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Wednesday, 12 April 2006 00:00

Armor – Eclectic to the nth degree: Highlands Republican wants to pry loose Taylors’ grip on 11th District

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When CNN chose John Armor’s web blog as the political site of the day several years ago, coining him an “intellectual redneck” in the process, Armor accepted the tagline proudly.

From his home in Highlands, Armor posts satire columns on the Internet by an invented character, “The (More er Less) Honorable Billybob Congressman” from Western North Carolina. It’s one of many outlets for Armor’s political commentary and humor that floods the journals and digital newsletters of numerous national think tanks, an unwieldy profession that pits Armor as a watchdog of the liberal media one day and a Supreme Court analyst the next.

This year, Armor finally brought Billy Bob to life, but it’s not satire this time. Armor is challenging U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, R-Brevard, in the May primary. It’s the first taste of competition Taylor’s had from his own party in years.

But not so fast.

Armor’s a registered Republican, but framing him in a tidy package for voters is quite likely impossible. Sometimes he’s so far right, he’s left. And even when his conclusion matches the Republican rhetoric, how he got there can be an altogether different story. Armor’s favorite tie offers an alarmingly accurate glimpse into what drives him.

“These are my clients,” Armor said, holding out his red tie covered in scrawling signatures of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. “I’ve worked for them for 40 years. They’ve never paid me a dime, but I’ve spent thousands and thousand of hours in their company reading every word they ever wrote.”

Armor doesn’t discriminate, however, and tackles any literature on the founding fathers’ era with fervor.

“Have you read 1776? It’s tough slogging, but my God the man is a fine researcher,” Armor said.

Armor would have fit in well in the bars of Boston debating America’s strategy for telling off the King of England, or on the floor of Philadelphia’s Constitution Hall arguing for state’s rights. If he was born then, instead of stuck here now running a long-shot campaign against Taylor, he would have sided with the handful of naysayers who thought the Constitution gave the federal government too much power and was cooked up in secret proceedings, like delegate Robert Yates of New York, who eventually walked out of the Philadelphia convention never to come back.

“The issues the anti-federalists raised more than two centuries ago are coming to fruition now,” Armor said. It’s not, however, campaign fodder that resonates with the masses in 2006.

“It is a philosophical and legal issue as far as I’m concerned, yes, but most people who are going to be voting don’t give a rat’s ass about that,” Armor said.

Armor is flush with musings that would resonate little with voters. Take Armor’s theory on those annoying outlaw judges Republicans are always complaining about. Congress can simply strip the judges’ power — a suggestion that hardly seemed plausible given the way most Americans believe in the whole balance of powers.

“It’s right there in Article 3,” Armor insisted. “I’ll get a copy of the Constitution. I keep it handy.”

Armor balanced his cigarette on an ashtray, rose from his rocking chair and wove his way down the glassed-in porch that wraps around his house, dodging piles of books and papers on discombobulated end tables, one topped with an empty paint can and another with a can of wasp and hornet spray. He forced open a door into the house and stepped over a small table piled with a clutter of books and a small pruning saw.

Returning with a pocket-sized Constitution, Armor flipped it open and pointed to Article 3: “The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.”

If Congress “may” ordain federal courts, it also “may not” ordain them.

“Congress can say, ‘You can’t take this issue. You can’t take that issue.’ Congress could say ‘Hands off the Boy Scouts, hands off homosexual marriage,’” Armor said. “You’re talking to a trained Constitutional lawyer — children don’t try this at home.”

 

Finding his place

Armor moved to Highlands 10 years ago after inheriting a home purchased by his grandparents in the 1920s and used as a reprieve from the Birmingham summers.

Armor is separated from his wife, who moved to Samoa to manage a restaurant last year. It didn’t sound stimulating enough for Armor, so he declined to follow. Instead, he lives alone — except for his three cats — at the end of a half-mile gravel road. No houses are visible from his, except as distant pock marks on the mountainside below, but it’s enough to keep him entertained.

“These hills are littered with people who are retired corporate presidents and senior partners in law firms,” Armor said. “There are a lot of very interesting people here.”

Armor’s historic white farmhouse is heated solely with wood. As a bonus, Armor painted dozens of plastic kitty litter jugs black, filled them with water and lined them around perimeter of his glassed-in porch. While unattractive, the black jugs absorb the sun’s rays and heat the water like miniature solar radiators.

Armor gave up his life in D.C. political and legal circles but revisits it frequently. Armor’s top legal client, the American Civil Rights Union — the antithesis of the American Civil Liberties Union — continued to call on Armor for casework once he moved to Highlands. One of the most notable was the lawsuit between Al Gore and George Bush over the Florida recount in the 2000 election.

When the Florida Supreme Court voted 7 to 0 to delay election results and allow for a prolonged ballot recount, Bush appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sequestered in the upstairs office at his remote Highlands home, Armor climbed into the mindset of the Supreme Court justices.

“It’s what Einstein calls thought experiments. You don’t have any apparatus, you just pose questions in your mind,” Armor said.

He theorized the justices most likely wanted out — a way to neither overturn nor validate the Florida court’s ruling. He suggested the Supreme Court simply strike the lower court’s ruling from the record.

“It’s the same as a teacher saying, ‘I’m not even going to grade this paper. Rewrite it,’” Armor said.

Out of 14 briefs filed in the case, Armor’s was the only one who argued from that premise.

“What did the Supreme Court do? It struck the Florida Supreme Court decision from the record,” Armor said proudly.

The Florida justices failed to get the message, however. In a “do-over” vote, only three changed their ruling. It was 4 to 3, still in favor of Gore. The case went back to the Supreme Court, which was forced to weigh in after all.

If the tables were turned — if Gore had won by a hair and Bush was the one seeking an excruciating recount of hanging chads — Armor insisted his position would have been the same.

 

A non-traditional Republican

Armor’s views are clearly in the conservative corner, but rarely align with party line thinking. For example, Armor doesn’t like Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, but was a long-time backer of Connecticut Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman — until Lieberman wouldn’t vote for Clinton’s impeachment.

When Armor registered to vote at 18, he registered Republican in the footsteps of his parents. When the Republican governor of Maryland, where Armor grew up, was convicted of taking bribes, he switched his affiliation to Democrat. In short order, the Democratic governor of Maryland was also convicted of taking bribes. So Armor switched to Independent, where he stayed for nearly 30 years.

Armor spent a decade of his life fighting for the rights of third party candidates. His first case as an attorney was a civil rights challenge to Maryland election law that was prohibitive toward third party candidates.

It didn’t go so well that time, but a few years later, Armor became the legal strategist behind a national campaign to get a third party presidential candidate on the 1976 ballot. The candidate was Eugene McCarthy — a liberal, anti-war, pro-labor Democrat from Congress turned Independent. Armor developed the argument and recruited volunteer attorneys to file the suit in their respective states. One case landed on the doorstep of the Supreme Court, which validated a lower court ruling in team’s favor.

In 1980, Armor again was the legal strategist for a third party candidate’s presidential bid. This time the candidate was John Anderson, a moderate Republican who broke away and ran under the National Unity Party.

“The legal work I and my colleagues did in McCarthy 1976 and Anderson 1980 made Ross Perot’s candidacy possible,” Armor said.

It also allowed Armor to break into coveted Supreme Court circles. He’s filed briefs in 14 cases before the Supreme Court over the years.

His final brief was two years ago in a suit against the Federal Communications Commission for banning political attack ads by special interest groups within 60 days of a general election. Congress passed the law following the notorious Swift Boat ads criticizing John Kerry’s war record. The attack ads weren’t sanctioned by Bush, but Bush received the brunt of the backlash from angry veterans who thought the ads went too far.

Democrats and Republicans in Congress passed the law to keep others from meddling in their campaign strategies, Armor said, but it amounted to an infringement on free speech. Armor argued to that effect, but in a 5 to 4 vote the Supreme Court upheld ban on attack ads by outside groups.

“I was so outraged by that I resigned my membership on the Supreme Court bar,” Armor said. He proceeded to write a column accusing the justices of violating their oath of office. He had to resign first so he wouldn’t be held in contempt.

 

Weighing in for the fight

Armor began articulating his political views at Yale, where he majored in political science and was a knockout on the debate team. Armor loves sharing his account of an early debate with John Kerry.

“In my impression, he was an arrogant, social-climbing blowhard who was in love with his own words. Since then the only changes are he has more money, more wrinkles and more arrogance,” Armor said. “When I debated him, I whipped him.”

Armor’s first political ambition was for a city council seat in Baltimore. Armor still has a collection of framed posters from that first campaign, with slogans like “Fight crime – punch a politician today” and “Know your local zoo – it meets Monday at city hall.”

He didn’t win, but he was fired from his job at an advertising firm for running. So Armor turned to plan B.

“I had a license to steal in my drawer. By that I mean my lawyer’s license,” Armor said. Armor shared his favorite lawyer joke while he was at it: the top three reasons a research lab recently switched from white rats to lawyers.

“There are plenty of them, you don’t get emotionally attached to them, and there are some things white rats don’t do,” Armor said. Armor has even donated to the obscure “Down with Lawyers” political party.

Armor never intended to be an attorney. He went to law school at the University of Maryland as a stepping stone to a political career.

“But things change,” Armor said.

When Armor decided to rekindle his dream of running for political office, running as an Independent wasn’t an option.

“I will fight tooth and nail for their right to compete, but I won’t give any odds that they are going to win,” Armor said of third party candidates. “Every last one of them has been stomped into the mud.”

So he switched his affiliation to Republican in 2004 with a congressional bid in mind. A formidable opponent is no reason not to run, Armor said, alleging democracy is threatened when the same characters hang around Congress decade after decade.

“The only way to get their voting card away from them is to unwrap their cold dead fingers from around it,” Armor said.

Even the most ardent reformer loses their ideals when they make a career out of Congress.

“Congressmen tend over time to degenerated to going through the motions and hanging on to the job,” Armor said. “They also tend to vote for more regulation and more government spending the longer they stay there.”

Armor compares incumbents to bread, milk and bananas — they’re fine when you bring them home from the store but quickly go bad.

When Armor graphed historical turnover in Congress, he discovered incumbents have always been elected at an astonishing rate. The year 1792 is the highest on record —100 percent of the incumbents who ran were re-elected. Nonetheless, the turnover in Congress that year was 38 percent. In those days, Congressmen packed up and went home on their own.

Armor is likely one of the few politicians who can recite turnover stats in Congress when asked about term limits. As a print and Internet pundit, he deals quite literally in obscure political facts. Ask about his chances in the race and you get informed about a 1960 voter preference survey conducted in the Eisenhower election. His opinion on Guantanomo Bay prisoners boils down to a 1942 Supreme Court case establishing precedent for enemy combatants.

“Do you know who said ‘These are the times that try men’s souls?’” Armor asked.

If Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill come to mind, that’s wrong. The words were first spoken by George Washington to his troops before the Battle of Trenton, but the lines were originally written by Thomas Paine.

“’Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain,’” Armor said, giving credit for that quote to John Adams.

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