The Final ‘Redskins’ Defenders in Politics

Only for use with the Inner Loop article that sppears in the 7/19/2014 National Journal issue. An illustration depicting a politician waering a Washington Redskins helmet.
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Simon Van Zuylen Wood
July 18, 2014, 1 a.m.

Ben Trib­bett is feel­ing a little per­se­cuted. “I don’t ap­pre­ci­ate see­ing the one or­gan­iz­a­tion that brought this com­munity to­geth­er be­ing used now as a wedge to tear the com­munity apart,” says the 34-year-old Demo­crat­ic strategist, from his home in Fair­fax County, Vir­gin­ia. “And for those of us who were raised Red­skins fans, I don’t think we’ve ever done any­thing wrong.”

Un­til re­cently, Trib­bett, a maven of Vir­gin­ia polit­ics, was best known for his pop­u­lar blog and nom de Twit­ter, “Not Larry Sabato.” Last fall, however — as the move­ment to force the NFL team to aban­don its name was pick­ing up steam — he began to agit­ate more openly on so­cial me­dia in fa­vor of the monik­er.

Then, a month ago, Trib­bett shuttered his web­site and as­sumed a new role: He went to work for the team it­self, to help with its in­creas­ingly chal­len­ging PR ef­fort. But it didn’t take long for oth­er pun­dits to start at­tack­ing him. Trib­bett happened to be the man who — in his role as a Demo­crat­ic polit­ic­al op­er­at­ive — had years ago un­covered the in­fam­ous “macaca” video that doomed Sen. George Al­len of Vir­gin­ia. That fact led many to pro­nounce Trib­bett a gi­ant hy­po­crite for de­fend­ing the Red­skins. Mak­ing mat­ters worse, one web­site tracked down a hand­ful of off-col­or Nat­ive Amer­ic­an jokes Trib­bett had made on Twit­ter in 2010. Say­ing he didn’t want to be a “dis­trac­tion,” he resigned his post after just two weeks.

In the wake of the mini-scan­dal, Trib­bett re­mains un­bowed. When we spoke after his resig­na­tion, I asked him how he could re­con­cile his “macaca” past with his cur­rent stance on the Red­skins. He re­spon­ded that the premise of my ques­tion was wrong. “The ‘Red­skins’ is not an epi­thet,” he said. “The only people I’ve ever heard called ‘red­skins’ in my life are mem­bers of the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins.”

(Kris Con­nor/Getty Im­ages for Mi­crosoft)But there’s no ques­tion that, with­in the na­tion’s polit­ic­al class, all the mo­mentum seems to be against Trib­bett’s side. In May, 50 sen­at­ors signed an open let­ter ur­ging the Red­skins to ad­opt a new name. In June, the U.S. Pat­ent and Trade­mark Of­fice re­voked the team’s trade­mark, deem­ing it “derog­at­ory.” This past week, At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er joined the chor­us, as Barack Obama and Harry Re­id had be­fore him.

Of course, as polls sug­gest, there is a si­lent ma­jor­ity of Red­skins fans who might break out in­to mass re­volt should the name change. In the realm of polit­ics, however, those voices are now few and far between. If you fa­vor the name “and you’re at a Geor­getown cock­tail party talk­ing about this is­sue,” Trib­bett notes, “you prob­ably don’t really want to pipe up.” So I wondered: Who, oth­er than Trib­bett, are the last polit­ic­al types will­ing to speak out on be­half of the Red­skins name? And how, ex­actly, do they ex­plain them­selves?

THE POLIT­IC­AL WORLD’S most vis­ible de­fend­ers of the name can be found 100 miles south of Wash­ing­ton in Rich­mond — where the “Red­skins Pride Caucus” of the Vir­gin­ia Gen­er­al As­sembly claims more than 30 mem­bers. The group, which strives to sup­port the team’s “com­mer­cial free­dom,” was formed last month by three state le­gis­lat­ors who were pushed over the edge by the pat­ent of­fice’s trade­mark de­cision.

“Or­din­ary people I talk to are uni­formly in sup­port of the name,” says one founder of the caucus, Chap Petersen, a Demo­crat­ic state sen­at­or who gave Trib­bett his start in loc­al polit­ics. He and his fel­low co-chairs are in­dig­nant over the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s sud­den fo­cus on the is­sue. “This is equi­val­ent to liv­ing in a house for 60 years and some­body comes in and says, ‘I’m go­ing to take away your prop­erty, your land, be­cause I don’t like the style of the house,’ ” ar­gues Del. Dav­id Ra­madan, a Re­pub­lic­an who says he was a diehard Red­skins fan grow­ing up in Beirut. “This is a private Vir­gin­ia busi­ness that is now be­ing per­se­cuted by the trade­mark of­fice and 50 U.S. sen­at­ors who have noth­ing bet­ter to do.”

Mean­while, Ra­madan’s col­league, Re­pub­lic­an Del. Jack­son Miller, spe­cific­ally frames his ar­gu­ment around the Nat­ive Amer­ic­an plight. “Is Harry Re­id go­ing to go and say the ‘Apache’ heli­copter is of­fens­ive?” he says, pre­dict­ing that he would not. “From the same mil­it­ary that des­troyed the Apache Na­tion?” (Con­ser­vat­ive com­ment­at­or Dana Loesch, drop­ping an An­drew Jack­son ref­er­ence, made a sim­il­ar point on Twit­ter: “Demo­crats like to pre­tend Amer­ic­an In­di­ans don’t ex­ist ex­cept when they want photo ops or their land. Peri­od.”)

Be­sides Trib­bett and a few mem­bers of the Red­skins Pride Caucus, there is scant Demo­crat­ic sup­port for the name. All 50 sen­at­ors who co­signed the open let­ter op­pos­ing the name were Demo­crats (or left-lean­ing in­de­pend­ents). None of the U.S. sen­at­ors from Vir­gin­ia or Mary­land — Dems all — pub­licly fa­vors “Red­skins.” Nor, ap­par­ently, do any of their D.C.-area col­leagues in the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives — many of whom have already come out against it, and none of whom, as far as I could tell, have spoken out in fa­vor of it.

The most sig­ni­fic­ant Demo­crat­ic en­dorse­ment I could track down came from Vir­gin­ia Gov. Terry McAul­iffe, who told a loc­al ra­dio sta­tion, “You don’t want gov­ernors or oth­er gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials telling people what to do with a private-sec­tor busi­ness.” Either that, or the “present” vote D.C. coun­cil mem­ber Yvette Al­ex­an­der cast for an oth­er­wise un­an­im­ously passed res­ol­u­tion con­demning the name. Ex­plain­ing her vote, Al­ex­an­der told me by email, “It is up to Dan Snyder. Case closed.”

On the Re­pub­lic­an side, loc­al pols have been less shy. “The Red­skins should de­cide for them­selves what their name is,” Ken Cuc­cinelli, the man McAul­iffe de­feated last Novem­ber, told me in a state­ment. “If this is a real prob­lem, and not a D.C. man­u­fac­tured prob­lem, then fans will stop pur­chas­ing the team’s mer­chand­ise and their rev­en­ues will suf­fer.” Bill Bolling, Vir­gin­ia’s former lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor, chimed in too. “Hon­estly, no one I know of is of­fen­ded by the name Wash­ing­ton Red­skins,” he wrote in a state­ment. “Un­for­tu­nately we live in a day and time when some people are simply overly sens­it­ive to these sorts of things, and they think they can in­tim­id­ate people in­to chan­ging the name of the team if they com­plain long enough and loud enough.”

Fi­nally, there re­mains an­oth­er class of “Red­skins” de­fend­ers: the team’s paid PR con­sult­ants. In ad­di­tion to Trib­bett, Snyder has at one time or an­oth­er hired Belt­way vet­er­ans Lanny Dav­is, Ari Fleis­cher, and Frank Luntz to de­fend the team’s pub­lic im­age. Dav­is, whose of­fice says he is no longer speak­ing about the is­sue “in any ca­pa­city,” ten­ded to base his ar­gu­ments around polling data. Luntz, who re­fused to con­firm wheth­er he was still be­ing paid by the team, told me, fa­cetiously, “The name should be re­placed. They should be­come the Wash­ing­ton Smurfs. And then each week play­ers can come on in Smurf cos­tumes.” Later, he ad­ded, “I’m fed up with re­spond­ing if one per­son is in­sul­ted about any­thing. Every­body else has to change what they think, what they say, or what they do.”

If there was an un­der­cur­rent I found to the vari­ous pro-Red­skins ar­gu­ments cir­cu­lat­ing in the polit­ic­al arena, it was pre­cisely this re­vul­sion at al­leged hair-trig­ger sens­it­iv­ity — which has now, it seems, in­vaded even the foot­ball sta­di­um, a last refuge of openly boor­ish be­ha­vi­or. And that, in turn, brings us to per­haps the most fam­ous polit­ic­al sup­port­er of the Red­skins name: a man who has nev­er shown any fear of wind­ing up on the wrong side of his­tory. “Like, where do we go with this?” Toronto May­or Rob Ford told a D.C. sports ra­dio show last Decem­ber, amid his crack-re­lated trav­ails. “How long have the Skins had their name for? How long have the Chiefs had their name for? How long have the Clev­e­land In­di­ans had their name for? Years and years and years, and all of a sud­den the polit­ic­ally cor­rect people have to come out now?” He con­cluded, “I think everything’s fine, and I’d just stick with the name.”

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