Far-right Constitution Party exploits disaffection from GOP

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Al Pisano, David Waddell and the Rev. Robert Wells (l-r) vet candidates at the Constitution Party's nominating convention. (photo by Jordan Green)

The Constitution Party, which will field candidates in the upcoming general election, has ties to the far right and the militia movement. The Republican-controlled General Assembly disqualified three candidates, including one who would have challenged a member of the House leadership team.

When the Republican-controlled General Assembly approved legislation in 2017 to reduce the number of signatures needed to form a new political party, they likely saw an opportunity to put the far-left Green Party on the ballot and peel votes away from their Democratic rivals.

What they might not have anticipated was a far-right revolt using the same mechanism to field candidates through the Constitution Party, which selected nominees for a handful of state legislative offices, a congressional race, one county commission seat, and a sheriff’s office during its convention at a suburban church in Charlotte on June 16. The Constitution Party was recognized in late May by the state Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement after collecting about 16,000 signatures — far above the 11,925, or 0.25 percent of the electorate, now required.

While some Constitution Party activists have groused about the Republican leadership in Raleigh using “midnight bills” to force members to vote on legislation without reading it, their grievances mostly center on the national party. The GOP takeover of both houses of Congress and the White House after years of unfulfilled promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act set sewed the seeds of revolt.

“Failure to repeal Obamacare, failure to de-fund Planned Parenthood, have they secured our borders?” Pattie Curran said. “They said, ‘We need the House and the Senate,’ and we gave them the House and Senate. ‘We don’t have the presidency.’ We gave them the presidency. You get tired of the BS and lies. They’re a bunch of liberals, and they don’t really care. They’re not conservative.”

A Kernersville tea party activist, Curran unsuccessfully challenged US Rep. Virginia Foxx in the 2016 Republican primary. Earlier this year she collected signatures to help get the Constitution Party on the ballot in North Carolina.

The Constitution Party platform welds together extreme social-conservative positions, including opposing abortion even in cases of rape and incest, with a limited-government view that sees little role for the federal government beyond national defense. At the same time, the party advocates for strict controls on immigration, mirroring the hodgepodge of sometimes contradictory, ultra-conservative views that helped President Trump get elected. While immigration control is not listed among the party’s seven “essential core values,” a brochure devotes an entire panel to what the party terms “a peaceful invasion” of undocumented immigrants.

Philosophically, the Constitution Party shares common ground with the patriot militia movement. The party recruited from the Patriot Network Summit, a militia gathering that took place in April at Jomeokee Campground outside of Winston-Salem. Allen Poindexter, an unsuccessful Republican primary candidate in state House District 90, said he became interested in the Constitution Party after speaking with a member of the candidate affairs committee at the gathering.

The party’s disdain for federal authority was on display during an exchange between Dr. Joseph Guarino, the state party treasurer, and candidate Kevin Hayes, a computer-repair technician, during the nominating convention. Hayes, who is himself the party’s vice-chair, fielded questions from Guarino and other members of the candidate affairs committee.

“Let’s say the federal government or US Supreme Court makes a ruling that violates the sovereignty of the state,” Guarino said. “How would you handle that?”

“Honestly, I don’t think the state should recognize decisions that violate the Constitution,” said Hayes, who will challenge Republican incumbent Jimmy Dixon in House District 4, covering parts of Duplin and Wayne counties. One of the party’s core values holds that marriage by one man and one woman “should be encouraged by law.” The two party activists cited the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which overturned North Carolina’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, as a federal overreach.

Hayes said he would introduce legislation to nullify unconstitutional laws, adding, “Honestly, it comes to a point where we should just ignore the federal government when it intrudes into states’ rights.”

Michael Curtis, a constitutional scholar at Wake Forest Law School who received the Frank Porter Graham Award for his work to advance civil liberties, said Article VI of the US Constitution, known as the “supremacy clause,” grants the US Supreme Court the authority to interpret the meaning of federal statutes and the Constitution. Curtis said a state legislature could pass a statute declaring the Obergefell decision to be unconstitutional or even stating that marriage is restricted to one man and one woman, but it wouldn’t have the force of law.

“If they were to order magistrates not to perform gay marriages, then an injunction could be brought under federal law to order them to perform gay marriages,” Curtis said. “If the state refused, they could be held in contempt of court. That would be considered criminal contempt.”

One wild card in such a scenario might be a presidential pardon. Curtis cited President Trump’s pardon of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was held in contempt of court by a federal judge for violating the constitutional rights of immigrant detainees.

Curtis said nullification, a mechanism attempted by the state of South Carolina that prompted a showdown with President Andrew Jackson in the 1830s, holds no legal validity.

“The current law is absolutely clear: States can’t nullify federal law, period,” Curtis said, “as long as the federal law is constitutional and is considered constitutional by the US Supreme Court.” He noted that President Eisenhower sent in federal troops to enforce a federal court order to ensure that black students could attend Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. in 1957.

The states’ rights stance of the NC Constitution Party, not surprisingly, overlaps with a veneration of the Confederacy by some of its members. Pattie Curran and a friend have visited dozens of Confederate war memorials in North Carolina and Virginia over the past two years, as documented on a Confederate Memorial Tour Facebook page. Curran said she believes veneration for both the soldiers who fought for the South and their cause are in line with the party’s constitutional principles.

“The states absolutely have the right to secede,” she said. “It was a war of Northern aggression…. That’s the whole point of a republic: You enter into a contract; you can withdraw from a contract.

“We have to take power back from the federal government,” she added. “I’m not saying North Carolina should secede. We need to get rid of the [US] Department of Education, and give that power back to the states. Get rid of the of [Export-Import Bank of the United States]. Get rid of the Department of Homeland Security.”

While Curran is active in the campaign to preserve Confederate monuments — a focal point for white nationalists — Guarino has come under fire repeatedly for promoting anti-Semitic views on his blog, Triad Conservative. Posts attacking NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and NC Attorney General Josh Stein purport to explain what Guarino views as dishonorable conduct by the fact of the two men being Jews. In a September 2017 post entitled “Josh Stein’s Latest Ethno-Lawsuit,” Guarino wrote that by joining a multi-state lawsuit against President Trump’s immigration policies, Stein was “acting in accordance with the worldview and ethnic interests of his own particular group — i.e. those within contemporary Judaism.”

The post goes on to cite Kevin McDonald, an academic widely admired by white supremacists, in support of a slanderous argument that Jews are conspiring to demographically displace Christians.

“And thus we gain insight into the reasons Josh Stein is likely trying to protect Islamic immigration from terror-prone countries; and also why he is attempting to protect illegal Hispanic immigration,” Guarino wrote. “Those from within his own ethnic group want the Christian majority with roots in Western countries to be numerically diluted.”

While Guarino’s argument is grounded in religious identity, it echoes a slogan chanted by white nationalists at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville: “You will not replace us,” and a more pointed variant, “Jews will not replace us.”

The Carolina Plott Hound conservative news aggregator also came under fire for sharing Guarino’s post. The Civitas Institute, part of the influence apparatus funded by the conservative Pope family, cut ties with the Plott Hound in response. Civitas Institute President Francis De Luca wrote at the time: “Civitas condemns the use of identity politics and believes that assigning the motivations of individuals based upon their membership of a group violates a core conservative principle. As such, the sentiments expressed in the blog post do not reflect our values nor the values of our sponsors and supporters.”

Not all the candidates vetted by the party leadership during the nominating convention were as ideologically pure as Kevin Hayes. Sharon Hudson, an anti-toll road activist from Davidson, questioned the vetting committee on some of the party’s core values to discern whether she felt comfortable committing to them. While endorsing the party line that the Obergefell decision “was an infringement on our rights,” Hudson said she couldn’t commit to filing legislation to reinstate a ban on same-sex marriage and questioned what would happen to same-sex couples who are already married.

Hudson also expressed ambivalence about the party’s opposition to any law requiring gun registration.

“I can see the pros and cons,” she said. “Especially when we talk about a mental-health issue. Or what if someone has a gun for years and years and then they develop Alzheimer’s or they become indoctrinated by an ideology that makes them dangerous to others. But registration is not in the Constitution, and I think as a representative of the Constitution Party I should probably go by the Constitution.”

The party nominated Hudson in Senate District 41, where she will face Republican incumbent Jeff Tarte and Democrat Natasha Marcus.

The party nominated one candidate for Congress. David Fallin is running in the 7th Congressional District, where he will face Republican incumbent David Rouzer and Democrat Kyle Horton.

Stuart Collins, an elementary school music teacher with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, will challenge Democratic incumbent Jeff Jackson in Senate District 37. Other nominations include Mark Crowe in House District 42, which is currently represented by Democrat Marvin Lucas; and Peggy Lanier for the District 3 seat on the Pender County Commission.

The two chambers of the General Assembly, both under Republican control, approved a measure to prohibit candidates who previously ran in the primary from switching parties to run in the general election. The legislation, which became law with a House vote today, disqualifies three candidates nominated by the Constitution Party. Allen Poindexter, the party’s nominee in House District 90, previously ran in the Republican primary for that seat. Incumbent Sarah Stevens, who serves as the speaker pro tem, defeated Poindexter roughly two to one. Also disqualified were Jerry R. Jones, who previously ran as a Democrat for the District 3 seat on the Greene County Commission, and Greg Holt, who previously ran as a Republican for the District 1 seat on the Craven County Commission.

The party nominated one candidate for sheriff. Tony Keech told members of the vetting committee that if elected Beaufort County sheriff he wouldn’t hold undocumented immigrants in jail beyond the resolution of criminal charges “because I don’t want to be charged myself with kidnapping.”

And responding to a vaguely worded question from Dr. Guarino about how he would deal with an unconstitutional federal mandate, Keech said, “If you’re asking me if I’m going to get a militia together and go to war with the federal government, that’s probably not a good idea. If we have issues, I think we can sit down together and work them out.”

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