Charlie Harper: I’m Still A (Uncomfortable) Republican

Charlie Harper

Tuesday, July 19th, 2016

Like most Georgia families in the middle of the last century my family was made up of Democrats.  It’s OK. I still love them.  But when Bo Calloway won the election for Governor in 1966 (three years before I arrived on the scene) my Grandmother pronounced the change.   

Why is that?  Because her House district went for Bo Callaway, but her State Rep voted for segregationist Lester Maddox when the election was decided in the General Assembly.   It was at that moment that my family’s allegiance joined the party of Lincoln.

I was raised in a family that was barely middle class.  I was told from a young age that if I wanted something I would have to earn it.  Our safety net was primarily our family and our church, and we had a responsibility for these institutions to be a safety net for others.  

We supported our military and our law enforcement officers.  We paid the taxes we owed but also understood that every dollar we paid wasn’t a dollar available for food on our table, payment for the family mortgage, or investment for retirement. 

We believed in and supported our local public school system.  Our teachers became like family during the 12 years I and my sisters attended Fayette County Public Schools.  Heck, even our bus drivers were well known members of the community and welcome in our home any time. 

In my 2nd grade class I was picked to be Gerald Ford in my class’ mock debate.  It wasn’t exactly popular to be going against the home grown candidacy of Jimmy Carter.   I was routed.  

In 6th grade I got a rematch.  I got to be Ronald Reagan.  I won that election. 

My family members and close friends worked for and volunteered on campaigns for Newt Gingrich (it took three times to get him to Congress) and for Ronald Reagan.  In 1988 I got to vote for the first time, and I proudly voted for George H. W. Bush.   

In 1995 my dad decided to run for tax commissioner of Fayette County.  That got me involved in my county party, and I eventually became the party’s first vice chair.  It also exposed me to the world of being a “campaign operative”, though all my activities were still that of a high level volunteer.  I worked on Dole for President and John Mitnick’s campaign against Cynthia McKinney in that cycle, in addition to Dad’s primary.   

Dad didn’t win the primary.  Mitnick nor Dole won in November.  But I stayed involved, and kept working campaigns.

Then I became a real Republican.  I started a business that went really well for 8 years.  Problem was I was in it for 10.  Profit isn’t what makes you understand capitalism.  Failure is.  But the ability to bounce back and rebuild is when you understand both the mercy and grace granted by our creator and the hope and promise of the American Dream.

It was at the beginning of the rebuilding phase that I began to write.  The rest has been a very successful accident.  

The almost decade between starting and losing the business wasn’t one filled with politics.  And when I came back as a writer, I noticed things had changed. 

The “Contract for America” had become the K-Street Project. The “Reject Hillary Care and let us fix it” became….silence on any substantive healthcare reform. Fiscal Responsibility became “deficits don’t matter”.

And in 2006 and again in 2008, Voters told the GOP “Enough”.  A lot of our own left the party or sat out the election. The result was four years of Speaker Pelosi, and eight years of Barack Obama.

This week our GOP leaders are meeting in Cleveland. Barring a major surprise, they will nominate Donald Trump for President of the United States.  Many Republicans – myself included – are not happy with him being the face and voice of the Party of Lincoln.  I’ve written much about him during the primary.  His nomination doesn’t change any of those concerns. 

The reaction of many of my friends is to paraphrase Reagan saying “I didn’t leave the Republican party. The Republican party left me.”  I’m not leaving the GOP. The GOP needs people who find Trump offensive now more than ever. 

Trump is attempting to redefine conservatism as populism. With the Democrats hurtling toward a full embrace of socialism, an adoption of populism means the two main party infrastructures of our country would be working against free market solutions.

Now is not the time to turn the party over to those who would turn to protectionism out of fear, rather than work harder for economic models that promote prosperity for all.  Now is not the time to abandon the GOP to those who used thinly veiled bigotry or xenophobia at a time our country needs to be united more than ever.

Now is a time to lean in to our party, recognizing our faults and finding like minded people with a strong spine who are willing to help fix them.

Republicans are at a turning point. The 2016 election cycle will likely be a stain upon the history of the Party of Lincoln.  

The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago.  The second best time is today.  Republicans not happy with the untethered nature of our message and underlying principles need to double down, starting now.  This, regardless who you ultimately vote for – or don’t vote for – at the top of the ticket.

Charlie Harper is the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, a public policy think tank focused on issues of Business & Economic Development, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation. He’s also the publisher of, a website dedicated to State & Local politics of Georgia.