Members of the Big Sky Tea Party Association strongly defended former president Tim Ravndal at the group’s meeting Tuesday night following what many called his unfair and hasty ejection from the group over a casual conversation on Facebook that appeared to treat violence against gays lightly.
At a frequently contentious meeting, many of the approximately 30 members in attendence blasted acting board chairman Roger Nummerdor and chairman Jim Walker — absent because he’s hunting in the Crazy Moutains — for stripping Ravndal of his position and membership without giving him a chance to defend himself, and for announcing the move to the press over the Labor Day weekend.
In the end, Nummerdor said the available board members would meet soon to consider reinstating Ravndal’s association membership, although he did not specify a date for that meeting.
Among the critics of the board decision was Kristi Allen-Gailushas, Republican nominee for a Helena-area House seat, who said she would resign her membership and her position of association secretary.
A statement issued over the weekend by Walker said a 4-0 vote of the board, with one abstention, approved Ravndal’s dismissal. But board member Tom Baird said he never participated in the vote, hearing only after the fact that a quorum and decision had been reached.
He called the move “a knee-jerk reaction that cannot be reversed.”
He abruptly left the meeting, saying he was resigning from the organization.
“My worry is that the association will turn tail and run in the opposite direction,” he said.
Board member Bobette Madonna abstained from that vote, but joined the group consensus that Ravndal could have been perhaps just reprimanded and removed from leadership, and that the complete ejection was too quick and harsh.
“What happened to Tim is cruel, it’s unnecessary,” said Madonna. “They’re making a fool of people who are responsible and decent.”
Board member Bob Conner cast one of the votes for Ravndal’s dismissal, but said he did so reluctantly and now favored reconsideration.
Several association members called for a new board, and several said they were quitting the group. Some questioned whether the group could survive.
Many said Ravndal’s comments were manipulated by liberal and gay-rights groups and the media, and most said the image problem was exacerbated by the quick board action.
Nummerdor said he was shocked to read what he saw as out-of-character words from Ravndal, and that he was swamped by calls from media around the country even before the group issued the statement that strongly condemned “overt bigotry.”
The association first took heat on Friday, when a reporter contacted Nummerdor about a Facebook conversation about gay marriage Ravndal began on July 23 . A commenter made a veiled reference to the 1998 murder and torture of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, which has remained a symbol of violence against gays.
In the conversation, another commenter — Dennis Scranton, who Ravndal identified as a tea party activist from Miles City — wrote in late August, “I think fruits are decorative. Hang up where they can be seen and appreciated. Call Wyoming for display instructions.”’
Ravndal then asked where he could get that instruction manual. Tuesday, he said that when he wrote that, he still had not made the connection to Shepard’s murder. Once he understood, he was shocked and deleted the thread.
“I hit the ‘Remove’ button so quick,” he said. “I was sickened to look at it.”
He described Shepard’s murder as indescribable and tragic.
“I wish my apology could have been directed to the family of Matthew,” he said.
He described Scranton as having “a deep hatred of homosexuals.”
But given what many association members described as media and special-interest attempts to paint the movement in a bad light, he understood being condemned by the group.
“Here’s where I’m really hurt,” he said. “Where you threw me under the bus was making a statement to the press that you threw me under the bus.”
He also said he has received more than 600 threats including death threats.
Nummerdor said the Shepard story occured to him as soon as he read about Wyoming and hanging fruits.
Ravndal also said the board threw Allen-Gailushas under the bus — and with her, the lawsuit filed Aug. 20 that seeks to block the proposed sex education curriculum in Helena public schools. Also, the group is busy with organization of a Sept. 18 rally at the state Capitol on the sex-ed issue.
Not discussed in the meeting was a statement she made on her own Facebook page a few days ago: “The Gay community wants a war….They’ve got one!!”
Nummerdor and others lamented the environment in which casual statements can be exploited nationwide quickly.
“It’s such a small comment, but it has big implications. And the implications will hurt us,” he said. “You know as well as I do they’re looking for a target.”