Florida's political climate of the early aughts — with the Terri Schiavo furor and Bush campaign efforts heating up — inspired Nadia Naffe to join the conservative movement.
When Nadia Met James
The 2009 Tampa Bay Young Republicans Christmas Gala, at the historic Cuban Club in Ybor City, was not the kind of affair that progressives tend to imagine when they picture right-wing social functions. For one thing, the event was a benefit for the Spring of Tampa, Florida’s largest battered-women’s shelter. The guest of honor, a beautiful young brunette named Hannah Giles, had never run for office. In fact she had been completely unknown in Republican circles until a few months earlier, when she appeared in a viral web video that suddenly and swiftly crippled the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).
Nadia Naffe was in high spirits for the gala. She enjoys fine tobacco, and the Cuban Club is known as a prime spot for cigar aficionados. More importantly, the gathering didn’t reek of typical Republicanism. Naffe’s bad memories of working for the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004 had led her to re-evaluate her standing as one of the rare black women in an overwhelmingly white, male-dominated party. But Giles and James O’Keefe — a pair of renegade activists who were taking “the express elevator up to the penthouse,” as Andrew Breitbart would put it — were role models she could relate to. For the first time in years, Naffe felt drawn to a niche of popular conservatism: one dedicated to core Christian values, but also hellbent on operating outside the antiquated establishment. At the gala, Naffe says she chatted with Giles — and that Giles introduced her to O’Keefe, by phone, that very night. Naffe had been searching for her place in the party. It looked like she had finally found it.
Born in 1978 to parents of African, Malaysian, and Native American heritage, Naffe is a fourth-generation Floridian, raised in the Pensacola Beach area, mostly in the surrounding white suburbs. Growing up she listened to rock and R&B, attended parochial school, and enjoyed an ordinary adolescence. Naffe says her mother, a hospital administrator, and stepfather, a deacon and retired police captain, raised her with watchful eyes and kept her on the path to college.
When she was 18, in 1996, Naffe fell in love with a stockbroker named Gerald, 10 years her senior. Within a year they eloped — against the wishes of Naffe’s stepfather — and she soon after left Pensacola so that Gerald could attend the University of Tampa. The marriage lasted less than four years, but it had put a permanent strain on her relationship with her parents, and when Naffe and Gerald split, she chose not to return home. By then she was enrolled in business school, and had also found a new passion in politics that would fill the void left by her break-up.
Tampa was a fertile breeding ground for conservatives at the turn of the century. They had been galvanized in part by the fate of Terri Schiavo, the local woman in a vegetative state whose husband fought a protracted court battle to end her life. The case sparked a heated debate over the rights of government to intervene in the lives of its citizens and brought thousands of protesters to the nursing home where Schiavo lived.
Like many, Naffe took it personally. “I just thought that Terri was done wrong, and now they wanted to pull the plug on her,” she says. “Her husband did her dirty, and I felt like Republicans were the only ones sticking up for this woman.”
Activated by the controversy, Naffe and some friends revived her university’s College Republican Club, which had been dormant since the early Clinton era. She also signed on to help Secretary of State Katherine Harris, Governor Jeb Bush, and other powerful Republicans in statewide elections.
Nearing the end of college, Naffe stayed active in conservative circles. When it came time to round up troops for the upcoming Bush-Cheney campaign, she was an obvious candidate. In August 2003, just months after graduation, Naffe was named Southwest Florida field director for the state GOP, a full-time role that tasked her with getting out the vote in a dozen counties.
Naffe says her primary duty on the presidential trail was to visit Republican committees in her territory and recruit ace organizers who could enlist volunteers. For the first few months, she drove her blue-gray BMW 3-series more than 1000 miles a week, picking up party bosses from the airport, entertaining donors, and swinging through community meetings from Tampa to Sarasota. In Sarasota she was instructed to coordinate events with the Royal Sara-Mana Club — a strong, established network of conservative African-Americans. But Naffe soon began to suspect that the GOP’s outreach efforts were a smokescreen — it became clear, she says, that the campaign was just posing. In one instance, she says she was told to arrange a screening of a film about the history of black Republicans in Florida. When she asked for funding, though, Naffe claims she was denied adequate resources. “That’s when I learned that if you want to see what politicians care about, all you have to do is look at what they spend their money on,” she says.
In January 2004, Naffe complained to state party officials about jobs that she believed were designated specifically on account of her skin color. As a conservative, she balked at any assignment that reeked of affirmative action. Naffe says she’d hoped to work with all segments of the party, but was increasingly pigeonholed into minority outreach. To make matters worse, she says her immediate boss directed bigoted comments at her. Naffe says his treatment became so degrading that she reported her superior to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. When she filed her complaint at an EEOC field office, she recalls feeling so betrayed by the conservative movement, she could hardly bear to make eye contact with the standard-issue portrait of George W. Bush hung on the waiting-room wall.
Within weeks, Naffe was fired by the GOP. She later sued the state Republican Party and the Bush-Cheney campaign, and was awarded an undisclosed settlement. Naffe remained a registered Republican, but the episode soured her on political life, and she put her partisanship on the back burner. She even junked her television. Naffe says the nonstop election news cycle was a disturbing reminder of what she’d just endured. “It was stressful,” she remembers. “I would go through bouts of depression. I was really shocked that I lost my job, because I didn’t feel like I’d done anything wrong, and going through the lawsuit, I had to keep reliving it.”
NEXT: O'Keefe becomes a right-wing hero, and recruits Naffe in his war against liberalism . . .