Kenyon: The fight for control of the Windsor County GOP

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 03-15-2024 5:17 PM

A gang of gung-ho Republican election deniers got their day in Vermont Superior Court last week. But it wasn’t the outcome of the 2020 presidential election that has these Windsor County partisans in a tizzy.

They’re riled up about the Windsor County GOP election last October that installed John MacGovern as the political organization’s volunteer chairman. They maintain that MacGovern’s election was “invalid” because the group’s bylaws weren’t followed to the T.

“The election in October was not appropriate and therefore null and void,” argued the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Deborah Bucknam, a former vice chairwoman of the state party and Republican nominee for attorney general in 2016.

In her court filing, Bucknam wrote that MacGovern and August Murray, of Weathersfield, were “elected together by unanimous consent” as chairman and vice chairman, respectively. The vote, however, violated Windsor County GOP rules, which state “election for each position shall take place separately,” she added.

MacGovern argues it’s all just a smokescreen. He says the real reason his opponents want him out is that he’s not “Trumpian” enough. MacGovern aligns himself with Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who didn’t vote for Trump in 2020 and endorsed challenger Nikki Haley ahead of her victory in the Vermont GOP primary earlier this month.

MacGovern, 71, has been active in state and county GOP politics since moving to Windsor more than 20 years ago. But his opponents considered him a Republican in Name Only, or RHINO, for short, he said.

On Thursday, Judge H. Dickson Corbett listened patiently for almost two hours to the Windsor County GOP’s version of Lord of the Flies. But Corbett only needed to deliberate with Assistant Judge David Singer for 15 minutes before issuing a denial of his own.

Corbett rejected the five plaintiffs’ motion for a temporary restraining order to block MacGovern from going forward with a county GOP meeting that he has scheduled for Saturday in Windsor. At the meeting, he plans to hold another election for all county positions, including chair.

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“The Trump people have made it impossible for us to do our jobs,” MacGovern told me.

In the big picture, the squabbling is much ado about nothing. Windsor County’s legislative delegation is controlled by Democrats, and has been for years. That’s not expected to change in November.

So why write about the GOP soap opera?

On top of Thursday’s lengthy hearing being a waste of court time at taxpayers expense, it’s helpful to keep in mind what Tip O’Neill used to say: “All politics is local.”

At a Jan. 6 meeting — the third anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol — about 40 Windsor Republicans gathered at Martin Memorial Hall in Ascutney to stage their own election.

Lynn Baldwin, of Ludlow, was voted in unanimously as chairwoman. Murray was picked to be vice chairman. (Alleging the Oct. 18 vote was “improper,” a do-over was needed, Bucknam said.)

Vermont GOP Chairman Paul Dame refused to “recognize the results” of the Jan. 6 election, Murray testified.

The Murrays and Baldwin, along with Earl and Peggy Dionne were the plaintiffs in Thursday’s civil action against MacGovern and Dame.

Murray and his wife, Andrea, who is listed as a GOP “state committeewoman” in court filings, have led the effort to oust MacGovern. The couple moved to Weathersfield in 2020, after he retired from the Army.

August Murray ran for Weathersfield Selectboard in 2022, losing by four votes. Last September, he was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board.

At this month’s 2024 Town Meeting, Murray ran again. He received only 35% of the vote in losing to Rika Henderson, who has served on the governing boards of the town’s library and historical society.

I emailed Murray to get his take on the Selectboard election results, but I didn’t hear back.

I also asked a Weathersfield resident who follows local politics about why Murray fared so poorly against Henderson.

“In a nutshell, Rika has built her political support from the bottom up; the approach of the Murrays seems more that of MAGA interlopers trying to wrest the reins of power from an already fairly tired Vermont GOP,” the resident wrote back.

At a Windsor County GOP meeting in December, Murray was carrying around a red “Make America Great Again” baseball cap with his name embroidered on the bill. He told me it was a gift.

Murray, who also serves on the state GOP executive committee, testified that about a month after the Oct. 18 organizational meeting, he reviewed a recording of the meeting. That’s when he learned the vote was “taken out of order in violation of (Windsor County GOP) bylaws.”

In his ruling, Corbett pointed out the Vermont GOP had certified MacGovern’s election after the October vote and also passed a resolution in February, recognizing MacGovern as county chairman.

“We tried to resolve this as amicably as possible,” Dame testified.

MacGovern told the judge that he won’t be running for chairman on Saturday. “All I’m trying to do is get out of this mess,” he said.

In the end, Corbett sided with MacGovern and Dame, who represented themselves at the hearing. In deciding that it was unnecessary in this case for the judicial system to “get involved in a political party dispute,” the judge made the right call.

In a phone interview after the hearing, MacGovern said that he’s been talking with like-minded Republicans about fielding legislative candidates in this year’s GOP primary to oppose “intolerant MAGA types who are unelectable in Vermont.”

Lord of the Flies, Part II.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.