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.”