Meet Linda Lee Tarver, a ‘passionate activist’ for the Michigan GOP

Head of Republican Women’s Federation of Michigan plans to push GOP majority in 2018

LANSING – Linda Lee Tarver knows she’s a “unicorn” in her Republican Party.

A black woman in a party that earned less than a tenth of the black vote in the last presidential election. A civil rights activist in a party criticized by its opponents for endorsing policies unfriendly to women and persons of color. Resident of a city that gave less than a quarter of its vote to the GOP standard-bearer in 2016.

She’s also a public employee in a party whose standard-bearer often accuses civil servants of being part of the “deep state.” Tarver is director of community affairs and election integrity liaison in the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office. Michigan’s Civil Service Rules allow state employees to be politically active, and a Secretary of State spokesman said Tarver’s activism doesn’t conflict with her work.

Tarver, a 53-year-old Lansing woman, has done her homework. Met the candidates. Examined the issues. And she believes the Republican platform is the one that’s best for women, for persons of color, for civil rights, for urban areas.

“You’d be surprised how many people identify themselves as Democrat or Republican and have never read their party’s platform to know which one they align with more,” Tarver said in a recent interview. “I read the Democratic platform and I read the Republican platform and I realized that I was a Republican.”

Not just a Republican, but a President Donald Trump supporter. A Bill Schuette endorser. And a tireless advocate for the cause.

“Linda Lee is a hardworking, dedicated and passionate Republican activist,” Schuette, the Michigan attorney general and a Republican candidate for governor, said in an email to the State Journal. “She is upfront and direct with her desire to open doors to all and is working to broaden our party with her authentic style.”

Tarver, president of the Republican Women’s Federation of Michigan, expects to be very busy in 2018.

This year, as Michiganders cast ballots for a slew of federal, state and local offices, Trump — who won Michigan by a razor-thin margin in 2016 — is sure to be on their minds. They’ll look at the president’s first two years in office and decide if they want his Republican Party to maintain the control they currently enjoy of all three branches of both the state and federal government.

Tarver plans to do all she can this year to tell Michiganders why they should keep that majority, and to tell Republicans how they can reach Michiganders they aren’t.

“I do translate the issues of black folks to Republican candidates who need to understand, ‘Here’s what’s going on,'” Tarver said. “It is incumbent upon me to talk to people whose ear I do have.”

‘Eeny, meeny, miny, moe’ 

Tarver’s parents were Republican because they were born in an early 20th Century South controlled by Democrats who fought civil rights reform.

But, growing up — the youngest of 10 children in a conservative, Christian home — Tarver said she didn’t know what she was, politically.  She voted, mostly out of a sense of civic duty, but, “I rarely knew anyone on my ballot,” she said. She picked names more or less at random.

Then, about 20 years ago, she started listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio and decided she wanted to get involved. Though many of her liberal friends told her not to go, that’s when she decided to attend an Ingham County Republicans meeting.

“I went thinking I would see all white men with cigars — rich, stuck up, you know, just kind of not welcoming,” she said. “There were other black Republicans there, and I was shocked. This was nothing that I expected, and I was glad that I was welcomed in.”

Shortly after, she ran as a precinct delegate. She started attending meetings and speeches and forums, and became a full-throttle politico. She remembers clearly the first time she had the chance to personally meet each of the candidates on her ballot.

“That was a big deal to me,” she said. “I went from eeny, meeny, miny, moe … to actually knowing the people, the issues and what they stood for, and whether they were good people or not.”

‘Cut from a different cloth’ 

Not long ago, Tarver attended a Lansing meeting of Black Lives Matter, an advocacy group formed to protest police violence against persons of color, especially black men.

Tarver said she wasn’t exactly shunned, but she was looked at with skepticism.

“I think people think that I am cut from a different cloth or I am exempt from the issues because I am a Republican,” she said.

But Tarver is a woman of color. Appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, she just ended a four-year term on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. Her family has been struck by violence —  two of her cousins and a niece were murdered in big cities, she said.

“I’m not exempt from issues dealing with black folks,” she said. “I think African Americans do themselves a disservice by leaning toward one party and not shaking things up.”

Republican policies promote fairness, family, and “social order,” such as strong police, that would do more for black Americans than Democrats have, she said.

“You might think the social justice issues have a great meaning,” she added, “but … if you don’t have safety, you’re not going to have justice. Because you’re not going to live long enough to see it.”

Schuette said Tarver “practices addition rather than subtraction,” and Tarver said she feels a responsibility to advocate the Republican Party to the black community and women, and vice-versa.

“I’m cognizant of the fact that I do break stereotypes, and I’m mindful of the fact that I have to be even more careful with respect to my ambassadorship to the Republican Party, and it is a great pressure on me,” she said. “It’s a southern thing, maybe, but, ‘Don’t shame the family.’ I feel that way about the Republican Party.”

Tarver predicts that 2018 — the centennial of women’s suffrage in Michigan — will be a good year for female politicians, and especially women of color.

‘Worth fighting for’

Voter apathy is rampant in America. The Pew Research Center says only about 56% of Americans old enough to vote actually cast a ballot in the 2016 presidential contest, among the lowest voting-age turnout of developed democracies.

Much of that has to do with Americans’ growing distaste for their elected leaders and the stiff hyper-partisanship in Congress, in statehouses, on television news.

But Tarver said dropping out of politics does nothing to make things better.

“I have learned, more than anything, that it’s worth fighting for,” she said. “If I’m not in the fight, life will still go on, politics will still go on and policies will still be passed and Congress will go on fighting. I don’t want to be out of it, because there’s too much at stake.”

At stake, she said, are the lives of Lansingites, Michiganders and Americans who are affected by policies and platforms, not TV tiffs or tweetstorms.

“It’s not about your personality. It’s not about your persona. It’s not about your tweets,” Tarver said of candidates. “It’s not about anything like that, because if you wear the R behind your name, you’re supposed to move the platform forward, and we’re going to hold you to that.”