November 15, 2006

Rebuilding the RI GOP Part II: Top Down/Bottom Up

Marc Comtois

Before the RI GOP can hope to make political headway, its members must identify what they really stand for, which is something that I wrote about in my last piece. Next, they must turn to the hard work of party building, which means developing and funding candidates. It is here that a fundamental reprioritization needs to be made by both the party and those who would like to seek political office with an "R" next to their names.

It's been my impression that Rhode Island Republicans are too enamored with running for the big-name positions--Governor, U.S. Congress, Mayor--and not so much into vying for the local political billets like Town Council, School Committee, or State Legislature. In other words, if RI politics were a buffet table, too many GOP candidates pass right over the meat and potatoes and head for the filet mignon. The problem is, there are many more meat-and-potatoes entrées, and they are cheaper and easier to get!

Heck, even the consummate filet mignon politician--Senator Lincoln Chafee--realized that you have to begin your political diet by scarfing down some SOS. He was a Warwick City Councilman before becoming Mayor of Warwick. Then he was appointed and re-elected to the Senate.

I'm not necessarily arguing against running for the big offices right out of the gate. Governor Carcieri was a political unknown, but he had the ability to fund himself. Through hard work and perseverance--and despite the doubts of the RIGOP establishment--he won the Governor's race twice. For that matter, Mayor Laffey has also been a "self-funder." Additionally, his tenure as Mayor also made him a recognizable political personality (for good and ill) in his Senate run. (Tangential point: It's interesting that two of the most successful members of the RIGOP today were/are considered "outsiders" by the RIGOP establishment.) While some may argue that Mayor Laffey should have "settled" for a state-level office, he had enough financial juice and name recognition to make a viable run for a high-profile office.

However, both the Governor and Mayor Laffey are the exceptions and, along with Senator Chafee, are evidence of part of a different, but related, problem within the RI GOP: an over-reliance on well-moneyed individuals to self-fund their own campaigns and bring everyone lower on the ticket along for the ride. The average GOP candidate--the one who's eating SOS--needs support from the state party to be able to finance a run for Town Council or State Rep. It's all fine and dandy to argue (hope?) that top-o'-the-ticket coattails can make up for lack of cash, but I haven't seen that translate into political success for the RI GOP. Cash would work better.

Look, I don't have a financial background nor any real idea as to the mechanics of political fund-raising. "I'm an idea man." As such, I have to think that if the RI GOP could offer attractive candidates, the money would come. Nonetheless, I also realize that any organization needs an effective leader. Yesterday, I pointed to the discussion that Dan Yorke was having about the RI GOP in which he proposed that they should impose the death penalty on themselves. End the misery now. Scorch the earth so that something new can grow in a few years. Yorke's premise is that there is no high-profile leader who is willing or able to step up and make the changes necessary for the RI GOP to become a truly viable political entity. Therefore, get the bad apples (according to Yorke, Bernie Jackvony and John Holmes) out by knocking their legs out from under them.

Perhaps he's right, and as I said, while I recognize the need for good leadership in any organization, parties and movements also must be built from the bottom up. The rank and file can reform the party, if they put their minds to it. No matter who becomes the leader of the RIGOP, or how they get there, it's my belief that--to really change the political equation in this state--he or she must recruit effective candidates to run in local elections.

So it seems to me that the path to success lays between having a top down and a bottom up party. Of necessity, the RI GOP still has to be an organizationally top-down party, with smart, effective (and well-connected) leadership. However, the implementation of a sound political agenda--real party building--can only be done starting from the bottom of the ticket and working up.

Some Republicans, such as Warwick Mayor Scott Avedesian, have recognized this and worked their way through lower political offices to upper. Sue Stenhouse, though she lost, is another good example (I keep coming back to Warwick, don't I?) of a candidate with experience on the Warwick City Council who sought a higher office.

Starting small acquaints a candidate with political and governmental processes. More importantly, it also acquaints them with the voters. Thus, it gives them something that most don't have the money to buy: name recognition. Like it or not, it isn't the ideas that first attract RI voters to particular candidates, it's how well they know and like them. All politics may be local, but in Rhode Island, it's also personal. More on that next time.

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I agree with your assessment that the number one thing a candidate needs is money. Equally important is the party support in relation to the 'how to' of a campaign.

Mayor Avedisian provided a perfect example of how to build a team through party support. Whether done on a statewide level or a local level, the team building is a key component to a local race. It will be the local teams that will attract young, qualified candidates for local offices that will build our party.

Posted by: Shawn Masterson at November 15, 2006 7:38 PM

Shawn, Thanks for the point about local team building and how "campaigning wisdom" can be passed along. Since you've actually been through the election gauntlet, please feel free to give us neophytes a clue!

Posted by: Marc Comtois at November 15, 2006 8:49 PM

Before I write this, I apologize for the length but as one of those “top of the ticket” candidates without a prior political seat, I feel that I need to add my voice to this piece of the rebuild debate, as well. I can only speak for myself but I entered a statewide race for three reasons, two of which I have continuously stated from the stump and a third; tangential to the second.

The first reason was because I did not believe that the Party had a candidate who would be able to energize young voters to come to the polls as a counterweight to Kennedy’s elderly stronghold. Ed Leather, though a very intelligent and accomplished man, was not the front man for a Congressional campaign that mandated energy and excitement.

The second reason is very akin to your comments in this post. I believe that we have a serious problem in the state with a monopoly of the “Democratic power elite” and the special interests making decisions for the working folks of RI. In order to put a spotlight on that and to demonstrate to the citizens of the state that anyone can run despite their finances, I needed a big spotlight and a big bank account gap between myself and my opponent. If I can take on the biggest Democratic machine in the nation, then anyone can enter the fray in their local races. The heavy lifting has been done.

My third reason is that I am now, I hope, in a position to help the Party recruit those local candidates. I have a fair amount of name recognition and a story to tell. When the leadership question shakes out, I hope to be part of that team that converts interested citizens into effective legislators. A fourth, less important, reason for my decision was a lifelong interest in the macro world of national issues rather than the micro issues of local politics.

I will finish by addressing two last things. Money is NOT easy to come by for ANY candidates. The new Chair will have to concentrate on building a high six figure operational budget in order to even begin the process. My campaign is already working on a fundraising plan for 2008. I see us as five months into that election cycle rather than a week past 2006. There is a learning process.

Lastly, when I speak of a top-down focus in the RIGOP, I refer to a system where the headliners believe that everyone else is a supporting cast. I was asked several times to lend a handful of my 20 volunteers to campaigns that had 1000 on their lists. We are only as good as the least among us and the reverse scenario should have been in practice. It is imperative that the Party build a pool of volunteers from among an outstanding group of rank-and-file folks to be dispersed among the candidates according to their immediate needs. We need to build upon a strong base, rooted in the cities and towns, and create an army of messengers who are familiar with their local area of expertise. Rather than ride the coattails of a big name, we need to provide strong support for local candidates who will dominate their races and allow those of us on the state level to build from that foundation as we ride their coattails.


Posted by: Jon Scott at November 15, 2006 10:55 PM

A good way the GOP can start is to put up a credible candidate for mayor in North Providence. Mollis may be leaving, but same ol, same ol continues if any member of either the Mollis or Lombardi factions succeed him.
Many of us who may not necessarily think of ourselves as Republicans would love to see the GOP put up some credible candidates here and in other Democratic redoubts. Since the social conservatives are being served in NP by the current power factions, the GOP should up a reform-minded candidate who's not afraid to take on the good ol' boys.
If you put up good candidates, people will vote for them - even Democrats. 'Twasn't liberals voting straight-ticket Democrat last week, that's for sure.

Posted by: Rhody at November 15, 2006 11:37 PM

John, Thanks for the continuing input, especially in your further elaboration of how the RI GOP had a top down focus. Taking already meager resources from one candidate to provide negligible support for another is misguided.

If I recall, you came out of nowhere so far as the RI GOP was concerned. You're a self-starter and ran for an office for which you believed you had the requisite amount of passion to win. But as has been indicated, passion can take you only so far. You also need money!

By no means am I trying to discourage people from running for any office! Instead, I think that the party has to be smarter about who it runs for what office. By that, I don't just mean "the party", but also those who run as Republicans. I'll touch on that in my next post.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at November 16, 2006 7:48 AM

I note with interest the previous post about an opportunity for Republicans in a special election for Mayor in North Providence where I was an unsuccessful candidate for State Representative (and am a member of the Town Committee.)

The Democratic machine that runs the town repeatedly embarrasses us, bringing us the convict Celona, Montalbano who forgets to declare his West warwick income, Mollis who apparently shakes down town employees for camapign contributions, and we lead the state (or are #2) with dead or duplicate voters on the voting list. So there really is a political opportunity, though so far the weak presence of Republicans in the town has deterred potential interest in getting involved with us.

We do have a GOP Town Committee meeting on Tues, Nov 28 at 7pm in the Town Library and I invite anyone who can help address what we can do to come. In my view, we need a candidate with experince in managing a budget, who is interested in controlling spending, and hiring the most competent and ethical people to help run the town government. I hope we don't get bogged down in ideological purity much beyond that (both locally and statewide) on issues such as Chafee-Laffey support, Iraq war views, pro-choice or pro-life etc as we have to accept each other on all that if we are to succeed.

Posted by: Barry Schiller at November 16, 2006 3:15 PM

Bottom line, something bigger took place Nov7. Any chairman would have suffered the same fate. Everyone is quick to point blame, but it was those same people who failed to step and run, send a check, volunteer some time, etc. Many factors where in play (Casino, Anti-Bush, etc)which hurt Republicans down the ticket. It is not an excuse, it is what happened.

Rumors are flying around and people are calling for change at the top of the party as if it would turn around this "pathetic joke" as Ed Achorn calls it. The "pathetic joke" is the Democratic Party in RI, and the candidates that the voters in RI keep sending back to the statehouse. I say, start at the bottom, and get involved with the local GOP Town Committees if you want change. Typing on the internet or complaining doesn't do enough.

This time around, there were several good qualified candidates. And the voters walked into vote and wanted to send a message, that message was change. Unfortunately, they did exactly the thing they did not want to do; elect the same exact people!

Posted by: Andy at November 16, 2006 7:06 PM

"... and the candidates that the voters in RI keep sending back to the statehouse."

As well as to Town Councils and School Committees. In South Kingstown, right up the line, the contrast between Republican and Dem candidates was startling. The elephants were smarter, better informed, more mature, far more motivated by the public good, etc.

Good points, Andy.

Posted by: SusanD at November 16, 2006 8:48 PM

I understand the points that Andy made, and in many respects, he's right. Much of what happened on Nov. 7th, would have happened regardless of how the RIGOP acted (or didn't), due to the national dynamics of the race this year (i.e. the Bush/Iraq, etc. factor). I suspect, however, that in the races that were extremely close, a properly working party apparatus, with a real GOTV effort, would have been enough to make the difference. The problem is that, in many respects, the party put (as it has for many years) all it's eggs in one basket (Chafee), to the neglect of everyone else. The party is suffering from that neglect. We need to rebuild, from the ground up, not as has often been the case, from the top, down. To analogize: we don't just need to glue the broken vase back together and hope that it holds up in the future -- we need a new vase.

I don't think changing the leadership at the top is the only problem, nor is it anything close to enough, but it would certainly be a start. I'm not advocating singling out Pat Morgan for special treatment, because there's plenty of people to spread the blame amongst. She's been perhaps more abrasive or divisive than necessary on occassion, but she's done generally well for the last almost four years now. However, I think it's time we get a team up there that can approach things with "fresh eyes" (pardon the Rumsfeldian pun). The whole group up there needs to go. I was very pleased with her comments on the radio today calling out John Holmes' working for the enemy. The problem for us is that he's hardly an isolated case in our state party. The sooner we recognize that, the better it will be for our party going forward.

One thing we definitely need to do is to get rid of the attitude that we can't run on real Republican ideas, or that are destined to be the permanent minority party in this state. We need to clean house completely, and as has been mentioned elsewhere, start off fresh -- new people, and new attitudes. I'm hopeful that the governor and his folks will understand the necessity of creating a vigorous, ideas-based opposition party in this state. People aren't going to vote for us, if they don't think we're any different or better than those that we are supposed to be against.

Posted by: Will at November 17, 2006 1:12 AM

Warwick is the only city in the state with a Republican "machine" (although it took a beating this go round) that has been more than a passing fad. Much of that success, like it or not, was due to Lincoln Chafee who ended years of Democrat control.

Posted by: Anthony at November 17, 2006 9:50 AM


You just became my purpose to post since you should get out from behind your liberal blinders.
Scott "THE RINO" Avedisian in warwick and Chafee are no different. They should just change parties and become democrats. They did not build Republican machines. They just put the R behind there name and we all know there true leanings are Democratic. Should we go thru what a real republican stands for. Let's try Ronald Reagan. Wow! oh yes I forgot. Rhode Island republicans would call him to extreme.

Posted by: Fred on the Blog at November 21, 2006 7:16 PM
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