Screening candidates is tricky process

Ed Howell
Posted 1/17/18

The Walker County Republican Party recently decided to reject two local candidates who applied to be on the GOP ballot this year: Mike Cole, who was going to try for sheriff, and Tanya Guin, who is running for county superintendent of education. Cole, who ran four years ago for sheriff as a Democrat, now will likely bow out of that race, although he has protested as to the process being unfair.

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Screening candidates is tricky process


The Walker County Republican Party recently decided to reject two local candidates who applied to be on the GOP ballot this year: Mike Cole, who was going to try for sheriff, and Tanya Guin, who is running for county superintendent of education. Cole, who ran four years ago for sheriff as a Democrat, now will likely bow out of that race, although he has protested as to the process being unfair.

Mrs. Guin has stated that she will challenge the decision through the state party. She said she plans to file as usual with the local party, and then send a letter to the state party, which starts an appeal — first to a 21-member committee, and then, if she is rejected there, to a full 400-member executive committee. (Walker County Republican Party Chairwoman Linda Ensor said the local filing did not occur as expected Monday, although there is still plenty of time before the Feb. 9 deadline.)

Ensor did not give reasons in letters sent to the two candidates, but it seems clear from recent and past conversations that the party is quite serious about those who would switch parties at election time when the candidates have run as Democrats in the past. Pretty much, if you ran in 2014 as a Democrat and lost, and you wanted to run for the GOP in 2018, you couldn’t do it—they would prefer you sit it out a term and come before the committee again in 2022. The truth be known, I have a feeling they would like to see activity and interactions over some time before the election cycle, rather than just showing up at qualifying and saying, “Well, I’d like to announce I am a Republican and I’m running for office.” It may not be iron clad it happens that way, but for a non-incumbent to show up in that situation, the odds are usually not great.

Personally, I can see some of that argument. Party discipline seems to be sorely lacking in recent years, and I’ve seen some people who switched in the state simply to save their necks at the polls. Certainly, we could take some cases where some vetting could have done the party good, although some in the party might not like my examples. What if Donald Trump, who seemed to support Democratic causes and had a troubled background, had been more vetted. Roy Moore, while conservative, had some problems, although they lurked away from view (amazingly) until he was nominated. And let us take some serious problem situations, such as if David Duke or some KKK person like that were to want to qualify for something; you certainly would want to screen someone like that. And on the opposite side, those super delegates for the Democrats were supposed to be a buffer for the establishment at the last convention, but sat on their hands when Hillary Clinton was nominated, which many knew would be a terrible problem. There are any number of reasons you might want to screen a candidate.

However, allegedly the Alabama Republican Party told the local party not to tell why a candidate might not be turned down. Mrs. Guin said she even had trouble finding out who the members of the party are. And the screening process is all done in secret session.

Also, Cole had a major concern in that the local GOP also allows elected incumbents to switch and run immediately. He said the same rules should apply to everyone.

Now, yes, I understand they are proven candidates. And they certainly bring the office to the table once they are accepted. But in its own way it doesn’t seem like it is equal in opportunity when you have an incumbent and you have a challenger, and it becomes harder for the challenger. (In fact, both candidates would have gone against incumbents, and Mrs. Guin and the current superintendent, Jason Adkins, are almost mortal foes at this point.) It is worse to not even know who blackballed you in committee, what the vote was nor even the official reason you are rejected. A full disclosure would seem more democratic.

Of course, it gets more interesting when we look at Mrs. Guin’s claims that not only is she dealing with problems she feels Adkins instigated (I’ll just say Adkins would disagree and get that out of the way), but that the party has it in for her because she is the wife of former House Majority Leader Ken Guin, a major Democratic player when he was in the Legislature. She says that she has been voting as a Republican for years and that the two agree to disagree. In the skeptical world that is Walker County (ask a county commissioner), many may not buy that account, and I am sure the Guins probably know that will be the case, regardless of what is the truth. Meanwhile, the argument can be made (and I’ve heard many make it) that county positions such as superintendent don’t really matter as much in terms of party politics. The fact that the Walker County Board of Education voted to oust her as a principal after a bitter multi-day hearing may go back to the party discipline rule, however. As I said, it gets interesting.

But in the end, we have to look at the thing that leaves me uneasy in my stomach about the process. For me, it has nothing to do with Mrs. Guin or Cole. I’m not taking sides on candidates. I am more concerned, as I have been all my life, about the election process, which is somewhat sacred to me.

For years, the process was simple: Sign up to be a candidate, campaign and let the voters decide your fate. Oh, there have been times when candidates did not follow other rules, such as living within a district that they are supposed to be representing.There are age restrictions and qualifying fees, and such. But besides the basics, you pretty much let the public decide.

Now, we have to have a litmus test to see if you satisfy the party’s demands. The party that had Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater running against each other in 1964 pretty much has to see how Republican you are, and if you are challenger or incumbent, and so on. This is not just happening here. In Marion County recently, a Democratic commissioner who was retiring wanted to switch parties and run against the incumbent probate judge the commissioners there had fought with. The GOP there turned him down, which has irritated a number of people. This is all a more recent trend, but it seems to be growing.

Party discipline is a great thing — under a big tent, where you have diverse voices that work out the future of a political party. In the modern society, we seem not to want different voices. We want our voice and no one else’s, which has led to bullying tactics from the top guy in Washington. I worry that those type of tactics will filter down to the bottom.

It is not to that stage here, and I think Ensor does a good job. But I think the screening committee should be an open process with defined, limited goals and apply more equally, more forcibly in its enforcement for incumbents and challengers. If a candidate is to be rejected, it should be stated openly, and it should be for reasons of urgent disreputable causes or proven actions where the candidate did not support the principles or candidates of the party. Frankly, I would feel better if it were just used sparingly when individual concerns or challenges were brought up about a candidate.

In the end, the process should be encouraged where under normal situations, unless another extraordinary Roy Moore situation comes up, the voters should have more the say on the candidate, on whether he is worthy to take on a challenger.

It is a tricky thing. We could use more party responsibility at times, probably more in the pre-election discussion phase, to find us good candidates who are electable and responsible. But before we throw out candidates as they qualify, we had better have a good, open, accountable process that serves only the most extreme situations and documents why their voice should be denied in a democracy. I am not sure we are there yet.

Ed Howell is the Daily Mountain Eagle’s news editor.