Mar 26, 2015

Local Republicans to elect new leaders on Saturday

Division within the Park County Republican Party will be put to a vote on Saturday, when party members choose their leaders for the next two years.

A group fronted by Colin Simpson of Cody, former Wyoming Speaker of the House, is seeking election to the county party’s leadership. The group is calling for a change from the direction that the party’s more active and conservative leadership has taken in the last two years.

Meanwhile, current Park County Republican Party Chairman Larry French — who is not seeking re-election — says the group Simpson represents is trying to “ruin” the party.

Members of each “side” say the opposing group represents the minority; they each also accuse the other of being the source of the continuing division.

Saturday’s meeting is set to begin at 10 a.m. at the Holiday Inn in Cody. All Republicans and members of the public are welcome to observe the proceedings, but only precinct committeemen and women (chosen during last year’s primary election) are allowed to participate. The races for the county party’s five elected positions — chairman, vice chairman, state committeeman, state committeewoman and treasurer — all are expected to be contested.

Some of the conflict was outlined at a March 10 meeting at the Park County Library, where representatives of both GOP factions spoke of personality conflicts, disagreement over the role the party should play in local politics and division over more moderate and more conservative Republican beliefs.

Colin Simpson addresses some of his fellow Republicans during an informal March 10 meeting at the Park County Library. He’s running for chair of the county party, as is Camara Clifton of Powell. Photo by CJ Baker
The discord can be traced back for many years, but one trigger point came a year ago, when a group of Republicans attempted to censure state Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, for several actions they disagreed with. Chief among their complaints was Coe’s role in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to strip most of the powers of the state's elected superintendent of public instruction and give them to an education director appointed by the governor.

In mid-February 2014, a group that included the county GOP’s state committeeman, Bob Berry, took out an ad in the Cody Enterprise titled, “Coe Must Go.” A majority of Republicans voted to censure Coe at the party's convention that March, but it fell short of a required two-thirds vote.

Coe was incensed by the effort, saying in an Enterprise ad of his own that the party had been “targeted for take-over by a group of rightwing activists,” and pledged to lead an effort to “take back” the party.

Simpson and others put together a political action committee that called itself “Republicans for Unity.” They sent mailers calling on Republicans to vote for 39 specific precinct committee people in the August primary. Twenty-nine of the candidates endorsed by the group were elected, as was Sen. Coe himself.

For his part, French took issue with “Republicans for Unity,” saying in a letter to party members this month that the group “divided the Central Committee not unified it. By the actions of that (Political Action Committee), it drove a wedge deep into the party.”

French sent the letter after learning that one of the “Unity” group’s leaders, Terry Hinkle, had invited certain Republicans to the March 10 meeting to prepare for the upcoming party elections.

Although Hinkle had explicitly said the meeting was unofficial and informal, French decried it as a violation of the party’s bylaws, which restricts who can call official GOP meetings. French also said inviting only some members of the central committee smacked of “elitism” and described it as an attempt by a special interest group to take control of the party.

With the cat out of the bag, members of both factions attended the March 10 meeting, where they expressed differing views about whether the past two years of leadership had been an improvement or a step backward.

“There’s been a lot of angst on both sides, a lot of things that have been said on both sides, that have been, I think, at times poisonous,” said Jo Walker of Powell.

Members of the more moderate camp complained party meetings have been too formal, ran too long and, at once a month, were too frequent, while the more conservative camp’s members praised the more active and inclusive party meetings and faulted those who didn’t attend.

Both sides also expressed dismay about the ongoing division.

“There’s been a lot of angst on both sides, a lot of things that have been said on both sides, that have been, I think, at times poisonous. Lot of people's feelings hurt, lot of strong things said, lot of truth said,” said Jo Walker, a Tea Party supporter. “To me, what’s really important is these next two years.”

County Republicans will resume the discussion Saturday.


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