"We've got to spend less time fighting amongst ourselves," proclaims Timothy F. Johnson, the North Carolina Republican Party's new vice chair. "The Bible tells us that a house divided cannot stand. Well, a party divided cannot win. The first thing is to hopefully start fostering that unity."
That, however, may prove to be a tall order for Johnson, the first African-American to hold a leadership position in the state GOP. His impressive June 13 victory over incumbent David Sawyer at the state convention was the culmination of a contentious campaign marked by accusations of dishonesty and skeletons in the closet. And so far, those hot potatoes show no signs of cooling down.
Johnson's swift rise to prominence began with his election as chair of the Buncombe County Republican Party in 2008. And last month, he swept to victory in the statewide race, collecting 731 votes to Sawyer's 556 from the more than 1,600 delegates gathered in Raleigh. (The remaining delegates either supported other candidates or weren't present for the vote.)
Bolstered by that strong endorsement, Johnson has promised a new direction: improving his party's image, reaching out to new demographic groups, and ending the factionalism that has split the GOP at both the local and state levels.
But he clearly has his work cut out for him. In the 2008 elections, Republicans took a thrashing at all levels. And meanwhile, controversy rages over issues raised during this year's state campaign: a 1996 domestic-violence conviction in Ohio, and questions concerning the legitimacy of Johnson's claimed 2000 doctorate degree.
Critics within the party have decried Johnson's behavior as deceptive. Shortly after news of Johnson's conviction broke, 11th Congressional District GOP Chair Stephen Duncan said he felt "like we were so deceived" because Johnson hadn't come forward earlier.
But other party officials and activists have leaped to Johnson's defense, sometimes ferociously, saying he's brought new energy to the local GOP following a period of infighting.
"He was like a breath of fresh air," Carolina Stompers founder Chad Nesbitt said of Johnson in a piece on the conservative activist group's Web site hailing his election. "Johnson was motivated, inspirational and brought in young, talented people to make some big changes that needed to be made."
Both before and since Johnson's election, the clashes have been bitter, with both sides lobbing videos and blog posts and the Stompers filing a complaint with the State Board of Elections. Amid the furor, Johnson recently agreed to be interviewed by Xpress. But he declined to address those controversies, emphasizing, "I'm not going to focus on the past — I think everyone should understand that."
Rise to power
Early in 2008, Johnson was elected chair of the Buncombe County Republican Party after the two previous holders of that office had resigned or declined to run for re-election within the previous two years. Also in 2008, he served as a delegate to the party's national convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn. And this spring, Johnson launched his bid to become the state party's vice chair under the slogan "It's Time."
In the weeks before his election, an e-mail made the rounds accusing Johnson, a 21-year Army veteran who retired as a major, of having faked both his military and academic credentials (his resumé lists a doctorate in total quality management from LaSalle University). The e-mail also cited a previously unacknowledged domestic-violence conviction, and local television station WLOS picked up that story mere days before the state convention.
Johnson pleaded guilty to an aggravated assault charge in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, in 1996. He was given an 18-month suspended sentence and ordered to move to Toledo and undergo domestic-violence counseling. In the WLOS piece, Duncan said Johnson should have let party officials know about the conviction sooner.
The candidate quickly shot back, however, posting a statement on his Web site condemning the criticism as political maneuvering and asserting that he had long since put the matter behind him. He also touted an endorsement by his ex-wife.
"There seems to be an attempt to discredit me, bring shame to my family and to publicly promote a distorted view of a particularly disappointing time in my life," the statement read. "On a very stressful Christmas of 1995, my ex-wife and I were at an unhappy place in our lives which I will not discuss in depth. I stepped forward and accepted my responsibility, which resulted in a plea deal putting this behind us to expedite the legal process, accept a job in another city and work on saving my marriage and keeping my family together. We remained together for several years after this. In addition, she supports my efforts, as well as did Ronald Reagan and John McCain's previous spouses in their decision to run for an office in state party leadership."
When Asheville Tribune Senior Editor Bill Fishburne and local GOP activist Mike Fryar sat down with Johnson at a Denny's restaurant to discuss his credentials shortly before the election, he produced his military discharge and academic papers, lashing out angrily in an exchange captured on video by local activist (and Johnson supporter) Don Yelton.
The Carolina Stompers later posted eight minutes of that contretemps, labeled "Dirty Politics 101," on YouTube. Meanwhile, another user excerpted clips of it under the heading "Does Tim Johnson Have Christian Values?" In the latter piece, Johnson declares that he is "sick and tired of this s**t," adding, "Nobody else is having to prove a damn thing … yet the black guy in Buncombe County is being asked." When Fishburne asks Johnson if he thinks he's being targeted due to his race, he replies, "You're damn skippy I think it is."
The question of Johnson's 2000 doctorate has lingered, with a story in Durham's Independent Weekly just after his election also casting doubt on the degree's legitimacy. There is a fully accredited La Salle University in Pennsylvania, but the only doctorate it offers is in clinical psychology. Another LaSalle University, based in Louisiana, operated as a distance-learning facility for a number of years. The founder of the latter school was arrested in 1996 and went to prison for mail fraud and tax violations.
According to Bear's Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning, the latter school "operated as a degree mill until mid-1997, when it was sold to new and serious owners." From then until January 1999, it was "run legally by new owners, though some students may still be doing the less demanding work of the old LaSalle." And after that, LaSalle operated "according to DETC [Distance Education and Training Council] standards," the guide reports. In October 2000, having failed to gain accreditation, LaSalle was folded into Orion College, which itself closed down in 2002.
None of those controversies, however, seemed to derail Johnson's campaign. He won the June election handily, and in the ensuing weeks, he's been speaking out against taxes and government spending at TEA Party protests around the state.
Meanwhile, Johnson's supporters have sprung to his defense. Shortly after the WLOS piece aired, the Carolina Stompers filed a formal complaint with the State Board of Elections alleging that, under Duncan, the 11th District GOP had violated state funding rules. Nesbitt also posted an opinion piece on the Stompers' Web site hailing Johnson's victory and branding his critics, particularly Duncan, "snakes in the grass."
Duncan declined to speak to the specifics of the controversies, but he told Xpress: "I'm looking forward to the Republican Party getting back to its principles, especially that of honesty. That way we'll be better prepared to offer alternatives at the local, state and national levels."
For his part, Johnson says only that the "campaign was very challenging. It would be easy to get dug into what happened. But I'm choosing to work above that. I've forgiven those who came against me for whatever reason, and even those that may continue."
A matter of image
Going forward, he vows, North Carolina Republicans will see their party undergo a technological overhaul, updating both the state and county Web sites to make the local party organizations more responsive and, at election time, help mobilize voters. "We've got to learn from the Obama campaign," Johnson maintains. "They did an excellent job getting their voters out. We've got to be as aggressive.
"The Republicans," he notes, "have only been in the governor's mansion 12 of the last 108 years" in North Carolina. "People don't realize that. When you think about this 'change' — about laying off teachers and taxing and taxing everything — my question is, is this the change you were talking about? Is this the hope you were talking about?"
In the last eight months, both local parties' numbers are down, with Republicans losing roughly twice as many voters as the Democrats. According to the Buncombe County Board of Elections, there are currently 47,854 registered Republicans in the county, down from 49,209 just prior to the last election. The number of registered Democrats has also declined slightly, from 77,311 to 76,737.
Historically, Johnson continues, "We've done a terrible job of telling the story of the Republican Party. Often people only hear about the sanctity of life or about our belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. But when people are looking at jobs, at creating those avenues for businesses to come into North Carolina, we have to tell that story."
The GOP, says Johnson, spends "a lot of time talking about illegal immigrants. But what we don't talk about are ex-offenders who find it difficult getting jobs, getting health care, getting housing. Here these are truly U.S. citizens, born and raised in this country, but [who] made a mistake. But when they do their time [and] they're no longer on probation or parole, they're still held to a lower regard than illegal immigrants who come to this country illegally, who bring diseases, who take jobs that these needed individuals could be working in."
In addition to his political activities, Johnson heads Leadership 101, a Weaverville-based firm providing consulting and training services to "board members, executives, staff and volunteers," according to the Web site. He's also an adjunct faculty member at the local campus of Shaw University.
Emphasizing the state Republican Party's multiracial origins ("Most people don't know that the Republican Party in North Carolina was started with 101 whites and 46 blacks"), Johnson advocates reaching out to minority voters — especially Hispanics and African-Americans, who typically vote overwhelmingly Democratic — as part of his strategy.
"You start that conversation by going where we traditionally haven't gone," he argues. For example, many people in both those ethnic groups are churchgoers, notes Johnson, which he sees as a common link with the GOP. "This isn't going to be a shotgun blast where everyone jumps on board because suddenly there's a black vice chair. I didn't fool myself thinking that when I was pursuing this position, and I'm not fooling myself thinking that when I'm in this position. But I think there are people who may be willing to listen and have a conversation who weren't before. I'm from the inner city in Cleveland, Ohio — I know what that life is like. I've always been aware of the color of my skin, not always by desire. The reality is that through perseverance, I have prevailed."
That message will be at the center of Johnson's efforts to overhaul what he sees as the GOP's biggest problem: its image.
"We have to redefine who we are," he asserts. "I always use the example of McDonald's: You go there 20 years ago, they've got the arches, and now they've got the rock stucco on the outside. But the one thing that never changes about McDonald's is the french fries; its hamburgers, its milk shakes and fountain drinks. While the cosmetics on the outside may have changed to adapt with the times, the internal part has stayed the same. I believe that's what the Republican Party has to do."