By Steve Hickey [special to The Tennessee Conservative]-
Williamson County District 7 voters were shocked and saddened to learn long time county commissioner Bert Chalfant passed away on August 24th. His passing set in motion an accelerated Republican nomination process for the November 8th special election, culminating in Chris Richards’ Tuesday night victory over former commissioner Bobby Hullett at the Cool Springs Marriott Convention Center.
There is much more to this story than a quick, intense and surprisingly high visibility campaign. The main story involves the convention itself and the planning thereof.
The Williamson County Republican Party was caught with a difficult situation—producing a nominee by the September 16th ballot deadline. To their credit, they decided to allow the voters to decide the outcome, rather than a closed door appointment. For that, they should be commended.
The WCRP and party elites have had a fraught relationship with local conservative grassroots groups since the previous spring’s GOP primary 1 & 2. The name calling 3 &4, reminiscent of how Democrats attack, was disturbing. Worse, the weaponization of rules effectively shut doors for citizen participation in the electoral process 5. The mid-summer Soviet style purge 6 of the lone conservative voice on the WCRP’s Executive Committee further left local conservatives tasting bile. To many of us, this all appeared to be the antithesis of what Republicans stand for—truth, freedom, and a fair fight in the arena of ideas. As a result, there was a jaundiced view among many Williamson County conservatives regarding the process being dictated by the very people who had shown open hostility towards them in the very recent past.
The Party announced on August 30th via email to its members that it was conducting a September 13th mass convention.
This included a link for people to preregister by 11:59 on September 6th to “secure your attendance and ability to vote.” It further indicated the need to be a bona fide Republican (having voted in three out of the last four state/federal GOP primaries) and be an active member of the Republican Party. This last part was not explained in the email and left to the reader to determine what constituted active in the Republican Party. The email concluded with “share this email with friends & family.”
The Party followed this up with a second email to members on September 2nd.
This email pushed the registration deadline back to September 8th and clarified the participation requirement to include contribution of time or money. This was the last communication the county party had with potential voters before the convention.
Behind the scenes, there was unprecedented maneuvering afoot. Mr. Richards’ attorney attempted to get clarification on numerous questions regarding rules to be utilized during the convention, Republican citizen participation in the convention, and encouraging process transparency. This engagement with both the WCRP chair, Cheryl Brown and TN GOP chair Scott Golden culminated in a back and forth email exchange on September 9th between the attorney and Mr. Golden.
This exchange is notable as it appears the WCRP/TNGOP were mixing processes from two different types of conventions. Furthermore, suggestions for transparency and campaign representative oversight (akin to poll watchers in a standard election) were ignored. The end result was a situation where the party was following rules it wanted to while avoiding any oversight by the invested parties.
The night of the convention brought several surprises. First, the supposed preregistration requirement advertised in the emails appeared to have been quietly vacated. The party was allowing walk up registrations, raising the question why preregistration was pushed in the first place. Second, Robin Baldree was serving as a registrar. Ms. Baldree had previously lost the D5 GOP county commission primary, despite herself not being a bona fide Republican at the time.
Furthermore, Ms. Baldree actively supported independent candidate Michael Gallik in the D5 commission general election (see photo below of Robin Baldree’s property before the August county general election, note Michael Gallik campaign signs), a bylaw sin cited by Ms. Brown as the reason why she worked so aggressively to target Williamson Families PAC 7.
Finally, a steady stream of eager voters began to depart the facility long before the event even started. Richards’ supporters caught up with many of these people and inquired what had happened. What was learned was the party was actively weeding out the electorate, perhaps purposefully and with forethought.
We discovered nearly all of the 42 people had preregistered for the event, raising concerns the Contest and Verification Committee, that should never have been employed for a mass convention, was purposefully weaponized against a bloc of voters. Furthermore, most of the people turned away were dismissed due to the time/money contribution stipulation. Several turned away voters were active contributors to Republican candidates such as Marsha Blackburn or Republican groups such as Turning Point USA.
Two individuals lamented they were very active members of the local party, until COVID limited their activities. One wheelchair bound woman similarly said she was a dedicated Republican voter, but was told her lack of participation and mail in votes disqualified her. Some complained that the party should have followed up after their preregistration and explained what constituted the required time/money threshold. Several people had made donations to the WCRP or one of its affiliates in the hours before the convention. These people were turned away due to an undefined “poll tax” rule.
Supposedly, a day of donation is considered a poll tax, but a donation the previous day is not. What is clear is there was a pay-to-play expectation (the rules of which were very poorly advertised by the party) for anyone desiring entry to the D7 GOP nomination convention. Perhaps most telling was the fact that nearly all rejected voters who voluntarily disclosed who their preference was stated they were either Richards voters or undecided.
The rejection of bona fide GOP voters is not the way to build the party. The selective use of rules against those with whom you disagree is not the way to build the party. Calling your fellow Republicans names and engaging in unfounded character assassination is not the way to build the party. Shrouding an election in secrecy and not allowing outside visibility of its processes is not the way to build nor engender trust in that party. Relationship building is how you build the party.
As WCRP Assistant Secretary Chad Story noted at the end, this election was ultimately decided by the candidate who more effectively engaged the electorate. Chris Richards built those relationships with the electorate and turned out significantly more voters than his opponent Tuesday night. As a member of the conservative grassroots here in Williamson County, I hope this lesson is not lost on the party and they recognize marginalizing their base is no longer a viable strategy.