Cycle after electoral cycle, activists pine for candidates who will stand on principle and do the right thing regardless of political consequence. Cycle after cycle, candidates claim they will meet that challenge and take bold action to serve their constituents. Cycle after cycle, voters remain disappointed by bland performances delivering lack-luster results.
Perhaps we get what we deserve. Perhaps we only say that we want bold statesman who will do the right thing without regard to their next election. Perhaps we actually reward bland performance while punishing aggressive leadership.
A case study presents in Wright County, where activist-turned-legislator David Fitzsimmons serves Minnesota House District 30B. This Saturday, Fitzsimmons will seek his party’s endorsement in the face of three challengers hoping to wrest it from him.
Two years ago, Fitzsimmons was a shoe-in for endorsement and handily defended a primary challenge before earning his freshman term. His victory seemed predestined, given the conservative leanings of his district and a well-earned reputation for effective activism on behalf of his party and its candidates.
Fitzsimmons’ resumé could be summed up in a word – builder. Former chair of the Republican Party of Wright County. Former chair of Congressional District 6 Republicans. Tom Emmer for Governor campaign manager. Michele Bachmann for President state director. Founding chair of the Republican Liberty Caucus. Mentor to activists who in turn mentored others.
Coming up through the Tea Party, I learned the ropes from candidates and activists who owed their political education to Fitzsimmons. His name became synonymous with expertise, hard work, and discernment. He blazed a trail of credibility which up-and-coming activists were able to follow into the Republican Party, growing its ranks and sharpening its conscience.
Given that reputation, Fitzsimmons could have coasted through his freshman term by keeping his head down. He could have cast votes precisely as expected and sailed into a second term with a minimum of fuss. Indeed, if being a state representative or otherwise advancing a political career were David Fitzsimmons’ goal, he could have painted-by-numbers and bided time in public office for untold years to come.
But that’s not who David is. He didn’t go to Saint Paul to be something. He went there to do something. When the opportunity to make a difference presented itself, he seized it at great risk to his political future.
Fitzsimmons opposes gay marriage. He has not moved from that position. When he saw the bill which would recognize same-sex unions as marriage in Minnesota placed on the 2013 legislative calendar, he realized the Democrats in complete control of state government had the votes they needed to pass it. At that point, he perceived a choice. He could keep his head down and vote no on final passage, performing as expected and winning accolades for conservative resilience while accomplishing precisely nothing. Or, he could act to protect religious liberty to the extent possible under the law. He chose the latter.
In consultation with Republican legal experts, Fitzsimmons crafted an amendment which limited the state’s domain to civil marriage and protected religious institutions and clergy from being forced to perform same-sex weddings or recognize same-sex unions as sacred. Democrats consented to the amendment. However, Fitzsimmons knew that his amendment could be stripped out of the final bill unless he sat on the conference committee which would reconcile the House and Senate versions. To ensure his place on that committee, he would have to vote for final passage.
Surely, he understood the political fallout which would occur in Wright County – likely the most conservative political district in the state – if he voted yes on final passage. He also understood that voting yes was the only way to ensure some protection of his constituents’ religious liberty.
As the vote for final passage took place, Fitzsimmons watched the vote totals to make sure his would not decide the question. Only once it was certain that the bill would pass did Fitzsimmons cast his vote for final passage, securing his place on the conference committee to preserve his amendment.
Since then, the foremost challenger seeking to wrest the GOP endorsement from Fitzsimmons – Eric Lucero – has engaged in a scorched earth campaign to drag Fitzsimmons’ name through the mud. Speaking to caucus attendees earlier this month, Lucero implied that Fitzsimmons lied about his position on gay marriage and worked covertly to ensure its passage. Parroting rhetoric from policy organizations which cling to fleeting relevance after losing two back-to-back campaigns on the marriage issue, Lucero has claimed that Fitzsimmons’ amendment “provided cover for conservative Democrats,” as if there were not otherwise enough votes to pass the bill.
To believe that, we must believe that the Democrats would place a landmark piece of legislation on the House calendar without knowing they could pass it. We must also believe that Fitzsimmons not only changed his position on marriage, but shifted so dramatically that he was willing to conspire with Democrats at the expense of his political future. Absurd as these notions are, they represent only the tip of Lucero’s iceberg of demagoguery.
Lucero has also attacked Fitzsimmons on the basis of campaign finance reporting which shows Fitzsimmons received contributions from liberal donors and organizations. While pacing the floor at the Albertville caucus I convened, Lucero highlighted a Fitzsimmons donor who had also given to the campaign of Barack Obama. Conspicuously missing from Lucero’s recitation was the fact that Fitzsimmons gave those funds away to elect Republicans in 2014.
Fitzsimmons transferred $2,500 to the Congressional District 6 Republicans, $5,000 to the Republican Party of Wright County, and $17,600 to the House Republican Campaign Committee. That is a total of $25,100. All three of these organizations exist to elect Republicans. Much if not most of this money will aid the Republican recapture of the State House. Fitzsimmons was left with $15.46 in his campaign’s account. The joke is on liberals who blindly contributed, and on Lucero for clumsily highlighting Fitzsimmons’ commitment to the party.
Yet Lucero retains the audacity to suggest that Fitzsimmons has “demoralized” Republicans. Lucero claims that Fitzsimmons’ vote will keep Republicans home if he remains on the ballot in November. Home seems to be where Lucero has been while Fitzsimmons has been working to elect Tom Emmer to Congress, mentor activists throughout the party, and fund campaigns in swing districts. Indeed, Lucero has only ever been seen by the Republican Party of Wright County committee on which I sit while campaigning on his own behalf against Fitzsimmons, not attending fundraisers, not marching in parades, and not contributing dollars or time to other campaigns.
This is why we can’t have nice things. David Fitzsimmons has actually done what we always claim to want from our elected officials. He has placed the interests of constituents ahead of political expediency. Delegates attending the Wright County convention this Saturday will choose whether to reward that with endorsement to a second term, or punish it in favor of paint-by-numbers conservative protest.
Make no mistake. Other candidates and incumbents are watching and will adjust their behavior accordingly. If we want elected Republicans willing to fight for our rights even when doing so proves hard, we need to signal such by sanctioning that behavior. If we want elected Republicans who will remain scared of their own shadows and seek the path of least resistance to re-election… Well, we have that choice too.
Update – A trusted activist in a neighboring district vouches for Lucero’s activism there.