The Dallas County Republican Party continued to pick up the pieces from another rough election cycle as it celebrated its largest annual fund-raiser last night at the Westin Park Central Hotel. The Reagan Day Dinner featured House Speaker Joe Straus and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who spoke to dozens of elected officials and more than 500 attendees.
Straus energized the crowd early by stressing that the GOP must keep state Democrats from being "over-stimulated by the money coming out of Washington." Sanford described the Republican Party as facing a "gut-check point," and he insisted upon the development of a philosophical approach for the GOP.
Sanford stayed away from specific policy issues and spoke at length about the current "tug-of-war" between liberty and government. He also mentioned Hurricane Katrina as "a wake-up call where we are as an American society," citing the "images of dependency."
Party chair Jonathan Neerman, who spent time with Sanford and other politicos in a private meeting after the dinner, says the potential presidential candidate is well-read, "really impressive" and more intellectual than he expected.
"He motivated people in the room, that's for sure," Neerman tells Unfair Park. "He's given so much thought to what the party has to do to win."
Neerman, who wasn't afraid to thank the Log Cabin Republicans during his time as emcee of the night's activities, says it's crucial for conservatives to realize that President Obama wasn't the only reason why the GOP was hammered in '08.
"To just leave it at that doorstep doesn't address the fracture that we have with the voters," he says. "Until we talk to the voters about the issues that they care about, then we're going to keep losing elections. That's going to require Republicans to talk about issues that unite people and not focus on divisive issues."
More importantly, Neerman says the Republican Party can't divide itself into those considered "real" Republicans and those who aren't. "If you call yourself a Republican, then we're going to include you."
Neerman refused comment on Congressman Pete Sessions's shady dealings and Mayor Tom Leppert's quest to take over the Dallas Independent School District, but he did offer his thoughts on the mayor's push for a publicly owned convention center hotel.
He claims conservatives are becoming more aware of the hotel issue in light of the stimulus package and bailouts, and he says they question the logic of taking on such a large capital project with the city facing a potential $100 million budget shortfall.
"Forget about the economics of the hotel as far as whether the city should invest in a hotel downtown when private people don't want to do it, the first step is if this is the right time to even get into this type of project," Neerman says. "Those are the kinds of questions I'm hearing from conservatives, and I think it's going to be a more vigorous debate than the Trinity River toll road was."
So what does he think about Leppert (who arrived at the dinner at 8:30 p.m. after his town hall meeting) moving forward with construction of the hotel in an attempt to render the May 9 referendum irrelevant?
"I haven't read enough about it to know," he says. "I'll give you my hot sports opinions once I get a little more educated about it."
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Neerman was using Twitter throughout the night, as were Carrollton City Council member Matthew Marchant and Cedar Hill City Council member Wade Emmert. Neerman also had political consultant Jeremy Bradford tweeting. (Bradford sat next to me and couldn't help but show off his Ronald Reagan cufflinks.)
"The good thing is you can get your message out in very short sound bytes to anyone in the world," Neerman says. "Candidates have to embrace any kind of technology they can to get their message out."
Emmert, a partner at Burford & Ryburn, L.L.P who handled the legal case for Linda Harper-Brown's key recount, is a rising star in the party and will likely be the choice as the GOP favorite in the race for county judge in 2010. Emmert wouldn't confirm his plans with us but says he'll know something in the coming months.
Neerman ended the night by saying an invitation was extended to the county's newest and now most prominent Republican, President George W. Bush, but his schedule prevented him from attending. After a standing ovation for the former president and wife Laura, Neerman said, "If you see them, thank them for their service and for keeping our country safe."