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Newton GOP makes changes ahead of nominating meetings

Considerable confusion reigns within the Newton County Republican Party as precinct mass meetings approach in February.

The precinct meetings are where people are selected to represent the party at the county convention. From the county convention, officers and alternates are elected to go to the district and state convention. At the district and state convention, representatives are selected to go to the Republican Party’s National Convention July 18 through 21 in Cleveland, Ohio. There a candidate is nominated for the upcoming presidential election and the party platform and rules for the election cycle are adopted.

Newton County’s precinct mass meetings to elect delegates and alternates to the Newton County Republican Party Convention March 19 were advertised in The Covington News a week ago. However, there were two separate ads stating two separate meeting dates -- one on Feb. 16 and one on Feb. 20. Further adding to the confusion is that Linda Park was listed as interim chair of the party in one ad and Ray Cowan as chair of the party in the other ad.
So which is which, and why the confusion?

According to Jason Shepherd, general counsel for the Newton County Republican Party, said the other key to figuring out the jumbled mess is that party rules dictate that most of the power lies in the county committee, not with the executive officers.

“The executive officers (chair, vice chair and secretary-treasurer) cannot do much without county committee approval,” Shepherd said. “One ad went in and was approved by the county committee (Feb. 20) and another ad that went in was for a different date, time and location (Feb. 16), which we don’t see any evidence or possibility that it was ever approved by a county committee.”

The ad for the Feb. 16 precinct mass meetings stated that registration will open at 5 p.m. at five different locations, and for information to contact Park. The ad for the Feb. 20 precinct mass meetings stated that registration will open at 9 a.m. at 7188 Turner Lake Circle.

In regards to the different chairs listed on the two ads, according to people in attendance at the Dec. 21 GOP meeting, the previous chair, Charles Strickland, resigned when a motion to adjourn the meeting received no support and did not pass.

In an account of the meeting from Doug Grammer, a former congressional district chairman and advisor to Shepherd, around 49 minutes into the GOP’s Dec. 21 meeting, the motion to adjourn failed. Then an hour and eight minutes into the meeting, Strickland resigned. The first and second vice chair seats were vacant and Park, the third vice chair was not present. Vicky Henry was then asked to lead the party and chose not to. At that point, Cowan, who was the Newton County Republican Party Chair in the 1980s was named interim chair by the county committee, members of the party in attendance.

“I’d like to see the party be built back like it was when everybody in the Republican Party wanted to go to a meeting,” said Cowan of why he chose to lead the party now. “In the past, there were 60 to 70 people at a meeting, but in the last year or so they were getting seven to eight people sometimes. So, I agreed to help them build the party back.”

Cowan, with agreement from the party’s members called a Jan. 21 meeting to elect officers. At that meeting the members in attendance unanimously appointed Cowan as chair, removing the interim title, and voted Scott Jay as first vice chair, Elizabeth Allen as second vice chair, and kept the third vice chair as Linda Park, who declined to comment to The News when questioned about the Newton County Republican Party’s recent issues.

Within five days of that meeting, the Newton County GOP sent copies of the new elections and rules to the state and district committees in accordance with the state election superintendent’s guidelines. With the newly elected county committee in place, according to wording from state party rule 9.2, page 24, line 4, it falls to the county committee to set when the precinct mass meeting will take place in accordance with the call.

With Cowan submitting the date to the district and state committees, the party rules dictate that Feb. 20 is the mass precinct date for the Newton County Republican party. Furthermore, in a letter to The News Cowan said “As Chairman of the Newton County Republican Party, I have instructed our General Counsel, attorney Jason Shepherd, to send cease and desist letters to the individuals responsible. Furthermore, if these individuals fail to comply with the cease and desist letters, the Newton County Republican Party is prepared to take any and all legal action, including seeking criminal charges against these individuals.”

How the GOP got to this point

The Newton County GOP breaking into two factions has been a long time in the making.

A year ago several members of the county’s Republican Party were sent letters which said they were not considered to be a “member in good standing” and were ineligible to vote for the new executive board. Among those excluded were the mayor of Covington and two former Newton County Republican Party Chairs.

The reason for the exclusion was a rule that set up a merit point system to measure those who volunteered and participated in the party. Those who did were given priority when it came to choosing delegates to the district and state conventions.

Rather than just being used to select a nominating committee, the point system was also used to keep people from joining and being present at the county convention, according to Grammer.

The point system issue came to a head in March when party member Aaron Brooks made a motion challenging the credentials of the voting delegates. This led to a heated exchange between then-chair Delia Fleming and some members of the Newton County Republican Party, after which 60 delegates and members walked out of the county’s convention.
“The people running the party were running people off,” Cowan said. “That’s where this fight came from.”

Cowan is the fifth chair, interim or otherwise the Newton County Republican Party has had in the last year. Fleming handed the gavel to Bill Perugino, who resigned and was replaced by Todd Bowen, who resigned and was replaced by Strickland.

With Cowan in place, he and other members of the party hope the Newton County GOP can get back to being a more all-inclusive party. One of the first actions were to eliminate the point merit system, which required 30 points gained by active participation in order to be considered a member in good standing.

“I’d like to see it go back to where it was,” Cowan said. “I had quit going to meetings when we weren’t having more than eight or nine people.”