Ron Paul supporters set sights on influencing Texas GOP

COMMENTARY: W. GARDNER SELBY

Paul backers won control of GOP confabs in Austin, Victoria.

Thursday, April 03, 2008Want a fresh political surprise?

How about supporters of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul for president staking a lasting claim in the Republican Party of Texas.

As Democrats tussled over their presidential candidates at recent regional conventions, Paul backers unexpectedly took control of a GOP convention in Austin and the Victoria County convention.

The results at Travis County’s state Senate District 25 convention left old-guard Republicans wondering who lost the party’s car keys — and worse.

Gail Suttle, active in GOP circles since the 1980s, watched the takeover in horror. Suttle e-mailed Republicans afterward: “This group is NOT Republican and they will not work together — remember this when you do have to be in contact with them.”

At the confab at a local middle school, she’d likened the Paulies to Hitler youth, saying they were to the right of Attila the Hun.

“I am sorry,” her subsequent e-mail says, “but I meant it all!”

The victors let Suttle slide; they even named her a delegate to the party’s June state convention in Houston.

Most know, too, that they’re not likely to vault Paul, of Lake Jackson, into contention for president. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, won the March 4 Texas primary. He remains the party’s presumptive nominee.

But the activists harbor long-term hopes. They want the GOP to re-commit to chestnut tenets such as slimmed government, lower taxes and respect for privacy. And a hope is that sooner or later, grass-roots Republicans will accept the Paul partisans as energetic compatriots rather than rating them moon-beamish interlopers from the Libertarian Party. Paul was the Libertarians’ 1988 presidential nominee.

“The whole point is to stretch the definition of a Republican, really try to get it back in a direction where it came from,” said Robert McDonald, an Austin accountant.

McDonald, 46, a Houston native and father of four, was elected the district convention’s permanent chairman by a vote of 110-94.

His rise capped months of door-to-door canvassing in South Central Austin neighborhoods in the San Antonio-rooted Senate district.

Street by street, Paul supporters identified independent-minded voters willing to come to the precinct caucuses on primary night. McDonald said the canvassers looked for Paul yard signs and independent-oriented bumper stickers, even marijuana-leaf stickers—”anything indicating that person is a freedom-minded person.”

Caucusing voters then elected delegates to the district convention. People aligned with Paul’s beliefs landed 32 of the convention’s 36 delegate slots for the state convention.

Delegates also whacked at typical Republican positions.

They voted in favor of deleting language in the state party’s platform dealing with family matters such as a call for a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. They said the U.S. Supreme Court should leave abortion rights to individual states; the state platform calls for a constitutional ban on abortion.

“Abortion is not an issue that affects most people in this country,” McDonald said. “Foreign policy, the economy, personal freedoms affect everybody. … Those are the things we need to concentrate on.”

Delegates approved a resolution honoring Gov. Rick Perry. They scuttled a commendation of President Bush.

“A lot of people feel like he’s let his party and his country down,” McDonald said.

Many ideas celebrated at the Austin convention could wither at the state convention.

It might be, too, that Paul’s “freedom fighters” lose interest in the party after the intensity of this election year.

Yet Suttle and McDonald independently compared the district convention to the rise of Christian conservatives through GOP ranks in the late 1980s. That surge, a component of Bush’s success, helped win elections.

Springsteen wrote it: “From small things, mama, big things one day come.”

wgselby@statesman.com; 445-3644

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