Someone, somewhere, decided Roman Richards would make a good Republican.
He runs R. J. Richards Enterprises, a successful excavation and hauling company with offices in both Everett and West Richland. In naming him its Minority Businessman of the Year in 2004, the Puget Sound Business Journal noted that over a two-year period R. J. Richards's gross revenue grew by 2,400 percent.
Maybe that's where the GOP got his name. (Richards, whose mother was part Mexican, has an otherwise European ancestry.)
About three months ago, Richards received a call from an aide to Representative Tom Reynolds, the rising-star Republican from Buffalo, New York, who sits on the House Ways and Means Committee and chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which raises funds for GOP Congres-sional campaigns. The aide wanted to hear Richards's thoughts on lobbying, tort reform, and taxes.
Evidently he gave good answers. On February 23, Richards received an e-mail from Congressman Reynolds congratulating him on his selection as "2005 Businessman of the Year from Washington." The note contained a picture of a glass Washington Monument–shaped trophy.
Richards could get his trophy at the March 15–16 Annual Tax Summit, in Washington, D.C. On the first day he would lunch with Senior Presidential Adviser Karl Rove. On the second day he would sup with President George W. Bush.
The past week has seen more phone calls, e-mails, and faxes from the NRCC, all looking to confirm Richards's appearance at the summit. One fax from Reynolds's office shows the trophy, along with a handwritten message: "With everything you've done for the party... I can't think of a more deserving candidate." It's signed, "Tom." Reynolds adds a postscript: "Just back from the engraver. Your Businessman of the Year Award looks great!"
When it comes to attracting votes and campaign dollars, Republicans are a cunning breed; but had they done a bit more research they'd know that Roman Richards would never join their ranks.
In person, Richards appears to have just strode off the set of a pickup-truck commercial: baseball cap over a goateed face deep tanned from a life working outside; dirt from an excavation site caked on the knees of his Levi's; beefy callused hands; and the easy, guileless manner of a workingman that only turns truculent when politics come up.
"I guess they assumed I was a Republican," says Richards. "That's a bunch of bullshit."
His values were forged in the gold-mining town of Blackhawk, Colorado, where no one pushed his religion—or his politics—on anyone else. Today his family lives in Hanford, which is too religiously righteous for his taste. Not wanting to have to go to church socials to get the best excavation jobs, Richards spends most of his week in the western part of the state. "I want to be taken for what I am, who I am," he says.
In 1996 Richards, then an excavation foreman, was struck by a backhoe, damaging his back and neck. Richards was too restless to cruise through middle age on workers' comp, so in 2001 he started R. J. Richards Enterprises. His prior work as a foreman helped him get most of the jobs he wanted, and as positive word of mouth spread, his business grew.
But Richards had no ambition for monopoly—he's grateful only that his success has allowed him to be "really selective" about what jobs to take. He subcontracts nearly all of his work, and has only one employee. For his western office, inside an industrial complex on Highway 99 in Everett, Richards pays $95 a month.
But to Republican analysts paid to identify prospective donors, here was a booming business; whatever its founder's background, his new income might lead him toward Republicans' views on tax cuts for the rich.
"At first I was going to hang up on them," says Richards, "but then I decided it was a good way to find out what they were up to."
Last Thursday, from behind the desk of his sparsely decorated office, Richards pours himself a tall goblet of red wine (and handed this reporter a 16-ounce can of Murphy's Irish Stout), before finally calling back the NRCC on speakerphone. The woman who answers the phone launches into a script about how Richards's award is "really an incredible honor" and how the tax summit is one of the year's biggest happenings in Washington, D.C. Richards can fraternize with other business leaders from around the country and give his input on taxes to the very members of Congress who form that policy, not to mention a meeting and photo op with Bush and Rove.
Richards asks the woman how he was chosen. "We have a list of business leaders in each state," she says, adding that it was likely due to Richards's "support for the party" or his having been "nominated by a fellow Republican." (This, says Richards, is "hilarious," considering he's a registered Democrat who recently cast votes for John Kerry, Maria Cantwell, and Christine Gregoire.)
Richards asks her about the summit's purpose. Nobody has mentioned money, is that their angle? Yup. For Richards and a guest to attend the two-day event, she says, costs $5,000.
"This thing is a fucking scam," says Richards, after he hangs up the phone.
That's precisely the conclusion that other "businessmen of the year" have drawn. In a 2003 Washington Post article, award winners complain about seeing their names appear as supporters in Republican advertisements. They call it "character assassination" and extortion.
NRCC Communications Director Carl Forti told The Stranger that the tax summit is merely a way of getting in touch with businesspeople around the country. "Several" businessmen of the year are chosen in each state, but he says those choices are made by an "internal committee" he knows nothing about.
The dinner with Bush is not an intimate one. Forti says the NRCC expects between 1,000 and 1,500 attendees. The dinner's fundraising goal: $7.5 million.
Richards will not be attending the dinner, but he will pay the $100 to have his award mailed. He will then mail the Republicans a letter, which will offer Richards's critique of Republican tax policy, ending on this rather ungrateful note: "I am embarrassed by you and what you stand for."