Saturday, March 19, 2022

"He should resign": Bennett faces criticism among CD2 GOP officials

Oklahoma Republican Party Chairman John Bennett has broken with traditional practices of the party office, endorsing multiple candidates for office (most prominently Jackson Lahmeyer against U.S. Sen. James Lankford), and is now running for Congress. Indications from his OKGOP staff, some of whom appear to be doing double duty on his congressional campaign, are that he has no intention to step down as chairman until at least after candidate filing.

For comparison, in 2006 and 2010, then-OKGOP chairman Gary Jones resigned within days of announcing his candidacy for State Auditor to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest (in 2010, he filed on Wednesday and resigned on Monday).

State Party rules are silent on the issue of party officials endorsing in primaries or running for public office while holding party positions. Bennett's decision to do both has broken no rules. However, there are many party activists who find both actions to be inappropriate for a state chairman to do. I've heard from some of those individuals, and decided to reach out to party officials within the 2nd Congressional District to see how widespread that sentiment was.

Based off some of the input I had already received, I asked the following questions of the county central committee (chair, vice chair, two state committee members) of each county Republican Party in the 2nd District:

  1. Do you think John Bennett should stay on as state chair while running for Congress, or should he resign? 
  2. Should state party rules be amended to require a state chair or vice chair to resign if running for state or federal elected office?
I received responses from up and down the now-28 county district. I am keeping respondents anonymous in order for them to feel free to speak their mind on this issue. The results were interesting and a learning opportunity. 

Of the five county chairs that have responded so far, they unanimously said that Bennett should resign. One chair said, "I think John should step down but I don't think he will because rules don't require it.  He doesn't work off of precedence - as we've seen with endorsements." Another said, "He should have resigned at the time of his announcement to seek the congressional seat. State Committee should remove him from office immediately." 

A couple specifically noted that his actions are not against the rules, but that he should resign so as to be appropriate in appearance and allow the job of state chairman to be done by someone fully dedicated and focused on it. "He should either be our chairman as we elected him or step down and run for Congress," said one.

One vice chair said, "I believe any candidate running for office should step down from their currently held position prior to running... In the case of the state party, the Chairman’s primary goal is fundraising, running for office requires money and I believe this creates a conflict of interest."

Another vice chair put it this way: "He should resign It is sad that we apparently will need to set rules in our party of principles to require someone that is the leader to do the right thing."

One state committee member that I contacted was firmly in support of Bennett. "Yes, I think he should keep his job. No, the rules do not need to be changed. I think John is the best Chairman I can remember; we need his leadership till he is elected in November." This was the only directly positive response I received.

Another state committee member said, "I absolutely think Mr. Bennett should step down. He does an injustice to the GOP party and to other candidates running for County, State or US. offices."

This was a sentiment echoed by several other officials. Here are four more state committee members' opinions:
  • "The question of who is being served - you can't serve two masters - when a sitting chair/vice chair decides to run for any elected office can't be answered without conflict. These kind of dual relationships - state chair vs. candidate - are unethical."
  • "Disregarding the public confusion deciding which hat Chairman Bennett is wearing at any given moment; there is the potential appearance of "conflict of interest" and inevitably, an abdication of responsibility. Both tasks; managing the Oklahoma Republican Party and campaigning for elected office, should be assumed to be full time responsibilities demanding focused attention. If both are pursued simultaneously, eventually a moment will come when one will take priority over the other and one will be neglected. Neither can afford to be neglected."
  • "He should resign. He will be spending all his time campaigning and raising money for his campaign instead of raising money for the State Party."
  • "He should absolutely resign. It obviously gives him an unfair advantage."
While respondents nearly unanimously (~95%) called for Bennett to step down, opinions were more split on making permanent rules changes. The split on changing party rules was roughly 70% in favor, 30% opposed.

One chair said, "Yes, state party rules should be amended, both to prevent an endorsement in advance of primaries in the future, and to force the resignation of a chair or vice-chair that chooses to run for elected office." Another chair agreed: "Yes, long overdue. Additionally, any county or District chair or vice should resign upon announcement of seeking a state office." 

Another chair, who thought Bennett should step down, disagreed with a permanent rules change: "No, they should not change the rule."

Three vice chairs were in favor of amending the rules. Said one, "I would support the state committee, or the delegation of a future state convention, taking action to amend the rules to codify the example set by Gary Jones."

A state committee member put it this way: "Party rules should be amended to reflect that the chair or vice chair should resign should they decide to run for any other elected office." Several others agree with that sentiment.

One state committee member, who thought Bennett should resign, was against a rules change for these reasons: "I am NOT inclined to create a State Party Rule to MANDATE what I consider a common sense judgment decision. I would hope Oklahoma Republicans could choose a Party Chairman that would demonstrate common sense judgment without an imposed mandate. If every acceptable action is mandated by rule, then at the end of a person's term in office the only gauge of their representation of organizational values is: did they follow the rule or did they not follow the rule? Character is assessed by performing the acceptable action in the absence of a rule." [Emphasis theirs]

Some expressed concerns about potential FEC or campaign ethics/finances violations, given that Bennett is running for a federal office and the appearance of in-kind contributions with party assets. Others pointed to problems within the state party operations, wondering if Bennett's team was more concerned with helping their friends that with equal treatment of party officials and candidates. A few expressed frustration with basic communications and the lack of information on the party website about local party officials, hindering cooperation on local levels.

I did not ask any of the county party officials if they support or oppose Bennett's candidacy, as that was not the point of my survey. I am certain that he has supporters among the GOP officials in the 2nd District, but it would appear that he may be hurting his own campaign by trying to ride both the State Party and Congressional Campaign horses at the same time.

When Gary Jones ran for State Auditor in 2006 and 2010, he resigned his chairmanship - the decent, ethical, right, and honorable thing to do. It is my opinion that Bennett should as well. I believe his current insistence at doing both will hurt his candidacy.

I've had some pushback from OKGOP staff on this. Leslie NesSmith, Bennett's chief of staff, contacted me, asking if I was holding Bennett to "a different standard because of [my] political leanings." Nope. I truly try to be fair, and I probably agree with Bennett on 95%+ issues. She also indicated a belief that I was not interested in getting accurate information and only looking for people who would confirm my own bias. Again, if you've read my writings since 2008 or known me, you'd know that to be false.

When I voiced my opinion in a conservative political group on Facebook, Jonathan Krems, Deputy General Counsel for the OKGOP, took issue. He said, "[A]s someone who claims to be neutral it's wrong for you to attack our GOP Chairman." ... which is just laughable, to be honest.

I've never made any claims of neutrality. I think I've demonstrated, in nearly 14 years of blogging and conservative activism, an ability to be objective, reasonable, and fair. Whether I agree or disagree with an individual has had no bearing on how I observe or report the facts of the matter (and I've had plenty of times where I've pointed out issues of those I agree with and consider to be friends).

Krems also said "I disagree with the thought that it is the 'ethical and right thing' to resign as chairman. Who are we to judge?" and "I also think it is wrong for you as a journalist to make this criticism."

First, I've never claimed to be a journalist. I'm a Christian and a conservative with a blog that I use to comment on and pass along news regarding political and current events, opine, and otherwise talk about what I want from my perspective. I make no claims at being an impartial journalist, but do have something of a reputation for being an objective commentator with a very clearly conservative bent. Muskogee Politico is where I post Politics, News, and Conservative Views

Second, the idea that individuals should not ask questions is, quite frankly, absurd. Party officials should always be open to questions and criticism, constructive or otherwise.

I will also point out that I've made no comments regarding who I support in the 2nd District race (in part because the field is not officially set yet!). That has no bearing. The questions I put forward in this survey of county party officials are legitimate to ask, and neither Bennett, nor the OKGOP, nor any other candidate for office should be afraid of getting the perspective of people on the ground who might have opinions on how their party is operated.

You might just find out some beneficial things.

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