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GOP commissioners in crosshairs of ‘RINO’ hunt

Rhino RS

Conservatives using iCaucus methods to screen potential candidates

By Roger McCredie-The acronym RINO (Republican in Name Only) has been in circulation in American politics for more than 20 years according to Wikipedia. But with only days until the Feb. 28 deadline for candidate filing kicks off the 2014 election season, the term has surfaced with a vengeance – literally – in the discourse of the Buncombe County Republican Party.

Wikipedia defines RINO as “a pejorative term used by conservative members of the Republican Party of the United States to describe Republicans whose political views or actions they consider insufficiently conservative.” Presently, the RINO accusation is being leveled by local Tea Party members at the three-member Republican minority on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.

The latest “RINO hunt,” as the Tea Party refers to the rooting-out process that targets “me-too Republicans” has been touched off by reports that two of the three GOP commissioners, David King and Joe Belcher, attended a fundraising event for freshman Democrat commissioner Ellen Frost. (Republican commissioner Mike Fryar did not attend.)

In 2012 Frost narrowly won a bitterly contested victory over GOP candidate Christina Kelly G. Merrill. Merrill challenged the vote tally on grounds that some voters at Warren Wilson College were non-residents and some votes had been cast in the wrong precinct, making those votes invalid. Questionable ballot-handling activities at polling places was also alleged. Two recounts confirmed Frost as the winner. Merrill has already declared she will be running again this year.

“We’ve pretty well had it with David King and Joe Belcher, and we’re getting disappointed with Mike Fryar,” said Asheville Tea Party Chairman Jane Bilello. Why do these people call themselves Republicans and vote like Democrats? We’ve got to go find another decent candidate – one we can believe in and get behind – and put that candidate forward.”

To that end, the Tea Party is advertising for prospective candidates, whom it intends to screen using methods developed by iCaucus, a grassroots, Internet-based vetting network dedicated to “taking our country back.” iCaucus furnishes actual “job applications” for office seekers, together with a virtual interview and a scoring system that evaluates candidates’ suitability based on information they submit. Evaluation factors include areas of expertise, experience, and, above all, an applicant’s views on government and perceived place in the political spectrum.

According to Bilello, all three incumbent Republican commissioners were invited to submit to the iCaucus screening and all three refused. Then the appearance of two Republicans at a fundraiser for Frost, Merrill’s putative opponent in this year’s primary, was the straw that broke the elephant’s back. “Here’s Christina Merrill, a Republican, out here trying to raise funds herself, and Joe and David show up at Ellen Frost’s event. It’s unbelievable,” Bilello said.

Conservative activist Robert Malt said he received a picture of King and Belcher at the Frost function “a couple of hours before the Buncombe County GOP executive committee meeting on Jan. 27.” Malt said he attended the meeting “To see what the reaction of the committee would be.

“As I expected, Joe and David were not even given a slap on the wrist, a censure or any other sort of official rebuke,” Malt said. “While the vast majority of the audience (committee members and guests) disapproved of [King’s and Belcher’s] actions, only a few seemed really upset about the matter. Most, it seemed, just wanted to put the issue behind them and move on.”

In an e-mail, Malt delivered a stinging indictment of both the local and national GOP organizations, saying the party is drifting further and further from its conservative principles and is suffering the consequences of doing so.

“The Buncombe County Republican Party continues to lose members in Buncombe County, as it is all across the nation,” Malt said in his e-mail. “Some of the most committed and principled conservatives I know are registered Unaffiliated because they can’t stand the Republican Party anymore.”

Malt singled out King as the incumbent in the crosshairs of “a coalition of conservative Republicans and the Asheville Tea PAC, who are “working to replace” him. “On every major issue, David King has voted with the Progressive Democrats,” Malt said. “There is not a dime’s worth of difference between [King] and the liberal Democrats [on the commission].”

For his part, King defended his attendance at the Frost gathering, saying “I went out of respect. It was held in my district. I’m a Republican. I didn’t contribute a cent to Ellen Frost.”

King then delivered a broadside of his own, accusing the Tea Party and its allies of being “so wrapped up in their ideology that they can’t see the forest for the trees. The Tea Party is not the Republican Party,” he said. “How do they get to decide who is and who isn’t a Republican?”

“As for Jane Bilello, she doesn’t even pay taxes in Buncombe County. She lives in Flat Rock,” King said.

King said the Tea Party’s adherence to rigidly conservative principles is divisive rather than constructive and undermines the concept of compromise that enables the political process to function. “What do you get when you don’t compromise?” he asked.

“David Gantt [County Commission chairman and a Democrat] could have told us [Republicans] ‘Look, we outnumber you four to three. We’re going to run right over you and pass whatever we want to.’ Instead, he took me and the other Republicans aside, one to one, and asked how he could be of help and what ideas we had for working together. That’s how you build a consensus. That’s how you get things done.”

“They didn’t compromise; they surrendered” to Commission Democrats, Malt said.

As an example of consensus, King cited the acquisition of General Electric’s new engine component plant, which was originally veiled in secrecy and spoken of as “Project X” until the deal was consummated. “We worked together to make that happen,” King said. “The Tea Party raised Cain because we gave GE incentives to locate here. They are ideologically opposed to incentives. They complained that we only created 50 jobs and they did their little formula that said it worked out to paying GE $300,000 per job. But that plant here in Buncombe County meant more than 1200 jobs statewide. That’s the big picture their ideology won’t allow them to look at.”

“If you don’t have an ideology – a set of principles – you don’t have anything,” Malt said. “You might as well be a Democrat.”

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