The chair of the Republican College Foundation of Alabama came out in favor of marriage equality. The Party promptly demanded she be gagged.
This is a story that will be easy to imagine, because all the players look like they were chosen for their roles by a Hollywood casting agent. First there is our hero, Stephanie Petalos, (left) a senior at the University of Alabama, with a light-up smile and the twenty-first century sensibilities of a self-confident, socially progressive young woman. You are going to be leaving me comments on how she should be a Democrat. I agree, but like Meghan McCain, Republican is her family business.
Stephanie’s father is a lifer in Republican politics. He recently resigned as Mayor of Hoover, Alabama, (home of the belles you’ll meet later,) to become Jefferson County’s first “Professional Manager”, after the county’s recent bankruptcy filing. Her mother, Theresa, was a Republican circuit court judge. Stephanie says after the “incident” they both supported her and told her to stand up for herself and speak her mind.
The “incident” of which I speak, was the spark that started a Republican war over same-sex marriage: Stephanie Petelos came out in favor of marriage equality.
Stephanie is not just any college student speaking her mind in the public square. She is the chairwoman of the College Republican Federation of Alabama and a former president of the University of Alabama College Republicans. Most importantly for our story, Stephanie sits on the 21 member “Steering Committee” of the Alabama Republican Party, which is the fiefdom of Party Chairman Bill Armistead.
Stephanie proved herself to be a rare breed of Alabama Republican when she found the courage to come out in favor of marriage equality. She pointed out what every demographer has been saying for years; young people don’t think same-sex marriages should be illegal. She said the Republicans’ emphasis on religion gets in the way of issues that young people might otherwise get behind, like the economy.
“The majority of students don’t derive the premise of their argument for or against gay marriage from religion, because we’re governed by the constitution and not the Bible,” Stephanie explained the position of the young Republicans she represents. I was struck by how much she sounded like State Rep. Brian Sims when he took to the floor of the Pennsylvania House in support of women’s rights.
“I think a lot of people would be actively for it (marriage equality) if they didn’t live in fear of backlash from party leaders.” Stephanie continued. “We don’t want to go against the party, we love the party. We’re just passionate about a whole list of other issues, that’s why we’re involved.”
Now, Bill Armistead, (left) the chair of the Alabama Republican Party is a good old boy. He loves Jesus and the bible and he doesn’t like gays or women who don’t know their place. The steering committee is his center of power. I am sure he thinks of Stephanie as an ungrateful upstart. She was invited onto the committee because of her position as chair of the College Federation, and in Armistead’s way of thinking, she should look at her membership as an honorary position; he certainly does. To Bill Armistead, Stephanie Petelos’ inclusion on the committee is nothing more than a PR move meant to demonstrate that the party cares what the kids think, which of course they don’t really care about at all.
On the other hand, Bill Armistead has the required political acumen to know it wouldn’t be a good idea for him to attack Stephanie directly, at least not so close to election time. The optics would be terrible, especially for a party already in trouble with women and with young voters. Had Armistead just let her remarks go, they might have faded away in a day or two. But this affront to the party, his party, nagged at him. How dare she.
If you want to get an idea of how Bill Armistead thinks about women, the photo below is the class picture of the Republican Party State Chairs, (note the scarcity of women and the complete lack of people not pasty white,) who held their annual meeting in Alabama this summer. As host, Chairman Armistead thought to provide the lovely, ladylike, Hoover Belles to act as spokesmodels or maybe handmaidens to the group. (I’m unsure of the Belles’ actual role, but to be fair, I do prefer he give the them belles than hospitality hookers.)
While his feelings about women may be subtly expressed, his distaste for same-sex marriage comes through loud and clear. The day after the DOMA decision, Bill Armistead took it upon himself to give a speech denouncing the decision saying:
“This is an affront to the Christian principles that this nation was founded on. The federal government is hijacking marriage, a uniquely religious institution, and they must be stopped.”
Armistead’s Alabama Republican Steering Committee is as conservative a group as you will find anywhere. Judge Roy Moore (left) serves on the executive committee. You will remember him as the renegade judge who had to be reined in by the Supreme Court when he refused to remove a stone carving of the Ten Commandments that was his gift to the courthouse. The good judge heads up the Alabama Supreme Court these days. I don’t suppose it will surprise you to learn he is also rabidly anti-gay.
Also on the committee is someone named Bonnie Sachs. I could not find a photo of Bonnie, so let’s just picture her as a middle-aged lady in a belle dress and straw bonnet. In a way, the fact that we don’t know what she looks like is the perfect metaphor for her part in the Alabama drama, because everyone on the committee knew Bonnie Sachs spoke for Bill Armistead. One member even dared say as much out loud during debate following the “incident”. Phillip Brown, the Republican Minority Chairman, openly accused Chairman Armistead of pulling Bonnie Sachs’ strings, saying:
“I’m appalled at the extent our chairman will go to ensure no one opposes him on the steering committee.”
In response to the “incident”, Bonnie Sachs (Bill Armistead) made a formal request for a rules change that would say no member of the steering committee (Stephanie Petelos) would be allowed to publicly oppose a policy (same-sex marriage) adopted by the party. If they did so, they would be removed.
The proposal engendered a free-for-all, but not between pro and anti-marriage equality forces – besides Stephanie, there are no pr0-equality Republicans on the committee. The fight was between those who believe a member should be able say publicly they support same-sex marriage, and those who stand with Chairman Armistead, opting for more of a don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t say anything but what the party tells you to say, policy.
After a heated discussion which included references to the Taliban and the Third Reich, a voice vote was taken. It is impossible to know how many of those who backed Stephanie did so out of a conviction that free speech is inviolate; how many had a loyalty to her father, or whose districts could be affected by the purse strings he now holds, or how many just saw an opportunity to undercut the power hungry Bill Armistead. The rules change went down to an overwhelming defeat. Stephanie’s position was saved. And Bill Armistead was punched squarely in the nose.
But everything did not settle back to normal in Alabama.
The First Congressional District is nearing the end of a hotly contested and often downright nasty primary campaign. Voters go to the polls September 24, and in a bright red state like Alabama, whoever wins the Republican Primary is all but assured of a ticket to Washington. There are nine Republican candidates vying for the open seat, that was put up for grabs when moderate Republican Jo Bonner (right) resigned to take a post at the University of Alabama, where coincidentally, Stephanie Petelos is a coed. Pundits speculate Bonner was fed up with the current Tea Party Congress, which he famously rejected saying:
“I try not to get involved in caucuses that make me look like a radical, right-wing nut.”
Now nine of those right-wing nuts Bonner feared are fighting over his seat like Djibouti jackals over a porterhouse steak. And last Wednesday, one of them used the “incident” to get himself noticed and screw his opponents, which after all, is the basis for any decent political strategy.
Dean Young, is a real estate agent and former Planning and Zoning Commissioner, who calls marriage equality “a corruption which seeks to destroy the concept of the family.” Last Wednesday, capitalizing on the brouhaha in the steering committee, he distributed a pledge to all eight of his primary opponents, taunting them that not signing meant they were supporting “homosexuals pretending like they’re married” and if they weren’t sickened by that sort of thing they “should join the Democratic Party.”
Dean Young (right) demanded every candidate go on the record about where they stand on same-sex marriage, and on the Armistead-Petelos divide. Tacked on to end of the standard I-swear-I-love-Jesus-and-think-gays-are-an-abomination rhetoric, Young’s pledge asks signatories to support a by-law change to the state’s party platoform that would expel anyone on the steering committee who supports marriage equality. If that should happen, such a rule would supercede anything the executive committee adopted for themselves, and give Bill Armistead a back door victory.
Politically, it’s a brilliant strategy. Young puts his opponents on the defensive, making them talk about a divisive social issue like gay-marriage at the very end of the race, when they have been trying all these months to stick to safe subjects like Obamacare and the XL Pipeline. He has challenged all of them to either support Stephanie Petelos and look like they are soft on gays, or condemn the pretty smiling coed, and look cold and heartless. At the same time, Young endears himself to the seat of power in Alabama, by coming to the support of the bruised and bloodied Party Chairman Bill Armistead. For someone who claims he doesn’t like gay sex, Young very publicly kissed Armistead’s butt with this statement he released:
“I applaud our party’s leadership because the moral fabric of our society is torn and we must stand united. We have a President and a liberal Supreme Court that is turning our country upside down. As people of faith in Alabama we must be leaders. We must be united against those who wish to destroy our moral foundation. There is only one marriage; a divine unity between a man and a woman ordained by God in holy matrimony.”
So far the other candidates have either ignored Young, or have hurried to profess their opposition to marriage equality without actually signing the pledge. But there is now a new dynamic in the race, and a new tension in the ranks of the Alabama Republican Party. Alabama’s 1st Congressional district is certainly one to watch. The outcome may just be determined by what the voters are thinking about same-sex marriage on voting day.
Stephanie Petelos and the “incident” have transformed the landscape in Alabama. By saying she embraces marriage equality, she has changed the dynamic in the campaign for congress in Alabama’s 1st district, and beyond. She spoke truth to power, and it is still not clear if she will survive the wrath of Bill Armistead. Republican or not, we recognize her courage and we welcome her as an unexpected straight ally.
Jean Ann Esselink is a straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle.