As hard as it is to be a black Republican in Georgia, Qiana Keith was no late-comer.
In 2010, with the general election only a week away, the Gainesville volunteer posted a photo of herself with former congressman Nathan Deal, then seeking his first term as governor.
“While Nathan may not need the black vote to win, he sure needs it to govern,” she wrote. Her Facebook friends were not kind. One questioned how she could vote for a man who had uttered the phrase “ghetto grandmothers” in front of a north Georgia crowd.
Even then, Keith had been a Republican volunteer for several years, drawn into the orbit of radio talk show host Martha Zoller. Keith volunteered, and served as an occasional driver, in Zoller’s unsuccessful GOP bid for Congress in 2012.
So several months later, when newly elected state GOP chairman John Padgett of Athens was looking for someone to work the front office and serve as his personal aide, Zoller recommended Keith.
“I did suggest her,” the WGAU (1340AM) radio personality said this week. With her endorsement, Zoller also passed on some information that Keith had been upfront about: In 2002, Keith had pleaded guilty to car theft, a felony, in Montana.
But she had remade herself, graduating from the University of Georgia, and so fit well with a new Republican effort to reach out to Hispanics and African-Americans.
Except the fit wasn’t so great.
Less than a year later, Keith was fired. The Georgia GOP’s attorney said she was sacked for “poor job performance.” In a federal lawsuit filed last week, Keith said she was canned after she had complained of a racially hostile work environment.
Following a spat over parking spaces, a supervisor had ordered her to use one at the back of the lot. A white aide was chosen to accompany Padgett to events. Her Montana conviction became the stuff of office gossip.
Worse, Keith said she overheard the party’s accounting director refer to her with plantation-era language: “Don’t worry about her. She is just the house (racial epithet).”
The stories told by each side are far enough apart to say that someone isn’t being truthful. But we are many years and many, many depositions away from determining who that might be.
Suspicious Republicans are already noting that Keith’s attorney, Kim Worth, also represented Stacey Kalberman, the top staffer of the state ethics commission, who said she had been sacked for opening an investigation into Deal’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign for governor. A Fulton County jury recently awarded Kalberman $1.15 million in compensation and attorney fees.
Nonetheless, the Keith lawsuit poses immediate, short-term dangers for the Georgia GOP.
Fundraising for the party could take a hit if donors think their cash might be destined to become part of a jury award.
More importantly, the lawsuit undermines significant steps Republicans have taken to prove that they aren’t just a political rest home for aging whites.
That earth-moving equipment across from the state Capitol, for instance – creating a park likely to bear the name of Martin Luther King Jr.
“Nobody wants to be talking about this now. We’re trying to get Republicans elected,” said Ashley Bell, an African-American Republican and former Hall County commissioner. He has known Keith for years.
But over the long term, regardless of what might someday happen in a federal courtroom, the lawsuit makes one thing exceedingly clear: In the 50 years since they were the multi-racial party in Georgia, Republicans have become rusty when dealing with the nitty-gritty issues of building a racial alliance.
You saw it last month in Mississippi, in tea-party protests over U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran’s decision to recruit African-American Democrats into his Republican runoff.
The Keith lawsuit shares a certain cluelessness with a 2011 settlement that was finally disclosed last week. That settlement went to a 61-year-old, African-American secretary for a pair of state GOP senators. She says she was abruptly dismissed after being told she wasn’t the face they wanted to greet their voters. The hushed-up payout was $80,500.
One of the senators was Barry Loudermilk of Cassville, now in a congressional runoff against Bob Barr.
If even half accurate, the Keith lawsuit shows that the Georgia GOP has none of the standard protocols in place that you would see in most businesses – specifically designed to defuse racial dust-ups before they become lawsuits.
You can argue over whether an organization that is color-blind by philosophy should concede that point in its own workplace.
But here’s something that’s more difficult to ignore: If you hire an African-American woman to be the face of your front office, to walk by your white chairman’s side at public gatherings, then you are making a statement. A worthy statement.
That very act also puts you under an obligation to make sure that your statement succeeds – and doesn’t blow up in your face