By Joshua Benton and Fritz Wenzel
Blade Staff Writers
It was a difficult birthing for the new Lucas County Republican Party yesterday, full of fits and starts, anger and accusations.
But when it was all over, the Grand Old Party was left with an outlook more optimistic than anything it has been able to muster for years.
“I am very, very excited about the party’s future,” said Toledo Clerk of Court Maggie Thurber, after the GOP’s biennial reorganizational meeting of its central committee yesterday at Churchill’s Supermarket in Sylvania.
But before party members reached that stage of self-confidence, they had to struggle through almost two hours of insults and infighting, mostly pitting more than a hundred committee members new to organized politics against the party’s more experienced wing.
All the battles made the most anticipated part of the meeting – the appointment of a new party chairwoman, Diana “Dee” Talmage – almost seem to be an afterthought.
The origins of yesterday’s conflicts can be traced to last year, when a grassroots coalition of Republican activists, led by Paula Pennypacker, announced they would be aiming to retake control of the party from a leadership they considered stagnant, unoriginal, and dictatorial – the old guard, they called them.
Their proposed method: recruiting political newcomers to run for the office of precinct chairman, known as precinct captain. The party’s central committee is made up of all those precinct chairmen and they are responsible for party policy, as well as electing a party chairman.
The coalition’s efforts were rewarded in last month’s elections, when a record number of men and women were elected precinct chairmen, most of them without any previous political experience. When the 223 people present at yesterday’s meeting were asked to raise their hands if they were first-timers, about three-quarters did. The total attendance was at least twice as high as the last meeting’s, party members said.
Several incidents stoked the passions of the newcomers and some political veterans alike, but the most notable was a flap over who should be the central committee’s chairman.
Mike Griswold has held that post for the last two years. In pushing for his re-election, he said he had been a source of stability in a period when the party has cycled through five chairmen.
Before the meeting started, a competitor emerged in Susan Abood, the Ward 21 chairman. She promised to make precinct captains work harder to push up the party’s profile. “We are stagnant. We cannot go back to two years ago,” she said.
But when nominations were opened for the job, only Mr. Griswold’s name was offered, by former mayoral candidate Nick Wichowski.
Ms. Abood said Ms. Thurber was supposed to nominate her, with state Rep. John Garcia (R., Toledo) seconding, but “there was a miscommunication.”
That absence started the confusion among newcomers, most of whom were holding Abood fliers in their hands and wondering why the candidate was not being mentioned. A motion to close nominations was met with about half yeas and half nays, but party leaders said it passed.
Under parliamentary procedure, the next step should have been to have a vote on Mr. Griswold’s candidacy. And the men running the meeting – Mr. Griswold, John Birmingham, and Paul Komisarek – said one was indeed taken.
But dozens and dozens of precinct captains and independent observers didn’t hear any vote, no matter what those three said.
“There was no vote, no,” said committeeman Jan Scotland of Precinct 6-F.
“There was a vote, absolutely,” said Mr. Birmingham, who as parliamentarian ruled several motions seeking to open debate out of order. He was wearing an “I Like Mike” button supporting Mr. Griswold.
As the meeting went on, more and more precinct captains began to voice aggressive objections to the proceedings, and the old guard responded in kind.
“If everybody didn’t hear [the vote], I’m sorry, but you have to pay attention,” Mr. Birmingham said.
“How do I get on the railroad committee?” yelled one man, to a round of applause.
“I ran for office because I thought the party had an arrogant attitude,” said newly elected Joe Hoken of Precinct 18-D. “The new folks don’t need things lectured to them like they’re children.”
When he spoke, Mr. Griswold was faced with calls from genuinely confused committeemen. “Did we elect you?” one asked. “We don’t know who you are,” said another. “What’s your name?” a third asked.
Mr. Griswold said he would not support reopening the nominations process. “We’ve already taken the vote,” he said.
But support for a reopening was strong, and when several precinct captains moved to reopen nominations, the body approved it overwhelmingly. Ms. Abood was nominated, and a roll call vote was taken amid more fiery arguments over even the smallest procedural decisions.
When the votes were tallied, Mr. Griswold was still re-elected, 145-77. He invited Ms. Abood up to the podium, hugged her, and kissed the top of her head, calling for unity.
There were other battles, including a sometimes nasty fight over whether the committee should readopt its current bylaws. Almost none of the newcomers knew what was in those bylaws; the party had not given them copies.
That battle featured many new Republicans saying things like “How can I vote on something I’ve never seen?” and more experienced ones exasperated at the conflict over what they considered a procedural issue.
“For goodness sakes, let’s adopt these bylaws!” said Mark Berling, a former GOP executive director.
They ended up doing so by voice vote, with a smattering of no votes outnumbered by a chorus of yeses.
The old guard, unaccustomed to the battles, were barraged all meeting long by questions from the rookies – some inquisitive, some accusing.
For those who helped bring all the newcomers into the committee, the experience was rewarding.
“This room had to show them today that the same old good-old-boy stuff is done,” said Dennis Lange, one of the founders of the grassroots effort. “I was about to go to my van and get the train whistle I bought for today, because we were getting railroaded.”
But after the final vote for central committee chairman, the mood clearly shifted. When Ms. Talmage’s candidacy was presented for party chairman, no opposition candidates were offered, and she was swept into office on a unanimous voice vote.
“Thank you so much for the honor of serving the party,” she said.
Ms. Talmage, an Ottawa Hills school board member and the first woman to lead the party, said she will emphasize a “big tent” style in her time as chairman, reaching out to the young, the old, and women.
“We are the party of inclusion, of fresh ideas,” she said.
“You would not be far off calling it revolutionary,” Ms. Thurber said about the new chairman. “She’s so totally different in personality and style.”
But some Republicans worry that her other community commitments could distract her.
“I’m happy for Dee,” said Ms. Pennypacker, who moved to her new home in Arizona Friday. “But I remain concerned about whether she will have enough time to devote as chairman. It’s going to take a lot of work.”
Party leaders said a transition team would be set up to help Ms. Talmage in her first months in the office.
“I know this if a big job, but I’m committed to doing whatever it takes,” she said.
At the meeting’s end, Mr. Komisarek presented an imported Italian ashtray to Jim Brennan, the party chairman Ms. Talmage replaces and who has faced criticism for not being inclusive of others’ opinions.
“There are a lot of people out there who, admit it or not, know that you did a good job,” Mr. Komisarek said.
“You have seen democracy in action,” Mr. Brennan said of the morning’s fights. “It’s just a little messy, and it’s not as efficient as a dictatorship, which is something I’ve been accused of plenty of times.
“But the important thing is: it works.”