back-Sundheim battle, Reeves went on to say, “I don’t think there’s a lot of room in the Republican Party for people who distribute bigoted information.” As can be seen on page 20, Lind’s article—while wildly speculative and controversial—did not espouse racist views, and assumed that slavery would have been abolished by other means than war. For his part, Back defended his newsletter, maintaining that it published disparate views with which he didn’t always agree “to stir up debates and make people think.” As for Lind’s article, he told reporters he found it “incorrect and incomplete” because the author “should have been more clearly stating how repugnant slavery was.” Back, however, did go on to underscore his own commitment to civil rights and apologize to anyone who might have been offended by the article. Although Reeves and several Sundheim supporters called on Back to withdraw from the chairman’s race, the 67-year-old retired mathematician indicated he wasn’t budging. Supporters such as conservative State Sen. Ray Haynes and former Secretary of State Bill Jones rallied to him and his campaign reported no slippage from the incident, despite the widespread media coverage. Several Republican activists suggested to me the real reason the two-year-old article was unearthed and deployed had nothing to do with Back or civil rights and everything to do with moderate Gerald Parsky, the President’s closest political friend in California and the author of highly controversial new party rules that have weakened the power of elected officials in the state GOP. Although Los Angeles investment banker Parsky has long insisted that neither he nor the President will take sides in the chairman’s race, it is well-known that Back—considered a strong conservative—was the first state party official to indicate support for the so-called “Parsky Plan” two years ago. In that controversy, Back almost always sided with Parsky against conservative state GOP Chairman Shawn Steel. Some unusual alliances are being forged in the chairman’s race. Sundheim is considered a moderate and, in fact, made a $1,000 donation to the presidential campaign of Democrat Bill Bradley in 2000. (The Silicon Valley lawyer insisted that he did so as a favor to a close friend and that he was contributed to scores of Republicans of all stripes). But his backers include a panoply of well-known conservatives, among them Steel, former state Chairmen John McGraw and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. In addition, his campaign team includes veteran conservative operatives Wayne Johnson, Jim Camp (who had been Steel’s political director at state headquarters), and Phil Paule, a veteran of Steve Forbes‘ presidential bid. As McGraw explained to me, “This race is about Parsky and Sundheim won’t be Parsky’s boy.” The question is, at this particular point in its existence, does the Republican Party in California need a fight like this?