Will the North Carolina GOP Choose a Black Leader?

The departure of Republican State Chairman Tom Fetzer creates an opportunity for Timothy Johnson, an African American, to move up from the No. 2 position. His selection could signal the end of the Southern strategy.

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Just a few months after North Carolina Republican Chairman Tom Fetzer asked for the resignation of Michael Steele from the top post at the Republican National Committee, Fetzer is now tending his own resignation, effective in January. The reasons for his departure are less interesting than the issue of succession: Are local Republican organizations buying into the cultural-diversity movement within the party?

The No. 2 person in the North Carolina GOP is Timothy F. Johnson, best known as the founder of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, an organization that mirrors the Christian and Republican principles of its namesake. Johnson easily won the vice chair's position in 2009 with the support of dissatisfied Republicans and new-school conservatives (including the Tea Party crowd and young Republicans).

Despite the very tenuous relationship between Fetzer and Johnson, Johnson's influence has gone from local to national. His advocacy has led to the expansion of his foundation into a force that contributed to the emergence of more than 30 black Republican candidates for Congress in 2010 and two significant victories earlier this month. The organization's staunch pro-life position, its embrace of Christian identity and its ever expanding network within Republican circles nationally would suggest that Johnson should be a shoo-in for the job, giving North Carolina its first black GOP chairman ever and only the fourth at the state level in Republican history.

Yet despite a track record of pulling nontraditional resources together to break new ground for the Republicans in the age of Obama, Johnson faces obstacles in winning promotion to the No. 1 spot, possibly because of fears in the establishment Republican base that he has a propensity not to be controlled by the "powers that be."

Already there are reports that former Rep. Robin Hayes is a likely successor. Hayes is a good man, but given his loss to a weak candidate -- current Rep. Larry Kissell (D-N.C.) -- after years of incumbency, the question is whether Hayes is the best choice to deliver an effective and persuasive message to independents and the growing conservative base during the 2012 election cycle.

Hayes, a North Carolina businessman born to a family fortune, is the beneficiary of legacy money that could help him network during fundraising. However, arguments that Johnson could not do the same -- despite his growing prominence at the national level, his political influence and his presence in print, television and radio -- come not just from Hayes supporters. Instead, the doubts hark back to the oft-used code against black leaders in the GOP: They may be good cheerleaders and speakers on national issues for Republicans, but they do not have the ability or potential to raise the dollars necessary to qualify as true leaders in the party.

That rhetoric is akin politically to the argument in athletics that black quarterbacks are very gifted athletically but do not have the moxie to lead teams to Super Bowls (see Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams or the late Steve McNair), or that extremely gifted black NBA players do not possess the yeoman's work ethic to will a team to a championship (see Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant).

The American voting public -- obviously upset with how politics have played out over the past several years -- has made it perfectly clear: If they have a guy they believe in, they will work to overcome past financial shortfalls and perception issues to make victories happen in both primary and general elections.

The names being thrown about to counter Johnson would suggest that North Carolina Republicans don't see him as their type of guy. But that argument doesn't hold water once you remember that Johnson won the No. 2 position with 62 percent of the vote in a two-person race. So it appears that a question of political maturity has cropped up once again -- for black Republicans, for the legacy Republicans of the infamous Southern strategy, for the millennials and Gen Xers coming into the fold, and for the Tea Party's assortment of activists.

The North Carolina GOP statewide race means a lot more to local and state elections over the next two years than one would anticipate. If Johnson -- a man not from legacy money and clearly not the "legacy choice" of the GOP, but one who has garnered respect from all sides, including his political opponents in the Congressional Black Caucus -- wins the top post in a few weeks, it could signify an important change for the local and state brands of the Republican Party, perhaps one that Michael Steele couldn't make as the national chair.

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