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Racially Charged GOP Feud Escalates

White leader angrily tells black colleague to stop 'parading' his race with criticism of party.

January 17, 2003|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A California Republican Party leader has called on the highest-ranking African American in the state GOP to stop "parading" his race by complaining about "how awful it is to be a black Republican."

In an angry letter distributed to GOP activists statewide, Randy Ridgel, a member of the party's Board of Directors, responded to an accusation by fellow board member Shannon Reeves, who is black, that Republicans have treated African Americans as "window dressing."

"I, for one, am getting bored with that kind of garbage," Ridgel wrote. "Let me offer this suggestion to Mr. Reeves: 'Get over it, bucko. You don't know squat about hardship.' "

Ridgel added: "I personally don't give a damn about your color ... so stop parading it around. We need human beings of all human colors in our party to pull their weight, so get in without the whining or get out."

Ridgel, a retired white rancher from rural Lake County, also endorsed an essay suggesting that there would have been an upside to a Confederate victory in the Civil War.

Regarding blacks freed from slavery at the end of the war, Ridgel wrote: "Most of the poor devils had no experience fending for themselves, so they fared worse than before the war and during the war."

Reeves called Ridgel's letter "an ignorant, offensive statement of the highest order."

"It is that type of ignorance that is systemic among an old guard within this party," Reeves said. "And that ignorance must be rooted out of the party or the party will continue to offend voters, and we will continue to lose elections from the statehouse to the schoolhouse."

The racially charged spat among state GOP board members is playing out through a series of open letters shared with state party colleagues, and comes just as the Republican Party is struggling to move beyond the controversy involving Trent Lott. The U.S. senator from Mississippi lost his post as majority leader after speaking favorably about Strom Thurmond's segregationist bid for president in 1948.

"It's basically touching a very raw nerve at a very bad time," said Bruce Cain, a political scientist at UC Berkeley. "It's certainly a huge setback to have someone like Shannon Reeves quarreling with right-wing rural Republicans."

The exchange between two members of the state Republican Party leadership grows out of the campaign for the chairmanship of the party. The election by about 1,400 party delegates will take place next month at the state GOP convention in Sacramento.

The two main contenders are party Vice Chairman Bill Back, the favorite of GOP conservatives, and Duf Sundheim, a Silicon Valley lawyer.

For weeks, Back's campaign has been in turmoil over his distribution in 1999 of the Civil War essay by conservative writer William S. Lind. Back has apologized for sending the essay to GOP activists, saying that he strongly disagrees with the article and "should have been more sensitive."

But Ridgel defended the essay in an open letter to Back. And last week, Back forwarded Ridgel's letter to Republican activists. In the letter, Ridgel said he might republish the essay and dared opponents "to come after me."

"You sure as hell won't see me apologize to these turkeys," Ridgel wrote.

Reached by phone at his office, Back said he would "rather not give an opinion" on Ridgel's letter.

"I will consult with my wizards and we'll get back with you," he said.

Back called later and said he disagreed with the statements "regarding slavery and Reconstruction and their impact on African Americans." He said he sent Ridgel's letter by e-mail to party members because "we got a lot of calls from people who heard about it and wanted copies of it."

Ridgel said Back believed that it "was horribly destructive to the party" to discuss the matter publicly.

"For the good of the party, he is not going to defend himself in public," Ridgel said. "If he feels that way, I'm sticking with him."

Reeves, who is president of the Oakland chapter of the NAACP, has called on Back to abandon his bid for the party chairmanship. Back has declined to drop out.

In his own open letter to fellow GOP board members, Reeves said Republican leaders expect African Americans to "provide window dressing and cover to prove this is not a racist party, yet our own leadership continues to act otherwise."

He recalled that during the 2000 Republican national convention in Philadelphia, delegates asked him six times to "fetch them a taxi or carry their luggage."

Ridgel responded by calling Reeves "a bombastic gasbag." He criticized Reeves for writing "a lengthy whining letter explaining how awful it is to be a black Republican."

Ridgel added: "Your sniveling letter makes me sick, young man; you are a superstar because you are a black Republican, and you love it. Now I wonder if you can make it as just a Republican ... like the rest of us. And don't try any of that Jesse Jackson, Maxine Waters racist garbage on me."

In an interview, Reeves said he was disappointed that none of the scores of GOP activists who got copies of Ridgel's letter had made any public statements about it.

"When that letter was sent out," he said, "there should have been a mass outcry within the party."

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