Gay members of the D.C. Republican Committee reportedly were divided over whether to vote for incumbent Chair Ron Phillips or challenger Jose Cunningham, a local gay Republican activist, in a hotly contested election for the chairman post scheduled for Thursday night.
The vote by the DCRC’s approximately 175 members was set to take place Jan. 8 at the Capitol Hill Club, which is located next to the Republican National Committee headquarters and less than two blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
The DCRC serves as the governing body of the D.C. Republican Party.
In a development that party observers say sets the D.C. Republican Party apart from state Republican Party committees across the country, both Phillips and Cunningham say the D.C. party’s support for LGBT rights, including marriage equality, is a settled matter.
In interviews with the Washington Blade, both have said they are running on other issues, especially the question of how the D.C. Republican Party can expand its membership and recruit qualified candidates for public office in a city with an overwhelmingly Democratic electorate.
“The total number of D.C. registered Republicans over the last couple of years has gone down by something like 3,000 – from 33,000 to about 30,000, and that’s unacceptable,” said Cunningham, who works as chief marketing and business development officer at the international law firm Crowell & Moring.
Cunningham notes that the registration decline took place during Phillips’ two-year tenure as chairman.
“I think that one of the reasons that we’ve almost become irrelevant is that we don’t have a steady stream of advocacy and opinion out there,” Cunningham said. “And as the voice of opposition in Washington, D.C., we should be talking about housing and the economy and corruption and the budget and those kinds of things. And we just haven’t been doing that for the last couple of years.”
Cunningham cites his record as a longtime fundraiser for the local and national Republican committees and his experience in marketing and business development as assets that will help him expand the DCRC’s ability become competitive in city elections.
Although Cunningham and an eight-point platform he released on ways to strengthen the local party doesn’t mention LGBT issues, some of his supporters – most of whom asked not to be identified – have attacked Phillips for being associated in the past with national Republican figures who oppose LGBT rights, including marriage equality.
One critic notes that Phillips worked in the past for U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who strongly opposed repealing the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law prohibiting gays from serving openly in the military. Congress repealed the law in 2011. Other critics note that Phillips appointed as his Ward 2 chair on the DCRC outspoken same-sex marriage opponent Travis Korson, who’s affiliated with groups linked to anti-gay advocates Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed.
Phillips calls the attacks by anonymous critics a “smear campaign” orchestrated by Cunningham supporters that he says totally distorts his views and positions on LGBT issues.
Calling himself a “big tent Republican,” Phillips said he has long called for the Republican Party to be open to the diverse political views of its members, including gays.
“I view everybody as equal and I believe in equality,” he said. “And as a straight man, I have the greatest respect for my executive director, who’s gay,” he said, referring to Robert Turner, former president of the D.C. gay political group Log Cabin Republicans.
“And the first decision I made when I got into D.C. Republican politics was to make him my campaign manager,” Phillips said. “And the first decision I made when I became chairman of the D.C. Republican Party was to make him executive director.”
Turner is among Phillips’ strongest supporters in his race for re-election as party chairman. He said attempts to link Phillips to anti-gay politicians were based on unfair tactics of “guilt by association.”
Phillips points out that he also has appointed gay Republican activist Marc Morgan as the DCRC’s Ward 1 chairman. Morgan, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, ran unsuccessfully as the Republican candidate for an at-large D.C. Council seat in the November election. Morgan didn’t respond to an inquiry from the Blade seeking his views on the chairman’s race.
In his day job Phillips is president and CEO of Republic Consultants, a D.C.-based public relations and business development firm.
The current president of D.C. Log Cabin Republicans, Chris Allen, who’s also a member of the DCRC, said the group is remaining neutral in the race between Phillips and Cunningham.
The reason for not making an endorsement, according to Allen, was logistical rather than political. He said Cunningham announced his candidacy for the chairman’s position in November, after the group held its November meeting. The group has a longstanding policy that requires candidates under consideration for endorsement to appear before the club at a meeting to answer questions from the members, Allen said.
Since there was no membership meeting scheduled for December due to the Christmas holiday and the DCRC election was scheduled for early January, Allen said club members decided to skip an endorsement in this particular election.
“We just decided it would be better for our members to research the candidates on their own and kind of just make a decision,” Allen told the Blade. “And Log Cabin would just officially stay neutral.”
Allen said he was unaware of claims by Cunningham supporters that Phillips was in some way aligned with politicians that oppose LGBT rights. He said Phillips has been a member of D.C. Log Cabin Republicans since 2012.
“He’s spoken to our membership. He’s come to our different social gatherings in support of our group,” Allen said. “So I don’t know if he has other associations with anti-gay organizations. But as far as his association with our organization as chairman he’s been very supportive.”
Among those supporting Cunningham are Bob Kabel and Jill Homan, who won election in 2012 by D.C. Republican voters as the city’s National Committeeman and National Committee Woman respectively to the Republican National Committee.
At the time of their election, an NBC4 News blog written by local political commentator Chuck Thies reported that Kabel and Homan, who are gay, had the distinction of making D.C. the only jurisdiction among the 50 states to have an openly gay National Committeeman and Committee woman serving on the RNC at the same time.
Kabel is a longtime supporter and current board member of the national Log Cabin Republicans. He had served as chair of the DCRC for eight years before leaving that post due to a term limits provision in 2012, when he ran for the National Committeeman post.
Phillips has been highly critical of Kabel’s tenure as DCRC chair, saying the problems that Cunningham and his supporters are blaming him for were actually created by Kabel. Among other things, Phillips calls both Kabel and Cunningham “country club Republicans.” He said Cunningham’s alliance with Kabel indicates he would promote Kabel’s “failed policies” as DCRC chair.
One of the policies Phillips attributes to Kabel, which he called highly damaging to the party, was a requirement that DCRC members pay dues of $250 to be a member and have the right to vote on the committee.
“That’s a poll tax,” said Phillips, who points out that he quickly pushed through a policy change eliminating the dues requirement when he became chairman.
Cunningham, who says he played no role in initiating the dues requirement, said Phillips was misrepresenting Kabel’s policies. He said the dues payment was not mandatory for all DCRC members and exceptions were made for those who could not afford to pay the dues.
“Under Ron, all of our meetings in the past two years have been held at the Capitol Hill Club,” Cunningham said. “You can’t get any more elitist than that,” he said in questioning Phillips’ claim that he and Kabel are country club Republicans.
If elected chairman, he would arrange for DCRC’s monthly meetings to be held in all eight wards, with some to be held in church basements, Cunningham said.
In a related development, Homan, the co-owner of a D.C.-based real estate investment and development firm, announced late last year that she is a candidate for secretary of the RNC. The 168-member RNC was scheduled to vote on its four officers, including the posts of secretary, treasurer, co-chair and chair at its winter meeting in San Diego scheduled for Feb. 14-17.
RNC Chair Reince Priebus and RNC Treasurer Tony Parker, who is from D.C., were running unopposed. Homan is running against Vermont National Committee Woman Susie Hudson.
If Homan were to win her race she would become the first out gay or lesbian ever elected as an officer of the RNC.
In a letter to all RNC members sent shortly after the November election, in which Republicans won control of the U.S. Senate and increased their majority in the House, Homan introduced herself as a team player committed to helping RNC Chair Priebus advance the party’s mission.
“My strong political and business experience will enable me to successfully carry out the duties of secretary,” she said. “As a team player and passionate grassroots activist, I will work hard to support our organization and leadership.”
Homan did not respond to a request by the Blade for comment on her race for RNC secretary. But sources supportive or her and Cunningham, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Blade that allies of Phillips have been alerting potentially hostile RNC members that Homan is a lesbian with the aim of derailing her candidacy.
Phillips said he knows nothing about the alleged effort to derail Homan’s candidacy because of her sexual orientation.
“I think Jill’s biggest problem is that Tony Parker currently serves as RNC treasurer and he’s from the District of Columbia,” Phillips said. “I think it’s going to be very hard for her to get elected secretary of the Republican National Committee when we already have one person from D.C. holding an officer’s position.”
According to Phillips, the RNC traditionally has selected candidates for its four officer positions from different regions of the country.
The Blade will report the outcome of the Cunningham-Phillips race when the election results become known.