A group of Republican precinct chairs gathered last week in the parking lot of the Galveston Central Appraisal District building in Texas City.
They had intended to meet in the building, but it was locked on the order of Galveston County Republican Party Chairman Carl Gustafson. So, the group met in the parking lot and voted to create a new bylaw forming a steering committee that would assume control of many party functions from Gustafson, one committee member said.
The committee, made up of elected precinct chairs, is empowered to prepare the party’s annual budget, appoint officers and subcommittee members and set the executive committee agenda, according to the newly created bylaw.
Gustafson, however, said he would not recognize the group’s vote.
“The meeting was called out-of-order,” Gustafson said. “I’m the duly elected chair of the Galveston County Republican Party.”
The steering committee, he said, is “nothing.”
Whether the vote will mean anything remains to be seen. Gustafson said he would refuse to recognize the action. But it signals a split in the county party between Gustafson and a group of precinct chairs who said they are unhappy with his leadership before the 2018 elections.
The exact cause of strife is unclear. Gustafson blames a group of “self-serving individuals” trying to grab power from within the party. His critics list grievances about the party’s public messages, say Gustafson does not communicate with other party leaders and that pre-election groundwork isn’t getting done fast enough.
Gustafson did ask county officials not to allow the group to use the appraisal district space under the party’s name. He said he was concerned over insurance issues that might arise from a group having an unapproved meeting in the party’s name.
But Janis Lowe, a precinct chair and member of the steering committee, said the group made concerted efforts to call a legal meeting.
“I worked really hard to let the meeting commence,” Lowe said. Because it was posted as being at the county building, she believed the meeting in the parking lot was proper, she said.
The parking lot meeting was attended by 26 precinct chairmen, according to meeting minutes obtained by The Daily News. All but one voted to create the committee, according to the minutes. There are 45 Republican precinct chairs in Galveston County, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.
The party’s bylaws allow an official meeting to be called if 25 percent of precinct chairs are present, Lowe said.
“We all have a responsibility and we all have a duty and we’re going to start doing that more than relying on someone not doing that,” Lowe said.
Gustafson, an engineer by trade, was elected to his position in December 2015 as an interim chairman, and was elected to a full two-year term in March 2016. He also is on the Friendswood City Council. His election came at a time when Republicans control almost all of the elected positions in the county.
Party grievances against Gustafson date back to before the 2016 presidential election, when the party’s executive committee, which includes all of its elected precinct chairs, voted to pay for billboards urging people to vote.
Some in the group wanted the billboards to feature then-candidate Donald Trump, and other conservative icons, one precinct chairman said. But what was ultimately purchased was a more staid, red, white and blue sign with the words “Vote Republican” and the party’s website address.
Other complaints followed. Precinct chairs voted in March to disapprove of a Clear Creek Independent School District bond proposal. The resolution called for the referendum to be postponed or for voters to reject it. In April, however, Gustafson was quoted in news reports downplaying that decision.
He was not, to some precinct chairs, sufficiently explaining the party’s vote.
Later, Gustafson stood in the way of a resolution calling for censure of Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus. It was similar to ones made in other counties by conservatives upset by Straus’ performance during the 2017 Legislative Session. Straus blocked several socially conservative pieces of legislation, such as a bill that attempted to regulate which public bathrooms transgender people could use.
The resolution to censure Straus, like the steering committee vote, was improperly taken, Gustafson said.
Gustafson defended the way he has communicated the county party’s position on political issues. There have been fights over messaging, he said. He had to work with Facebook to take control of the party’s official page, for example, and also created a new party website.
“My position is, and always has been, that the party web and social media presence should be upbeat and informational, not a source of negative and controversial communication,” Gustafson said. “Negativity does not inspire.”
But his critics said they see a lack of leadership.
“There’s no leadership in the party at all,” said Sandra Tetley, a precinct chair who was not among the group at the parking lot meeting. “There’s nothing happening; there’s nothing going on. He does just the minimal to get by.”
Gustafson and the precinct chairs contacted by The Daily News insisted the opposition against Gustafson didn’t indicate internal splits or blocs forming around local politics. The coming Republican primaries include multiple Republican candidates for county judge and for the District 23 state representative seat, among others.
Instead, Gustafson’s detractors said their move is over a lack of performance and communication before the elections and the party’s major fundraising events, which they said is being organized more slowly than in the past years.
“Those of us who are experienced precinct chairs are aware of the deadlines and timing and all the duties that we have,” Lowe said. “We just see the clock ticking and many of the duties and tasks need to be done, and they’re not getting done.”
Gustafson said that if the dissident group intends to replace him, they should work to vote him out during the March primary. He intends to run for a second term, he said.