County Commission Chairman Frank Meeker has had a rough few weeks. His mother died on March 12. He was at her funeral in Georgia on March 26. In the interim he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He spent Good Friday under the knife, upwards of six hours, and has been recovering since. “I feel like a gutted fish right now,” he said today from home.
For all that, the Flagler County Republican Executive Committee, where Meeker served—and has served for years—as a state committeeman, found a special way to share its best wishes: it booted him out. The committee didn’t know about the cancer or the surgery yet, but it knew about the funeral: Meeker ad written REC Chairwoman Anne-Marie Shaffer to get an excused absence. She didn’t reply. Instead, as the Observer’s Jonathan Simmons first reported, she implemented a rule that allows the group to expel a member for a third consecutive unexcused absence.
The assembly voted 49-3 to boot out Meeker.
The vote may not be legal: Meeker is an elected state committeeman. “RPF tells me I’m still a member of that committee, because I contacted them and asked,” he said in an interview this morning, referring to the Republican Party of Florida. And the move has yet to be ratified by RPF Chairman Blaise Ingoglia. Meeker doubts he will, and he intends to attend the next executive committee meeting. “I’ll go and see if they want to throw me out,” he said.
The Meeker putsch is the latest rattle of intramural Republican Party politics in Flagler County, where the more moderate, more establishment wing of the party, represented by the likes of Meeker, Gail Wadsworth—the clerk of court and former head of the local Republican club—and Dave Sullivan, the former chairman of the executive committee, have all been pushed out by members of the Ronald Reagan Republican Assemblies the insurgent, radical-right group that also took over the local tea party (and made old tea party adherents look moderate in comparison).
Much of the in-fighting isn’t relevant to voters or public issues at large. As David Ayres, host of Free For All Friday, the WNZF public affairs show, put it this morning, “It sounds so goofy, the whole thing, and toxic. It’s too bad, it’s embarrassing, really.” He also described the Reagan group as “a kind of a renegade bunch that doesn’t represent the real Republicans of this county for sure,” and their tactics a “trashy type of thing.” (Meeker and Wadsworth were guests on the show.)
But Meeker’s membership in the executive committee does have relevance to issues beyond the group, because as the chairman of the county commission and a state committeeman, he interacts a lot with the Republican power structure at the state capitol at quarterly meetings of the state Republican party. The interaction opens doors. It help him lobby for money to support county initiatives such as drainage in the Hammock, the Plantation Bay utility or the Agriculture Museum. It was that sort of interaction that helped grease the enactment of a Flagler-inspired law that returned regulation of short-term vacation rentals to the counties, after the state had abrogated that role in 2011.
Booting out Meeker from the executive committee, in other words, signals the local REC’s intention to put its own, parochial or clubbish concerns, which have often resembled the machinations of social clubs rather than political organizations, ahead of county interests. (Aside from Shaffer, the executive committee is made up of Andrew Shrivell, Joe Kubaski, Burt Cordwell, and Kim Olson.)
Meeker isn’t without faults in the equation. He did have two previously unexcused absences. The first one was to attend a state association of counties meeting in Gainesville, where, ironically, ethics training was also provided (the current majority membership of the local REC has had a tenuous relationship with ethics). The second one was to attend a Palm Coast Republican Club meeting where the county’s economic development director was speaking. That meeting conflicted with an REC meeting. Meeker didn’t ask to be excused from either meetings, thinking he’d make the next one. He didn’t: he was supposed to be in Tallahassee when the matter of his mother’s death came up.
“I wasn’t going to miss my mother’s funeral, not to attend a one-hour meeting with the Republican Executive Committee,” Meeker said this morning. “So, I don’t know. I think they might have stubbed their tow on this one.”
In a Facebook message to the Observer, Shaffer said Meeker had not been a member in good standing anyway, and that regardless of his mother’s death, “he had no intentions of every being at the March 26th meeting.” Meeker had missed meetings before, when Sullivan was chairman, but never had difficulties getting excused. But the Sullivan era is over, as are the eras of local Republican club other than the REC: in mid-February, Shaffer abolished the Flagler County Republican Club and the Republican Club of Palm Coast.
For all the infighting, Republicans are not at all in bad shape in Flagler County, where they control the greater majority of elected offices, albeit most of those are from the traditional wing of the party. Only Steven Nobile on the council and Janet McDonald on the school board represent the Reagan group. Democrats have just two seats on the county commission, the Palm Coast City Council and the school board, and hold just one constitutional office—the sheriff’s. The supervisor of elections’ office used to be held by a Democrat until Kimberle Weeks resigned. The current supervisor, Kaiti Lenhart, is a Republican.