By Richard Sullins |

For the second time in a year, the Lee County Republican Party is expected to sanction Republican school board member Sandra Bowen for what it considers “party disloyalty.”

The GOP is scheduled to meet next week. The charge against Bowen is that she nominated Democratic school board member Jamey Laudate for vice chair in December. Bowen told The Rant she received notice of the charge just after the organizational meeting.

The Republican Party’s executive committee will consider its charge that Bowen violated its Plan of Organization at a closed door meeting. That plan defines disloyalty as “the action of any Republican inappropriately influencing the internal election of officials on public councils, boards and commissions to favor a non-Republican candidate running against a qualified Republican candidate.”

The plan continues that “these jurisdictions include the local school board, board of county commissioners, city council, town commission, and their subordinate organizations.”

If the Lee GOP decides Bowen’s nomination of Laudate was an act of party disloyalty, she could be banned from its Steele Street headquarters for five years, have any potential financial support of her re-election campaigns withheld for five years, and be removed from the party’s executive committee. These sanctions are the maximum penalties allowed by the plan.

Similar charges made last year

Bowen was sanctioned last year for a nearly identical charge of voting for a Democrat when a “qualified Republican” was on the ballot. At the time, the local GOP said her failure to support Republican school board members Sherry Lynn Womack and Pamela Sutton as school board officers in December 2021 constituted party disloyalty.

Additional charges were made against her for voting to an extend district Superintendent Dr. Andy Bryan’s contact for 30 months and allowing the board to hear from every person wanting to speak at a meeting dealing with publicity generated by Sherry Womack’s attendance at former President Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6, 2021.

In that instance, Bowen received an official censure by the Lee GOP, was denied any financial support through 2025, and banned from the party’s headquarters.

Lee GOP Chairman Jim Womack declined comment on the new charges, saying internal discipline matters are considered private affairs unless the subject of the discipline decides to speak publicly about the issue

Laudate’s nomination for vice chair took place as the school board met in December 2022 to administer the oath of office to three Republicans elected in November of that year – Eric Davidson, Chris Gaster, and Alan Rummel. The GOP trio defeated two incumbent Democrats – Christine Hilliard and Pat McCracken – along with Democratic challenger Walter Ferguson.

The three Republicans won by a margin of 3.25 percent and their victory represented a rightward shift for the school board. A Republican herself, Bowen had previously served as the board’s chair with the support of its four Democrats. The 2022 election had turned that dynamic on its ear.

As the December meeting began, Bowen nominated Davidson to serve as the new chairman. As a candidate, Davidson had attended most of the board meetings but rarely spoke during public comment segments.

Davidson declined Bowen’s nomination, saying he didn’t feel prepared for the responsibility because he had no experience as a board member. Gaster then nominated Sherry Womack for chair, and when no other nominations were offered, Bowen nominated herself. Womack was elected by a 4-3 margin, with Bowen, Kelly and Laudate voting against.

The act that led to the GOP’s latest action against Bowen happened immediately after the chairmanship vote. Rummel nominated Davidson for vice chair, which was followed by a nomination from Bowen for Democrat Jamey Laudate. The same 4-3 vote resulted, and Davidson was elected.

What’s at issue

The question hanging over everything is whether a public official should have personal freedom to vote their conscience or be bound to vote by the party line.

The charge against Bowen, and her response to it, can be broken down into just a few words: the leadership of the Lee GOP believes her first loyalty should be to the party and that their interests should come first. Bowen maintains, as she did last year, that her allegiance is to students and parents, and that she has a right to vote according to her own ethics and morality.

“It’s ridiculous that I am being publicly flogged for voting for a vice chair, but they can vote to break law with impunity,” Bowen told The Rant, referring to a vote at the school board’s February 14 meeting where she was the only member to abstain from an otherwise unanimous vote to adopt a school calendar for the 2023-24 school year that will violate existing state law.

There’s a stark difference between the approach the two major Lee County parties take with regards to the actions of candidates and elected officials. The Lee County Democratic Party doesn’t have its own plan, and subscribes to the state party’s plan, which doesn’t mention party disloyalty or discipline. The Lee GOP’s plan devotes five of its 21 pages to party discipline.

Bowen spoke her views on that question when responding to the Lee GOP last year.

“I ran for the Board of Education as a parent, not a politician. I will vote my own mind. I will speak what I feel is right. And what you do with that is your choice,” she said at the time. “I remain a proud American, a Christian, and a mother. My allegiance is to Christ alone, my first loyalty beyond him is to my family, and very far down that list is the political party.”

Not without precedent

The action against Bowen has another precedent in Lee GOP history. In 2019, Republican school board member Stephen Coble was reprimanded by his party for what it termed “party disloyalty” and “gross inefficiency.”

Coble was also dinged for his support for the extension of Bryan’s contract that year and “the unlawful award of a school architecture bid,” “his repeated votes in support of democrats (sic) running against nominated Republicans for Board Chair and Vice Chair,” Coble’s rejection of “unsolicited inputs” from local GOP leaders, and his alleged refusal to second motions made by fellow Republican school board members were cited in the party’s “indictment.”

Coble chose not to run for re-election after his term expired in 2020.

The end of the line

Lee GOP leadership has made its case against Bowen for the second time in less than 12 months, and she may not have their support, financial or otherwise, if she decides to run for re-election in 2024 or 2028.

After Bowen’s “trial” last year, she told The Rant despite the way she was treated by GOP leadership, she wouldn’t change her party affiliation. But with another charge of “party disloyalty” lodged against her, and with no end of similar actions in sight, she’s likely reached the end of her patience.

“I’m likely changing my registration,” she said. “I just can’t associate with such control and disrespect.”

And so Bowen may soon join the ranks of the largest politically designated group in Lee County – the unaffiliated.