The Republican Party this week took steps to repudiate a member who’s made anti-gay and racist comments, but some are wondering if, given GOP policy positions on related issues, the move is genuine or merely window dressing to create the semblance of inclusion.
On Wednesday, the executive committee of the Republican National Committee formally censured Dave Agema, a Michigan committee chair, demanding his resignation and calling on the Michigan Republican Party to explore disciplinary options.
The full committee may vote on the resolution Friday at the annual winter meeting in San Diego. Whether that vote takes place before the meeting is out remains to be seen.
His most recent infraction: Posting a racist essay on his Facebook page two weeks ago from the May 9 edition of American Renaissance, a white supremacist magazine. Either Agema or someone he quotes reportedly endorses as it “very interesting” and “very enlightening” for “anyone concerned about crime in America.”
Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement after the vote to censure on Wednesday that Agema has a history of “harmful and offensive” rhetoric that “has no place in our party.”
“It is important that we lead by example,” Priebus said. “Over the past couple years, we have worked to engage more Americans, including minority communities where we hadn’t been in too long. We have to be a party that welcomes people and engages voters of all backgrounds, and we cannot allow one man’s fringe views to undermine the work that is ahead of us. I want to speak clearly that we are a party that works to expand opportunity for all Americans.”
The repudiation of Agema comes in the context of an acknowledgement from Republicans that demographics of the country are changing and the largely white male population that elected them is giving way to a more diverse, more LGBT-friendly electorate. After Mitt Romney lost the presidential campaign in 2012, the party issued an “autopsy” that said Republicans should strive to reach out to gays and other minorities.
But the RNC has been here before with Agema. The head of the conservative Top Gun Republican political action committee and former member of the Michigan State House has landed himself in hot water previously for anti-Muslim and anti-gay remarks posted to his website.
When the Supreme Court in 2013 was hearing arguments on same-sex marriage, he posted extracts from an article titled “Everyone Should Know These Statistics on Homosexuals,” which posits gay people are “filthy,” are responsible for 50 percent of U.S. murders and are frequently pedophiles. As first reported by the Washington Blade, Agema at the start of 2014 appeared to post an article on the anti-gay propaganda law in Russia, referring to the measure as “common sense.”
As a consequence of those initial postings, Priebus at the start of the winter meeting last year in Washington, D.C., as well as Michigan Republican Chair Bobby Schostak, called on Agema to resign. Still, Agema refused, writing on his website he won’t back down in the face of “a few strident advocates for homosexual marriage.” A full year passed before further action was taken.
No matter what Agema posts on his Facebook page, the RNC ostensibly has no power to kick him out because nothing exists in the party’s by-laws to remove a member. Instead, leaders can call for resignation and members can vote to censure to pressure a member to resign.
Dennis Lennox, a Republican activist who has led efforts against Agema, said after the executive committee vote that the RNC has the power to oust him under Robert’s Rules of Order.
“The Republican National Committee has declared Dave Agema to be persona non grata,” Lennox said. “Tonight’s repudiation is a clear message to Michigan Republican leaders to take the necessary action, as permissible under Robert’s Rules of Order, to remove him from his position, which he has used to disgrace sensible conservatives everywhere.”
But under Robert’s Rules of Order, a set of parliamentary procedures that generally govern the operations of groups like the RNC, a two-thirds vote is required to expel a member. That would be a high mark to reach in the 168-member Republican National Committee.
Emily Divendorf, executive director of Equality Michigan, said the RNC should devise some method for removing Agema after his “hateful and harmful rhetoric.”
“If the RNC has no existing procedure for the immediate ejection of a committee member, their current winter meeting would be a great time to address fixing that procedural void,” Divendorf said. “Two more years is too long for Agema to embarrass his party and homestate. His words cause devastating harm by spreading misinformation and by misrepresenting Michigan as a state that values rancor over compassion.”
But even if the RNC were to somehow remove Agema, his positions aren’t exactly out of sync with the principles of the Republican Party. While Agema posts anti-gay and racist posts to his Facebook page, the 2012 party platform endorses a federal marriage amendment barring same-sex marriage as well as voter ID laws, which have been criticized as intending to keep racial minority voters from the polls.
And Republicans in power are acting on those ideas. With Republican lawmakers in control of the House, the chamber defended the Defense of Marriage Act against challenges in court and refused to bring up for a vote the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The House has also refused to consider legislation to fix the Voting Rights Act after Section 4 of the law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Earlier this year, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) was outed by a political blogger as having spoken at conference for the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, a white supremacist group founded by David Duke. To be fair, Kenny Knight, a Duke adviser and organizer of the 2002 event, said Scalise was unaware of the nature of the group, and, unlike Agema, there’s no record that Scalise has expressed racist views. Yet instead of voting to oust Scalise, House Republicans voted him as majority whip at the start of the 114th Congress.
Jimmy LaSalvia, former executive director of the now-defunct gay conservative group GOProud who has since left the Republican Party, said Agema’s views aren’t unlike many others in the GOP.
“The RNC is trying to make an example of Agema in an attempt to show that they don’t tolerate bigotry,” LaSalvia said. “The truth is that there are many, many people at all levels of the party’s leadership structure who agree with Agema. They are going to be very busy if they try to censure every GOP official who shares Agema’s views of gays, Muslims, blacks, and frankly, anyone who is not a straight white Christian.”
John Aravosis, editor of AMERICAblog, drew a distinction between the RNC’s action after Agema posted anti-gay remarks and the party’s action after his remarks on race.
“It was only when Agema suggested that blacks, as a race, were inferior to the rest of us — rhetoric you’d expect from David Duke — that the GOP finally acted,” Aravosis said. “Sadly, they seem to have acted because they felt they had no choice, not because they made the right choice.”
But for those attempting to rebuild and remake the party, the vote against Agema was a good move.
Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said the vote against Agema sends a strong message.
“I don’t think this is disingenuous at all — in fact, quite the opposite,” Angelo said. “More and more prominent members of the RNC are raising their voices in a growing chorus asserting common-sense conservatism over fringe-right views. If this resolution passes, Agema would effectively be censured — radioactive to anyone at the RNC who dares associate themselves with him.”
Robert Kabel, a gay D.C. Republican who’s been a member of the Republican National Committee for 10 years, said the Agema vote is “no window dressing.”
“Most RNC members would have preferred doing more,” Kabel said. “This is the first time in my memory the RNC has censured a member.”
Liz Mair, a Republican political strategist who’s sought to make the party more LGBT-inclusive, said she thinks the RNC is “pretty serious” about Agema.
“I don’t know that I’d say it’s about making the GOP appear more inclusive,” Mair said. “I think there are a lot of members who are genuinely extremely offended by Agema’s comments, and the priority is ridding the party of him for that reason, not because of concerns about appearances.”