This time last year, I was wondering how I could ward off the defeat, demoralization and despair I sensed in myself and those around me. I knew I had to do something.
I was concerned about the direction of my country. I had held out hope for Mitt Romney, who had been my preferred Presidential candidate since 2006, when he spoke at an event in Memphis. But Romney was soundly beaten, and that meant his plans to rebuild the economy, reform the federal government, restore faith in the American dream, and chip away at the national debt wouldn’t be implemented.
President Obama and the Democrats would be free to continue installing the federal takeover of health insurance, adding untold billions to the national debt, harassing conservative political activists through the IRS, and constricting our First and Second Amendment rights.
Things were spinning out of control locally, too. The Shelby County Commission was charging full speed ahead with consolidation, despite repeated defeats at the polls. The public school system that suburban residents had supported was unilaterally dismantled, and we didn’t get a say in the matter. The state came to our aid, but once we finally got a chance to vote, a U.S. District Court threw out the elections. So much for that.
I also lost my good friend that December, an older colleague who had helped lead the municipal school campaign in Bartlett. The rest of us watched helplessly as the suburban mayors negotiated with the County Commission, led by “Republican” Chairman Mike Ritz and his Democratic allies.
What’s more, Ritz was symptomatic of something else — the fact that many of our elected officials didn’t represent Republicans very well, if at all. We essentially had no representative voice in government, and we felt like we’d lost our party, too.
But you can’t get anywhere if you’re running in every direction. I took my own advice and consolidated my activities. I had already finished my master’s program. I stepped down as co-chairman of Youth Leadership Bartlett and rolled myself off the Bartlett Chamber Foundation board. I opted not to run for another term as president of the Northeast Shelby Republican Club. Next on the chopping block was my seat as 4th Vice Chairman of the Republican Party of Shelby County, which would be filled at the bi-annual convention in March.
My friends and I in party leadership had nothing to do with the poor decisions of our worst elected representatives, local or national, but we would receive the blame. An insurgent faction of activists would use their failures against us, and some of the party’s most engaged volunteers would lose. We’d been through it before, and I wasn’t eager for another pointless, intra-party squabble.
Then I had a crazy idea.
One strategic shot could hedge the madness in government and restore the confidence of ordinary citizens. We could beat back the tax increases, put a halt to the wasted legal expenses and end the disenfranchisement of suburban voters. We could also save the party by firing up the conservative activists and showing the average Republicans who we really were.
And we could do it all with a campaign to recall Mike Ritz, launched at the Republican convention.
Thankfully, the opposition ticket provided me with a challenger, which under our standing rules allowed me to address the convention with a four-minute nominating speech. I devoted most of that time to an extended play on the name Ritz, describing a fictional shopping trip in which I’d been stuck with a box of the crackers inadvertently, and was forced to pay through the nose for it.
Thanks to my Tea Party friends and a few eager reporters, we made quite a splash. The Memphis Daily News said I got “the biggest ovation of the day.” The Commercial Appeal’s political columnist called the speech “clever” but the campaign “hopeless.” And the Memphis Flyer… well, they got the story hopelessly wrong, declaring it as an effort “to have Ritz formally excommunicated from the Republican Party,” despite a phone conversation in which I attempted to straighten them out.
Ritz, meanwhile, took it as a sign that he would be well-positioned to run as an independent candidate for Mayor of Shelby County against the impeccably dispassionate incumbent Republican, Mark Luttrell.
I knew the odds were stacked against us from the beginning. Recall campaigns are nearly impossible in Shelby County. In this case, we would have needed to draft a petition to the satisfaction of the election commission, have it certified, and collect nearly 21,000 signatures of registered voters in his district within 75 days. If all of them checked out and we made it to the ballot, we still had to win 50.1% of the vote.
I also knew the vote had to occur prior to his last six months in office. What I didn’t realize was that the recall laws in the Tennessee Code refer exclusively to “general” municipal or county elections, and that recalls cannot be held on a “special” election date. There would be no fewer than five special election dates in 2013, but none of them could include the recall. Ritz was safe.
So we didn’t succeed in removing Ritz from office, ending the lawsuit or putting a stop to his other schemes. But on the bright side, we didn’t have to collect 21,000 signatures in the heat of the Memphis summer. We also drew attention to his record and made him answer for it. We raised awareness of the county party and its convention process, as well as recall law and the need to improve it. And we entertained and energized a party that had been frustrated and disillusioned.
At the convention, several people told me I was brave. I thanked them, but I didn’t understand why they said that, and I still don’t. I knew the party wasn’t behind Ritz, and the delegates rewarded me with the second highest vote total of any candidate. I took 73.7% of the vote (241) in 2013, nearly identical to the 73.8% (167 votes) I captured in 2011.
And 2013 got better as the year wore on. The Tennessee General Assembly came back and lifted the statewide ban on municipal schools. The munis approved their school referendums with more than 90% of the vote. Ritz gave up on the Mayoral run, lost his chairmanship, was driven back to the negotiating table to settle the lawsuit, and lost a bid to pack the county school board with six appointees.
Things won’t always go your way. As a Chicago Cubs fan, I’m used to it. But it doesn’t take bravery to get back out on the field. Just determination.