An angry email arrived Wednesday from a reader who didn’t like what I wrote about the Republican Party’s nasty habit of seeking racists and bigots as candidates for political office.
“Obviously, you’re a Democrat,” the email read. “No other party would have you!”
Sorry, the e-mailer got it wrong. I do not belong to any political party because, as an individual, cannot allow anyone to dictate what I must believe in or promote. Political party? I don’t need no stinkin’ political parties.
I cast my first votes in any election in America 49 years ago, at age 21, which was the “legal voting age” then. The government later lowered the minimum voting age to 18, correcting a long-overdue slight at a time when the average age of those dying in the Vietnam war was 19.
As a newspaperman who started his career for The Floyd Press while in high school and became a full-time reporter for The Roanoke Times at age 17, I made a vow that I would never register to vote as a member of any political party. I publicly declared myself as a “political agnostic.”
When I voted, my ballot sometimes went to a Democrat or to a Republican or a Libertarian or sometimes an independent. I voted for the person, not the party. Never have, never will.
When I took a sabbatical from newspaper in 1981 to become press secretary to then Congressman Paul Findley of Illinois, he didn’t ask me if I was a member of his party. I worked for two other Republicans members of Congress and two Presidents during my dozen years as a political aide but did not register as a member of the GOP and often voted for independents or write-in candidates.
They paid me well for my services, not my support for their, or any other, causes.
I’ve never signed a petition for any candidate for office or for any political or philosophical cause. As a newspaperman, I have felt over the years that doing so might show a bias for one candidate or cause over another.
Search financial disclosure databases for candidates or parties and you will not find my name in any. Amy, my partner and wife for the past 39 years, does support causes and candidates. That is her choice and I support her right to make it.
A major reason I walked away from the lucrative life as a political operative was the increasing control of the GOP by right-wing extremists who are racist and bigoted. I could not be part of the homophobia and bigotry that dominates the party and its causes.
As a child living in Prince Edward County, where the racist school board and Ku Klux Klan-controlled board of supervisors shut down the public schools to defy a federal court order to integrate, I saw the ugly faces of racism and bigotry up close.
A desire to expose that hatred and intolerance led me to decide, at age 11, to become a newspaperman because my first published photograph showed a Klan meeting in that county and my first article described living as a young man among that hatred.
When someone claims that my attitude towards racism makes me “a Democrat” or “a lib,” I have to laugh. Racism exists in both political parties. Former Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia was a recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan when elected to Congress in 1953. He served as “Exalted Cyclops” of his Klan chapter and wrote: “The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia.”
Byrd remained in the Senate until 2010.
Racism exists all around us. A pickup truck in Floyd County parades a large Confederate flag from its bed and a racist bumper sticker. The owner of that truck is not alone here in Southwestern Virginia. I still hear racial slurs uttered in public places.
Hating racism does not make me a Democrat. It does, however, make me an American because the America I know and love cannot stand tall as long as racists, bigots and haters exist in our midst.