Uphill Battle for New Young Republican Leader

Jillian Bandes
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Posted: Aug 24, 2009 12:01 AM
Uphill Battle for New Young Republican Leader

The election of Audra Shay to chairwoman of the Young Republican National Federation in July shined a national spotlight on what is typically a quiet, biannual occurrence for an organization that purports to represent a key GOP constituency. What was widely perceived as Shay’s overt racism attracted unprecedented attention to the YRNF, provoking multitudinous questions about Shay’s suitability for the top job and the nature of the 10,000-member-strong organization.

“Audra Shay and The New Ice Age of the Young Republicans,” read one Huffington Post headline, shortly after the July convention in Indianapolis. “Recent events have made one wonder about the future of the Young Republicans on the national level,” led a story in the New Conservativist. “Young Republican Leader Audra Shay Is Crazy, Illiterate, Racist,” read Gawker.

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After two months, it’s difficult to assess how well Shay, or the YRNF, is fighting back is because Shay has largely remained in the shadows, apparently conducting meetings and avoiding the heated issues that plagued her election. The fervor over the initial charges of racism have lessened, but have certainly not gone away entirely – a quick news search for “Audra Shay” in the past month brings up three hits, all relating to Audra’s alleged racism. None mention anything she has been doing in her new position.

Massive GOP town hall protests have flooded the news, but it’s not really clear what hand, if any, the YRNF has in these – or even how the group feels about them. The YRNF’s website has essentially gone untouched, its Twitter account is all but dormant, and if there have been any political efforts made by the group or its chairwoman, they have not been publicized. Critics say they were hoping for much more out of their new leader and their organization, and that much more is needed to restore the public image and integrity of the largest GOP youth organization in the country.

Brandon Davis, who Shay claims is her communications director, though he says his official title is YRNF communications committee chairman, says Shay is simply doing what she needs to do.

“She’s spending a lot of time trying to have conference calls, and put an organization in place, and delegate responsibilities,” said Davis. “There's a lot of infrastructure type things that needed to be done.”

Davis is seemingly nonplussed by the explosive nature of the Shay-racism fallout, calling it “blown out of proportion,” and the product of “two campaigns…fighting hard.”

“More importantly, it is a lesson of how all these web pages and all this kind of stuff can sometimes cause damage,” he said.

But damage control is what’s being brought into question at this point.

“I've heard she's been "meeting" with people, but the proof’s in the pudding,” said a YRNF member familiar with the transition. “It took them a month to update the website to even reflect that she was now chair. For someone who called this race done months ago you'd have thought she'd have done better.”

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Shay issued a statement after the allegations of racism first came out that explained the situation in detail.

“An individual posted two comments on my Facebook Wall, the first comment arguing against big government and the second filled with racially charged comments. I responded supporting the individual’s first post,” she said. “I was not aware of the racial comments until sometime later…[then] I immediately deleted the derogatory and outright disgusting comments and subsequently posted a statement on my Facebook Status stating that in no way, shape or form are the comments posted by other individuals a reflection of me or my beliefs."

Shay then attributed the attention paid to the entire ordeal to nothing more than political manipulation.

“It is a disgrace that these types of political attacks are taking place and once again, it proves that my opponents will stoop to the lowest levels to steal this election from the jaws of victory,” she said.

This assertion was brought into question because Shay “de-friended” two individuals who had posted on her wall condemning the original racist comments, as well as Shay’s allegedly racist reaction. That de-friending happened a few minutes after the comments were posted.

Shay also de-friended the individual who had posted the original racist comments. While it’s not clear specifically when that happened, eight hours later the individual posted on her wall again, meaning that he had not been de-friended at least eight hours later.

In a statement, Davis did not address that eight-hour discrepancy, merely saying that all parties had been condemned.

“As the Facebook issues arose Chairman Shay found her political opponents and supporters of her opponents engaging in the politics of personal destruction as they directly called her a racist, which she clearly is not, and began attacking her personally. Because of this, her first action was to de-friend those who were engaging in this practice of personal attacks on her. After this she also de-friended the author of the original comments,” he said.

Critics say the case against Shay was buttressed by additional comments that were unearthed by a Daily Beast reporter John Avlon, which they say is evidence for why her intentions were less than innocent. During the 2008 Presidential election, Shay responded to an effigy of Sarah Palin being hung as a Halloween decoration, saying:

“What no Obama in a noose? Come on now, its just freedom of speech, no one in Atlanta would take that wrong! Lol,” she wrote.

The next day, Shay apparently attempted to clarify those remarks.

“Apparently I could not spell last night. I am wondering if the guys with the Palin noose would care if we had a bunch of homosexuals in a noose,” she wrote.

Davis had an explanation for this comment, as well.

“I believe that specific comment – the noose comment, as people referred to it – she tried to convey something and didn’t convey it right,” he said. “Anybody in a noose should be a bad thing, not just one person or another.”

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Despite the dramatic beginnings of Shay’s tenure, it seems as though those who are involved in the organization want nothing more than to move on. Cassie Wallender, a national committeewoman from the Washington Young Republican Federation was one of the two individuals who were de-friended by Shay for calling out the original racist remarks on Shay’s Facebook wall, and Shay’s allegedly racist response. Wallender simply wishes the entire thing would be put behind the organization.

“It's unfortunate that this happened,” said Wallender. “Many supporting her within the YRNF gave her the benefit of the doubt, and her campaign survived despite the Facebook debacle.”

Wallander says that YRNF has been “misrepresented as a racist community,” and that “what happened with Facebook was a wake up call” to the organization – it needs to set a better course for itself.

According to Wallander, Shay has made efforts to right her name.

“During Audra Shay's first session leading the National Committee, she brought forward an anti-discrimination provision,” she said. “To me, this is a philosophical embrace of conservative principles that empower the individual.”

The anti-discrimination provision that Shay approved post-election is something Davis said Shay had wanted to do for quite some time. That, coupled with Shay’s history – which includes an African-American outreach campaign and board members who are African American – leads Davis to the conclusion that Shay will be able to move past these allegations. The organization will shed these misperceptions as well, he said.

“Republicans are not racist,” said Davis. “I think we get that a lot.”

Sean Conner, the D.C. Young Republican Chairman who supported Shay’s opponent, Rachel Hoff, had a more nuanced take.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a problem with race,” he said. “I just think some at the YRNF don’t fully grasp how some of their actions can be viewed by communities of color. In regards to Republican Party as a whole, we haven’t done the best job at communicating how our values reflect the interests of communities of color.”

Hoff herself thinks there is more work to be done.

“I think America has a problem with race – Republicans and Democrats together are still figuring out how to reconcile our racially troubled past with our core principle of equality and our vision of a better future, in a present when we have the first Black president of the United States and the first Black chairman of the Republican Party. In the last year we’ve seen history be made, and unfortunately we’ve also seen a few notable examples of racial discord along with it,” she said.