For a guy who's lost a string of battles lately, Deon Long has a remarkable sense of self-assurance. In August, he lost a campaign for the state Republican committee. In December, the Winter Park lawyer lost a bid to become Orange County Republican Executive Committee chairman by one vote. Claiming that incumbent OCREC chairman Lew Oliver cheated, Long sued on Dec. 31, but that lawsuit was quickly dismissed.
Undeterred, on Feb. 24 Long and his supporters held their own OCREC meeting, after which Long declared himself chairman. The state party, however, isn't about to acknowledge his "victory." On Feb. 25, in fact, Oliver asked the state party to kick Long out. "Mr. Long's conduct has been extraordinarily disruptive, disingenuous, destructive, mean-spirited, obnoxious and injurious to the Republican Party at all levels," Oliver wrote in a letter to party officials. "I also believe that on several occasions it has also been willfully dishonest."
The party's grievance committee held a hearing on Oliver's complaint March 21. By press time, the committee hadn't issued a ruling, but Long — who didn't attend the hearing — doesn't expect the verdict to be friendly. After all, the grievance committee's decision is, ultimately, a recommendation. State party chairman Jim Greer gets the final word, and he's on record saying that Long's behavior "simply can no longer be tolerated." Still, Long doesn't seem bothered.
Instead, with a broad smile and overwhelmingly confident aura, Long talks freely about his plans to run for Congress, how he considers Gov. Charlie Crist "lame" and a "disappointment," how he thinks that Greer is Crist's ineffectual pawn, how Oliver is "just not doing it" as OCREC chairman and how the party itself needs a makeover.
"We have to kill the messengers, not the message," Long says. In his mind, Republican policies haven't failed, just its messaging strategy — and its minority outreach. Not incidentally, Long is an African-American in a party that lost 96 percent of last year's black presidential vote and must expand its base to stay relevant.
Deon Long would like to be the new, fresh — and yes, black — face of a local GOP that he believes is in desperate need of a reboot. If only he could get the party to listen.
"Are you going to ask me about my scars?"
As Long sits down inside a Bumby Avenue coffee shop, you can't help but notice the deep cuts marring his nose and his forehead above his left eye. As he tells the story, a few nights prior he was leaving the swank Oak Room bar on Church Street when, after he told four drunk young ladies they should get a cab, three guys (whom he thinks were trying to get the drunk girls in bed) approached him.
"Oh yeah, you look like Obama," one told him. "You're an asshole, you're an asshole," another said.
"I said, ‘Why you say that?'?"
"?‘I don't like you disrespecting women.'?"
He turned to ask the girls if they'd felt disrespected, and one of the men elbowed him in the mouth and knocked him to the ground. The three ran off before he got up, Long says.
"I didn't know it was that dangerous downtown," he says.
Long doesn't seem the type to be easily cowed. He's tall and athletic. He played football in high school, and to look at him you'd imagine he was good at it. His father is a Baptist preacher in Jackson County in North Florida. Long, who turns 42 this week, still prays before he eats.
In many ways, Long adheres to Republican orthodoxy. He's pro-life, a devout advocate of school vouchers and fiercely fiscally conservative. (He uses the word "Keynesian" like a pejorative.) He's an ardent backer of former Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed him to the St. Johns River Water Management District's governing board. He thinks the party apparatus shouldn't automatically line up behind so-called RINOs — Republicans in name only.
"You have got to be tethered philosophically," he says.
Long doesn't, however, support the anti—gay marriage amendment that passed in November, and he criticizes what he sees as the GOP's tokenism — for example, Michael Steele — in its failed efforts to attract minorities.
Long's been a Republican since he could vote. In part, it's because he's a natural contrarian. Everyone, no matter their ideology, was a Democrat in the Florida Panhandle of his youth. So he went against the grain. At the University of Florida, Long joined the college Republicans and campaigned for Jack Kemp in 1988. He went to law school at the University of Michigan, then took a job with the powerhouse Foley and Lardner firm in Orlando, where in 1993 he began raising money for Jeb Bush.
It wasn't until 2004 that he became active in state party politics, Long says. In 2007, Long became chairman of the Florida Federation of Black Republicans. In 2008, after he served stints on presidential candidate Mitt Romney's Florida finance and African-American committees, Long sought to become one of the Florida GOP's leaders. Yet the state party seemed to oppose him from the outset.
Long lost his Aug. 26 race for state committeeman by 775 votes out of 31,882 — after, he says, Crist and Greer campaigned on behalf of his opponent Jerry Braley. Conservative rabble-rouser Doug Guetzloe, a Long ally, says he got a call Crist recorded supporting Braley.
Long says he and Greer have had a beef for years; shortly after Crist took office, a black state representative from Jacksonville christened him the state's "first black governor." Long says he refused Greer's requests that he, as chairman of the Black Republicans group, endorse a press release repeating the "first black governor" claim.
"I thought that was corny," says Long.
After that, Long decided to seek Oliver's job. He approached Guetzloe and Nick Egoroff, a leader of the local Ron Paul movement, seeking their support.
"We said fine," Guetzloe says.
On Dec. 8, a month after Republicans here and everywhere took a beating at the ballot box, 245 OCREC members voted to elect their next chairman. Oliver, who has run OCREC since October 1999, took 122 votes. Long took 121. One member voted "neither" and another abstained.
Oliver declared victory. Long declared the vote tainted.
Long argued that Oliver hadn't achieved an actual majority since he received 122 of 245 total votes. More importantly, Long accused Oliver of impropriety in disqualifying 17 members on the grounds that they hadn't turned in required loyalty oaths to OCREC officials in June, as the state party required.
On Dec. 31, Long sued, asking a judge to toss out those election results. On Jan. 8, Judge Jose Rodriguez rejected Long's claim. (Long will be back in court April 15 asking Rodriguez to rehear his case.) That Long's lawsuit focuses on a dispute over loyalty oaths — Republicans pledging to support only fellow Republicans — may seem petty. But Long's suit boils down to the claim that Oliver abused his position to maintain power. Oliver has countered that he was following state party orders.
And in fact, he was. On June 12, state chairman Greer sent a memo to all 67 county executive committees saying that candidates for those committees had to turn in their party loyalty oaths to the county supervisor of elections and the county executive committees by the end of the qualifying period for the Aug. 26 elections, June 20. Most of the candidates — 387 out of 404, including Long, Guetzloe and Egoroff — got the message. Seventeen did not, so even though they won their elections to OCREC in August, Oliver disallowed them from taking their positions on the executive committee, and thus voting for OCREC chairman in December.
Oliver and Greer declined to comment for this story, citing possible litigation. In the complaint he filed against Long Feb. 25, Oliver says he was following orders: "When running a campaign against me, it's much more damning to claim that I abused my personal discretion than to acknowledge that I was simply carrying out rules from a higher authority about which I had no choice."
After Rodriguez denied his request to toss the December elections, Long paid to rent out the Winter Park Civic Center on Feb. 24, where he held a sort of shadow OCREC meeting at which — not surprisingly — he was elected chairman. Of course, to actually be OCREC chairman, the state party has to recognize your "victory." "I think I'm chairman now," Long says. "`Greer's` just not going to recognize it."
Indeed, he is not. On Feb. 25 Greer told Long in a letter: "I have been informed that you are representing yourself as the chairman of the Orange County Republican Executive Committee. As chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, let me be clear: you are not the chairman of the Orange County Republican Executive Committee."
Long's Feb. 24 meeting ended with the cops being called. In some ways, such a resolution to Long's coup d'état seems entirely fitting.
According to Oliver's grievance, Long convened the meeting with fewer than 80 OCREC members present, far below the necessary 132-person quorum. Guetzloe, who acted as the meeting's presiding officer, says more members signed in but had to leave early. When a video camera—waving Oliver supporter named Robert Richmond loudly demanded both a quorum call and an inspection of the meeting's sign-in sheets, Guetzloe ignored him. Instead, those assembled voted first to install the 17 members Oliver refused to seat, then to make Long the OCREC chairman.
"This event was little more than a bold-faced coup by less than one-fourth of the OCREC membership, led by Mr. Long, in total disregard for" party rules, Oliver writes in his grievance letter.
After the event, Long and Richmond got into a heated confrontation. According to an account of that confrontation that Guetzloe and Egoroff e-mailed far and wide Feb. 25, "Mr. Richmond by all accounts seemed to get more and more aggressive, taunting Mr. Long as ‘the worst example of a black Republican' and ‘thinking that the party owed him advantages.' … Someone came running out into the parking lot yelling to Doug Guetzloe, ‘Come back inside, `Richmond` is going to hit Deon,'?" the e-mail continues. "Doug rushed back inside to hear Richmond calling Mr. Long a ‘n-----'. Doug and others tried to calm the situation but Richmond started either pushing or jabbing his finger into the chests of both Guetzloe and Long. He also continued to make threats and racial slurs."
Oliver's account is different: "When `Richmond` approached Mr. Long to question him about the numbers of the meetings and request documentation of attendance numbers, Mr. Long became angry and began to accuse the member of using racial slurs." Someone called the cops. Winter Park police gave Richmond a trespass warning.
Richmond, who did not return a phone call, has categorically denied using racial slurs or being disruptive at the Feb. 24 meeting.
Kooks and traitors
In Greer's Feb. 25 letter to Long and the party's grievance committee, Greer says that in the two years that Long ran the Florida Federation of Black Republicans, "no significant progress has occurred." Greer alleges that Long repeatedly flouted state party rules and failed to pay $16,000 he owed to vendors related to a federation event at a Jacksonville hotel. "Your actions as chairman of the Florida Federation of Black Republicans have also brought disrepute on the name of the Republican Party and the FFBR," Greer wrote.
And, Greer continues, Long's attempted coup was the last straw: "I, and others, have encouraged you to put your efforts to a more constructive use and stop promoting divisiveness within our party. Your long history of flagrantly violating `state party rules`, and your frequent actions that are detrimental to the party, simply can no longer be tolerated."
"I know `Crist and Greer` see me as a threat," Long says. "Greer should see me as a threat." The truth of that isn't clear, but it is clear that Greer has little affection for him.
Still, Long's near-miss in the December OCREC election only happened after he forged an alliance with two of the party's fringier groups — Guetzloe and Ron Paul supporters. After that vote, Oliver labeled those dissidents "kooks" and "traitors" to the party. His enmity toward the party outsiders hasn't been well-hidden over the years. In 2003, Oliver had Guetzloe tossed from OCREC for violating his loyalty oath by supporting Democrat Buddy Dyer for mayor. Last year, Oliver and Egoroff had a well-publicized feud.
In fact, much of Oliver's complaint to the state party focuses on Long's relationship with Guetzloe. During Long's August race for state committeeman, Oliver says, Guetzloe recorded robo-calls on his behalf insinuating that Long had former Gov. Bush's support. In his campaign for OCREC chairman, Oliver continues, Long "cooperated with or presumably approved mailers developed by Mr. Guetzloe and/or Mr. Egoroff purporting to contain — among other endorsements — an endorsement of Mr. Long by an entity known as the ‘Republican Victory Committee,' which committee does not in fact exist."
Moreover, Oliver alleges that Long, Guetzloe and Egoroff told OCREC candidates who had not turned in their loyalty oaths on time, as required by party rules, "that no such deadline really existed."
Oliver thinks Long has played dirty as well. Of the 17 people Long claims to represent in his lawsuit, Oliver alleges in his complaint, "Long was forced to admit that he could only in fact prove that he represented five" of them, and two told Long they wanted nothing to do with his lawsuit. "It is difficult to overstate what a serious violation of ethical standards this is for an attorney, not to mention that it is simply dishonest and incompetent by any standard," Oliver writes.
In a March 19 letter to state party officials and an e-mail to Orlando Weekly, Guetzloe says Oliver is lying. He didn't send out mailers for Long's OCREC campaign, he says. He did record a message highlighting the fact that Bush appointed Long to the water management district, Guetzloe says, but that's it.
Guetzloe also says that the 17 OCREC candidates whom Oliver refused to seat did turn in loyalty oaths to Egoroff, who in turn gave them to OCREC headquarters. "Mr. Egoroff requested a receipt for all oaths and was refused," Guetzloe alleges. "Apparently it is much easier for Mr. Oliver to lie about the receipt of these documents."
Legal arguments and accusations of lying aside, the essence of Long's attempted overthrow of OCREC boils down to the party's effectiveness.
Indeed, it's hardly clear that Oliver has a deep reservoir of support among the party faithful. Oliver barely won his own Aug. 26 election to be an OCREC member, let alone its chairman. In precinct 539, Oliver placed fourth out of the five candidates seeking a spot on the committee, taking 94 of 590 votes cast. Because his precinct selects four committee members at a time, Oliver's second-to-last finish, which he secured by just seven votes, was good enough.
The Orange County GOP has been in decline for years. As of 2004, the Democrats had built up a 28,000-person lead in voter registration. By the end of March, that lead was 81,000, according to the supervisor of elections office. In November, Barack Obama beat John McCain in Orange County by 86,000 votes — in 2004, John Kerry beat George W. Bush by about 800 votes in the county. The Republicans also lost two congressional seats and the sheriff's race in November.
Much of this can be chalked up to national and statewide trends. In between the 2004 and 2008 elections, for instance, 71 percent of Florida's 650,000 newly registered voters
But Long nonetheless blames Oliver for the November defeats. "If Republicans and conservatives are going to take the viewpoint that it doesn't matter who was `running the local party`," Long says, "I don't subscribe to that."
Asked what he'd do differently, Long lays out a nuts-and-bolts infrastructure plan: better precinct-level organization, better small-dollar fundraising drives, more volunteers to work on specific campaigns.
"Lew has, by his leadership, driven those people off," Long says.
He also wants to take a bottom-up approach to minority outreach, rather than what he describes as the state party's top-down method now — hoping to attract Hispanic votes simply by putting Hispanics on the ballot. But then he says that black Republicans are angry about the lack of black appointments to influential positions.
Long argues that with new blood — namely, him — the party will get its mojo back. "I think Lew trying to hang on to this position is kind of what's wrong with America — nobody wants to take accountability. I mean, he gave it his best. It didn't work. Let somebody else take a shot."
And, he says, if the party doesn't acquiesce, he's perfectly willing to drag this dispute through the courts until he gets his way or dies trying (politically speaking), even if that mucks up the local GOP's 2010 campaigns.
"If they don't want us to have this big battle," he says, "it's best for Crist and Greer to let Archduke Ferdinand" — Lew Oliver — "die on his own. … The fact is, we aren't winning."[email protected]