Tony Campbell is a unique character attached to a stranger-than-fiction cause.
A Republican, he worked in the early 90’s for two Democratic members of Congress from Pennsylvania: Ron Klink (who’s no longer in office) and Mike Doyle.
“Growing up in western Pennsylvania, I always heard there were no Republicans, only Democrats and conservative Democrats,” Tony explained.
Tony has also run for office, first as a Republican candidate for Congress in Maryland’s 7th District, and then as the Republican candidate for Baltimore City Council President. He won the nomination in the latter race, but neither election.
He was an advance press representative for President Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns and once served as a special assistant to the chief of staff of the Social Security Administration during Bush’s tenure.
Today, Tony is an adjunct professor of political science at Towson University and is working on a masters of divinity through Liberty University, a school founded by the late Jerry Falwell.
Tony is also press officer for an organization known as “Republicans for Obama” (RFO). The group was started in December 2006, before Obama officially announced his candidacy, to help encourage him to make a run for the White House. Since then, the all-volunteer RFO has morphed into a grassroots effort to disseminate information on why Republicans should support the Senator. The group — active members of which number around a thousand — operates with no funding and no coordination or official relationship with the Obama campaign.
So, how does a Republican and former Bush booster like Tony end up working with an organization that is supporting a Democratic Senator’s bid for the White House?
“Obama is more conservative than the media sometimes express,” Tony said when we talked Thursday afternoon, March 6. “Obama co-sponsored the federal funding and transparency act with (Republican) Senators Coburn and McCain. He co-sponsored the nuclear non-proliferation bill with (Republican) Senator Lugar. He was also a co-sponsor of a Senate immigration bill that would have cracked down on employers using illegal labor and helped secure our borders.”
“Granted, on certain things, I don’t agree with him,” Tony added. “For instance, I’m pro-life; he’s not. But he is pro-abstinence, which I applaud. Plus, he displays a level of common sense that the other candidates seem to be lacking.”
OK. That’s all well and good. But there are those who doubt Obama’s centrist credentials, much less his conservative credentials, including the editors of The Economist, who recently wrote:
[Sen. Obama] wants to improve America’s international reputation yet campaigns against NAFTA. He trumpets ‘the audacity of hope’ yet proposes more government intervention. He might have chosen to use his silver tongue to address America’s problems in imaginative ways—for example, by making the case for reforming the distorting tax code. Instead, he wants to throw money at social problems and slap more taxes on the rich, and he is using his oratorical powers to prey on people’s fears.
Mr. Obama advertises himself as something fresh, hopeful and new. But on economic matters at least he, like Mrs. Clinton, has begun to look a rather ordinary old-style Democrat.
“I can only speak to what I know,” Tony said. “And I know, for instance, that the Senator supports permanent R&D tax credits for businesses. He talks about middle-class tax relief; when’s the last time you heard a Democrat talk about any kind of tax relief? Again, I think he expresses a decent amount of common sense, and I think he would be wise enough to listen to the other side. Don’t forget, we supposedly had a fiscally conservative Republican in office for the last eight years, yet the deficit is through the roof.”
But what about John McCain? I reminded Tony that McCain favors balanced budgets and you probably won’t find a tougher warrior against earmarks or waste. McCain has also been reasonable on a number of issues, displaying a fair amount of “common sense” on subjects like the environment and immigration. Why would reasonable, common-sense Republicans vote for Obama rather than McCain?
“Maybe because McCain’s been around for so long,” Tony said. “He’s been around as long as Dick Cheney has. Once you get into that system, Washington, it’s hard to get out of it. Maybe it’s unfair. I know McCain is getting it from both sides. Moderates say he’s too much a part of the establishment, while conservatives say he’s too much of a maverick. Honestly, if it was any other year, I’d probably vote for McCain. But this year is different. Neither McCain nor Clinton nor Obama have had to pick up the red phone, or negotiate treaties, or work with OMB on establishing a budget. None of the three have been there. But Obama wins my vote, in part, because he brings a fresh perspective, he has a clean slate, not to mention the nominal good will of the rest of the world.”
I then asked if Obama’s handling of the press, contrasted with McCain’s, told us anything worthwhile about the candidates. After that rumor-filled New York Times story was published, McCain held a press conference. He gave a short opening statement and then took questions. He answered them all, and when the reporters were done, he asked several times if there were any more questions before he left the podium. Contrast that with Obama, who impatiently left a room after pointed queries about NAFTA-gate and Rezko and essentially scolded the gathered journalists for expecting him to answer more.
Tony admitted he didn’t know enough about the particulars of the Obama press conference to comment on it. “Maybe there was something involved there that would explain how Obama handled it,” he said. “I don’t know. Maybe Sen. McCain just has more experience dealing with the press. But that’s not necessarily a sign he’d be better in the White House.”
In wrapping up, I had to ask Tony about the reaction he has received from other Republicans who have not yet made the leap into Obama’s camp. I explained that I had been active in the past with moderate Republican groups, namely the Republican Leadership Council – and that when I suggested, earlier this year, my interest in possibly voting for Obama, I received an earful of borderline outrage, with peers asking me how I could abandon the party, especially now, when a candidate like McCain is vying for the presidency. So I wanted to know: Does Tony get his fair share of similar grief?
“I get it from both ends of the (political) spectrum,” he responded. “Last Thursday (Feb. 28), I was on Air America. The host accused us of being nothing but a Trojan horse, concerned with nothing but trying to beat Hillary. Two hours later, I was on Laura Ingraham’s show, where I was told I wasn’t a real Republican.”
I interrupted: “So what you’d say when Ingraham said that?”
“I told her she was the one who wasn’t a Republican, that she and others like her had given up the core of the party with this cultural/socialism kick they’ve been on; making personal decisions about people’s private lives, from the FCC’s ruling on Howard Stern to Congressional intrusion in the Terri Schiavo case. All she could say at that point was that I must be liberal because I teach at a university. But people like Laura Ingraham have basically paid for their houses and cars by feeding on the fear and division of the American people. Partisanship is not the end-all, be-all of our existence. Obama, at least, seems to recognize that.”
He certainly claims he does, I thought, after the interview – and we’ll find out in due time if he really does. Until then, this much seems indisputable: RFO and people like Tony are two signs among many that we are living through a very unique couple of years in American history – a period when “up is down” and “left is right,” and the “real threat” to a candidate like McCain may not be the ire of the Rush Limbaugh crowd, after all, but (as Dr. Alan Abramowitz has suggested) the walk-out temptation of the moderates in the GOP.
In short, if you haven’t already, buckle up. Though we’ve been at it for more than a year now, I have a feeling the truly interesting parts of this ride are still in front of us.