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The Mini-Trump Blowing Up Local GOP Politics

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STRONGSVILLE, Ohio—One evening earlier this month, on the grass of the commons outside the police station and the chambers of the city council here, a couple hundred people gathered with “Thin Blue Line” flags mounted on thick plywood posts for an event they wanted to serve as a show of political force.

On hand to back the local cops while fending off what they see as looming leftist enemies, the speakers who took the stage included two city councilmen, the Republican state representative, a onetime Cleveland police union boss and Fox News-prominent former Milwaukee County sheriff David Clarke — but the obvious emcee of the occasion was an operative with gelled-down hair and a gap-toothed grin.

Shannon Burns, the president of the Strongsville GOP, slid behind the microphone and delivered a puckish prompt. “Anyone ever heard of us backing down from a fight?”

“No!” the crowd shouted back.

Many of the attendees had paid $40 for a flag to stand in a public space to decry a scarcely discernible controversy. The happening went on for roughly an hour before some of them shifted inside to chambers to lecture their elected officials about “so-called,” “self-appointed” “social justice activists.” The episode wasn’t some natural groundswell. It was a coordinated effort that has become quite common lately in this town of 45,000.

Triggered by former President Donald Trump’s rise but even more by his (electoral) demise, Burns has stoked a steady boil of outrage — organizing more than a dozen events around culture-war wedge issues like masks and vaccines to critical race theory and “defund the police.” No issue, though, has been a bigger, more visceral animator for Burns and the members of the Strongsville GOP than what they considered the heresy of Anthony Gonzalez — their congressman who was one of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in the aftermath of the Capitol insurrection earlier this year. Relentlessly modeling Trump-style politics — politics as entertainment, politics as business, politics as personal and perpetual combat — Burns zeroed in on Gonzalez, censuring him, hounding him for his “betrayal” and calling on him to “RESIGN.”

Throughout 2021, Burns has transformed the local Republican party in this suburban corner of northeast Ohio, making a local partisan group less local and more partisan. He has dispensed with much of the staid standard fare and even the pedestrian goals of a traditional place-based Republican club like actually electing Republicans. Instead, he has presented what can feel like almost non-stop programming — movie nights, gun range nights, grandiose political summits with right-wing A-list-ish guests. In fact, Burns no longer is even running a local Republican club — because the Strongsville GOP at this point is legally the Better Ohio PAC, a political action committee Burns started just nine days after Gonzalez’s fateful vote. I’ve been here five times since April, and each time I have left more convinced that what Burns is up to is emblematic of the nationalization of our grassroots political life: the apocalyptic pitch, the hostile, conspiratorial talk, the obliteration of any semblance of a lull between elections. Being around Burns and his minions this spring, summer and fall began to feel to me very much like an on-the-ground, scale-model glimpse at the building of a bridge from Trump 2020 to the impending possibility of Trump 2024.

And this month was peak proof.

Over the course of a week and a half, in this red suburban corner of Democratic Cuyahoga County, Burns went from the “Back the Blue Rally” ($40 a flag) to the Strongsville GOP clambake that went for $76 a head to the news last Thursday night that Gonzalez was not going to run for re-election. Gonzalez made national news with his retreat, the first of the 10 Republican impeachment supporters to quit in the face of Trump-driven outrage. Locally, though, his pullout had its own meaning: It sharply underscored the extent to which Burns has become the head of a field office of Trump, and a vehicle for the former president’s unrelenting efforts to exact revenge. Because if Gonzalez’s announcement was a win for Trump and for his chosen primary challenger — the favored former aide Max Miller — it was a triumph, too, for Burns.

In terms of sheer publicity, this registers as a highwater mark in his life in and around politics. But with publicity comes scrutiny. Burns, 46, a mostly middling Republican consultant and now a state central committeeman, is plainly an able and energetic schmoozer. He’s also, though, a slipshod businessman at best — and perhaps something worse as well, according to reams of county, state and federal records, which show evictions, bankruptcies, hundreds of thousands of dollars of back taxes and more than two dozen lawsuits filed against Burns and his companies. “A shyster,” one of the plaintiffs said when we talked this month. “A flimflam artist,” said another. “Scammin’ Shannon,” Ralph King, a longtime conservative activist in the area, told me. “You got the red and you got the blue, but Shannon’s ‘conservatism’ is green,” King said. “Who can put it in his scamming little pocket?” Even this, though, the fact that Burns is doing what he’s doing right now in spite of a documented litany of misconduct, is nothing if not evocative of a former president who transformed the landscape by (among of course many other things) trafficking in controversy, weaponizing his own scandals and simply plowing brazen-faced and full steam ahead.

On the Strongsville commons, Burns took to the mic — to upsell a topic that had been confined for the most part to the public-comment piece of a single meeting of the city council.

“There’s this group that put together this fake report about our police, and this fake report is trying to use some statistics that say that our police are racist,” he said, referring to Indivisible Strongsville and its request that the city council look into racial disparities of the people the police pull over. Burns paused. The crowd knew the cue. Boo! “And then they also want the ‘Thin Blue Line’ flag in headquarters to be taken down because they think that’s a racist symbol.” Boo! “Know what we said? We said, ‘Hell no,’” Burns said. “Hell no!” hollered the crowd. Before he was done, he called for the ousters of the two female members of the seven-person city council, painting them as sympathetic to Indivisible, which Burns, buzzing with buzzwords, called “gutless” and “Marxist” and “tied to George Soros.” It was a Tuesday in Middle America, and this was a miniature Trump rally.

“There’s something unique about Shannon,” Josh Mandel, arguably the most pro-Trump candidate in Ohio’s sprawling, Trump-torqued Senate primary, told me recently. “I think President Trump inspired them to become active,” Mandel said of the members of Strongsville GOP, “and I think Shannon has done a terrific job of keeping them active.”

“The fringe groups, and I wouldn’t even call them fringe groups, these are people that are just fed up, but Shannon has taken it one step further,” said a praising Jim Renacci, the 16th district congressman before Gonzalez who is now running for governor in an intraparty fight against Mike DeWine. “Shannon’s capitalizing on a couple of things,” he added, noting the anti-Joe Biden, anti-Covid-cautious-DeWine, anti-mask, anti-vaccine and anti-Gonzalez grassroots rage.

“He is an opportunist,” Doug Deeken, the GOP chair of nearby Wayne County, said when I called to talk about Burns. “And when do farmers make hay? They make hay when the sun shines. The sun is shining right now in Strongsville, and Shannon’s making hay.”

The night of the Gonzalez news, Burns crowed that the Strongsville GOP was “the tip of the spear.” The next morning, I found Burns in a “celebratory” spirit.

“It’s definitely a great day,” he said. “There’s no other way to frame it.”


© Politico

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