When the president of Log Cabin Republicans of Austin, an advocacy group of LGBT Republicans, was nominated last month to be a precinct chair for the Travis County Republican Party, some members shifted in their seats. One woman with eyebrows furrowed scribbled a note with the word “gay” and passed it to a fellow precinct chair.
Michael Cargill, a Second Amendment activist and gun shop owner who is openly gay, was up for a vote again, after being one of at least three Log Cabin Republicans who have been turned away from filling vacant precinct chair seats in the past six months.
“I was furious. There’s no reason for it,” Cargill said. “As liberal as Travis County is, you would think they would be more accepting.”
Precinct chairs are unpaid volunteers who spend hours walking neighborhoods, working at phone banks and setting up community meetings to help elect Republican candidates.
They also make up the voting membership, called the executive committee, that reviews and approves local party activities and steers the agenda in line with state and national GOP positions — including a state platform that calls homosexuality “a chosen behavior that is contrary to the fundamental unchanging truths that have been ordained by God in the Bible.”
County party spokesman Andy Hogue said the group does not deny anyone an opportunity to serve, but “when it comes to party leadership (e.g., becoming a precinct chair) our standards are higher.”
“Disagreement with an aspect or two of the platform does not necessarily disqualify one from consideration — we maintain a ‘big tent,’ ” Hogue said. “But if the applicant is a member of an organization that has been known to actively oppose the party’s platform or our core values, then that greatly reduces their chances of being appointed or elected.”
But after a lively debate, the executive committee took a voice vote at its Jan. 9 meeting to make Cargill a precinct chairman.
“Let me be absolutely clear: We want everyone who wants to help us to come in and help us,” Travis County GOP Chairman Matt Mackowiak said in an interview later, noting the party has backed LGBT candidates and officeholders in the past. “We don’t have the luxury in Travis County of not accepting the help of everyone who wants to help us.”
And there’s no shortage of opportunities to help. Of the party’s 247 precincts, only 102 have chairpersons, and by June, about 120 will. That’s up from 94 in January, but Mackowiak’s goal is to fill them all.
The unrest unveils the deep-seated divide within the party over how strictly members should be expected to adhere to the state and national Republican platform, the latter of which has veered right in recent years. Log Cabin Republicans President Gregory T. Angelo called it “the most anti-LGBT platform in the party’s 162-year history.”
The issue, many Republicans say, could determine the party’s ability to attract and retain members of younger generations, who tend to be more socially liberal.
“What ultimately needs to happen, and is already happening, is a sea change in perceptions of the general public,” Angelo said. “As changes the culture, so changes the politics.”
The discord over the GOP’s stance on LGBT issues has dogged the party for some time, especially in the face of growing public support for gay rights and the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage.
At the 2016 Republican National Convention, Rachel Hoff, a District of Columbia delegate who is the first openly gay member of a Republican platform committee, made an emotional plea for changes to platform language that would have acknowledged a diversity of opinion on same-sex marriage. The amendment was defeated in a landslide.
“If our party wants a future … we must evolve,” Hoff said, citing polls that show younger Republicans are more likely to support gay marriage.
The Log Cabin Republicans have a strained relationship with many state parties, and they’ve “been through the fire” in Texas, Angelo said. State GOP Chairman James Dickey did not respond to requests for comment.
The state GOP has prevented the group from having an official presence at the convention since at least 1998. That year, the Log Cabin Republicans protested outside the convention in Fort Worth after a party spokesman said the group was as unwelcome as the Ku Klux Klan.
The group has also fought back against the state party’s platform, which contains several anti-LGBT provisions and endorses conversion therapy, a controversial practice that the American Psychological Association and other major health organizations have condemned as ineffective and psychologically harmful.
“There are Republicans in Texas and outside of Texas who are clinging to a dated litmus test for what it means to be a Republican that I would argue is not reflective of where the Republican Party is,” Angelo said.
This past year, the University of Texas’ College Republicans’ first gay president, Alec Lucas, came out to the group in part as a way of showing others they don’t need to hide, The Daily Texan reported.
“It’s not an issue,” Lucas told The Daily Texan. “We’re not any different.”
Felisha Bull, a precinct chair and president of the Hill Country Young Republicans, which covers Travis, Hays and Comal counties, said she wants to see the party become more inclusive. She nominated Cargill for the precinct chair post at the January meeting.
“If we don’t stop judging people based on the fact that they don’t agree with maybe 10 out of 260 planks in our platform, we’re not going to prosper as a political organization,” Bull said. “We’re just going to die off and become a footnote in a history book.”
The Texas Young Republicans’ state chairman, Brian Bodine, acknowledged a generational divide on these issues. Among Republicans, 60 percent of millennials (ages 18 to 36) and 51 percent of Generation Xers (ages 37 to 52) support same-sex marriage, according to a Pew Research Center report from June 2017, compared with 42 percent of baby boomers (ages 53 to 71) and 29 percent of those in the silent generation (ages 72 to 89).
Bodine said that while opinions among the Texas Young Republicans are mixed, many would prefer to keep government out of people’s lives. The group chooses to focus its legislative and policy agenda on “issues that unite us as Republicans rather than divide us,” he said.
Nonetheless, in the eyes of some Republicans, homosexuality is a lifestyle choice that runs counter to their own deeply held religious beliefs. On the state and national level, those views have fueled battles over who can access certain public restrooms and whether a florist or wedding cake designer can cite their religious views in turning away customers who are gay.
Robert Shirley, a Travis GOP member since the ’70s and a Christian, said people who are gay or transgender cannot be true Republicans because their very existence is at odds with the party platform.
His views carry particular weight as chairman of the local party’s nominations committee — the gatekeeper for positions filled outside the March primaries. He said involvement in the Log Cabin Republicans is grounds for the committee not to recommend a candidate to the full executive committee.
“They’re going totally outside of the moral value boundary,” he said. “I think there needs to be basic, standardized moral values that need to be instituted and carried on and perpetuated; otherwise, society is going to fall apart.”
If Log Cabin members want to change the state or national platform on LGBT issues, Shirley said, they should take it up at conventions, not at the county party level.
“They can say whatever they want, and they can try to have their bully pulpit, and that’s all fine and dandy,” Shirley said. “I don’t have to reconcile nothing. They do.”
Log Cabin member Jonathan Rumion, who applied for a precinct chair position in November, said the nominations committee peppered him with questions about LGBT issues — even though he left his Log Cabin affiliation off his application, as fellow members advised.
The committee asked how he felt about gay marriage, the LGBT community and their morals, Rumion said.
“The sticking point of that interview was I wasn’t willing to come out and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I don’t like gays,’ which is what they wanted to hear, and I absolutely wouldn’t take that position,” said Rumion, who isn’t gay but shows solidarity with those who are. “That’s ridiculous to me. That is reprehensible to me.”
The committee didn’t recommend him.
“I don’t think you have to have these viewpoints to be a Republican,” Rumion said. “I’m a Republican because I like the fiscal policy and I like conservative economics, but I’m not a Republican because I don’t like gay people. That doesn’t make any sense to me. … They’re just making their small group even smaller.”
The local party has only so much control. The executive committee votes on precinct chair applicants pursuing unexpired terms or otherwise vacant seats.
But anyone can file to run for a full term in the March primary, when all voters with a GOP ballot in that precinct weigh in.
Rumion, Cargill and other Log Cabin candidates for precinct chair who were rejected by the executive committee have put themselves on the March primary ballot. Rumion and Cargill are unopposed. Those who win will secure two-year terms beginning in June — “whether (party members) like it or not,” as Cargill puts it.
“It’s not like we’re going to … take our toys and go home because someone disagrees with us,” Cargill said. “We’re going to let our voices be heard.”
This conflict arises at a time when Mackowiak says the party has made major strides. He points to the local party drawing increased precinct representation, reaching $100,000 in revenue in 2017, hiring two paid directors, moving to a larger office and creating a sustaining donor program for 2018.
The short-lived tenure of former Chairman Robert Morrow, known for his vulgar tweets and inflammatory stunts, is also fading from the forefront of public memory.
“I can honestly say that we have more organizational momentum today than at any one point in the five years that I have been involved in TCRP,” said Mackowiak, who was elected in June.
Mackowiak and Executive Director Gary Teal say the social conservatives who wish to exclude Log Cabin members are in the minority — and Cargill’s election last month proves that. Cargill agrees, saying that in person he’s rarely encountered animosity from party members.
Still, the party is grappling with how to balance inclusion with the need to represent core beliefs.
At the group’s January meeting, members approved a new method that requires nominations committee members to fill out scorecards on the precinct chair applicants, including a rating of their adherence to the 10 guiding principles of the Texas Republican Party platform.
Previously the nominations committee provided up-or-down recommendations. With this new scorecard method, Mackowiak said, the full executive committee can see for itself where the applicants stand.
Shirley objected to the scorecard method, calling it burdensome and unnecessary. Bette Pritchett, the only other nominations committee member who responded to a request for comment, said she finds “no discrimination of any kind in the way TCRP handles business.”
“From time to time, some individuals may differ with the majority, as is the case in any organization,” Pritchett said in an emailed statement. “But I find that cooler heads always prevail and that we are united on growing our party to be more inclusive of all people, regardless of gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation.”
Cargill is perhaps best known for challenging the gun ban at City Hall. He also hosts a radio show called “Come and Talk It” and most recently was a vocal opponent of the $1.1 billion Austin school bond package. He’s also donated money and guns to party fundraisers.
Aside from his views on LGBT issues, Cargill says he’s as Republican as they come. So he was shocked in October when he was first denied a precinct chair post.
But he found a more welcoming reception when he was nominated again last month.
“Michael’s out there; he’s representing what we believe as Republicans are the values, the Second Amendment,” precinct Chairman Kevin Pakenham said. “There are certainly some differences, absolutely. … I’d be hard-pressed to find someone that agrees with 100 percent of the platform.”
Another precinct chair, Lancelot Clopton, countered that the state party had overwhelmingly approved the anti-LGBT planks in the platform.
“I believe that (Cargill) has a fundamental conflict of interest with what his organization believes and what our platform states,” Clopton said.
Teal urged the group to think about the issue realistically. Cargill will be running unopposed on the March primary ballot, which means he will become a precinct chair in June anyway.
“I think sending him a message that we know he’s going to do the work, but we don’t want him to sit with us, is the wrong thing to do, in my opinion,” Teal said. “Consider the fact that you’re not being asked to vote to endorse whoever he lives with or whoever he stays with. You’re being asked to tell him that we are accepting his offer to work for the committee.”
Then the vote was called. Most in the room raised their precinct chair cards and said, “Aye.” Less than a quarter said, “Nay.” Cargill had won.