Are local Republicans
determined to fail?
Sure looks that way. Even slickster Bill Weld
won't talk about it.
by Seth Gitell
Question: Can the Massachusetts Republican Party be saved?
Answer: Perhaps, but it could take a generation to rebuild it.
After William Weld won election to the state's top office in 1990, it seemed
that the Republicans were well on their way to making Massachusetts a two-party
state again. Today the GOP still holds the governorship, but it's hanging on to
power by the thinnest of threads. Governor Paul Cellucci, for instance, has
been so weakened by the mistakes made by one of the party's key officials,
former Mass Turnpike chairman James Kerasiotes (who was fired from his post on
Tuesday), that he can't credibly put forth a tax-cut proposal that the party
has been promising for years.
The Central Artery budget scandal is only the latest, however, in a long line
of recent embarrassments. Last month witnessed the spectacle of Cellucci
withdrawing his support (trumpeted on national television and radio) for
presumptive Republican Senate candidate Jack E. Robinson, who, with his release
of the "Robinson report," turned out to be something of a crackpot. Before
that, there was the maelstrom of controversy created by the news that
Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift had used a state-police helicopter to commute to
her home in Western Massachusetts, employed aides as baby sitters, and relied
on political connections to find housing. Last fall saw indictments handed down
in connection with an embezzling scheme at the state treasury that had been
headed by Republican Joe Malone from 1990 through 1998, and last August
Massport director Peter Blute was axed for his Boston Harbor babe cruise with
All of which harks back to another hapless period in the GOP's history. In 1986
Royall Switzler trumped up his Vietnam War record, which forced his withdrawal
from the governor's race; that same year, Gregory Hyatt's campaign for governor
blew up after news of naked romps around his office became public; and in 1982,
John Lakian withdrew his gubernatorial bid after it was made public that he had
falsely claimed he had attended Harvard and received a battlefield promotion
for his combat role in Vietnam. (Though Lakian sued the Boston Globe for
libel in connection with a story reporting his exaggerations, the jury did not
The Republican Party pulled itself out of that hole in the 1980s by
barnstorming the state and building up a base of candidates. Maybe there's a
lesson to be learned from this. Or, perhaps, as Scot Lehigh suggested in the
Boston Globe last week, the party should
turn to former Senate candidate Mitt Romney for help. Romney has said he's
keeping his gubanatorial options open. Romney's recent work as the president of
the organizing committee for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics puts him
in an ideal position to run for office -- but out west, where his Mormon
credentials are a huge strength. In Massachusetts, however, if his last run is
any indication, those credentials may hinder him.
In the meantime, state Republican Party officials say they're doing everything
they can to get their house in order. "There's no question there's been some
rough sledding [of] late," acknowledges John Brockelman, executive director of
the state party. "Since 1990, candidate recruitment and the number of offices
we've held in this state has steadily declined." In 1990, 37 Republican
candidates made a play for the Senate and 119 attempted to get into the House.
In 1998, those numbers had fallen to 17 and 62, respectively.
But state GOP leaders seem to be focused on the past: some now blame former
governor Weld for the party's current woes (Weld engaged in lackluster
party-building efforts, at best). Others, incredibly, are pointing to the
state's high-octane economy as the cause of some recent trouble: not being able
to attract good candidates from the private sector, for example. Things are so
grim for the state's GOP right now that the party may well have to wait until
Cellucci leaves office to put things in order. From there, the GOP may spend
years wandering through the wilderness before it can return to power again --
like the children of Israel.
BUT WHO gets to play Moses? What are we to make, after all, of a party that
couldn't find anyone stronger than Plymouth County district attorney Michael
Sullivan to run against Ted Kennedy? Indeed, what are we to make of a party
that couldn't even keep Sullivan in the race -- leaving the door open for
Robinson's embarrassing flirtation with a run? In their defense, Republican
operatives have stressed the difficulty of running someone against a candidate
as strong as Kennedy.
But Kennedy has been in office for almost 38 years. It's not as if party
leaders didn't know Kennedy was coming up for re-election and didn't have time
to prepare. In fact, the last two times Kennedy ran they did prepare for it. In
1988, the party turned to a young, charismatic candidate to run against
Kennedy. No one expected the candidate -- Joe Malone -- to win. But they did
view the move as a party-building nod to the future. And it was. In his next
statewide run, Malone became the first GOP treasurer elected in Massachusetts
since the 1940s.
In 1994, the GOP fielded the squeaky-clean venture capitalist Romney against
Kennedy. The race turned out to be Kennedy's most difficult in decades. But
that says more about Romney's appeal as a candidate than about the state
party's support of his run. At one key moment in the campaign, Kennedy followed
his nephew Joe's lead in raising Romney's Mormon faith as an issue. Romney
could have used help from Roman-Catholic Republicans like Cellucci, but none
came. When Romney wanted to accompany Weld and Cellucci to a campaign visit in
the North End, for example -- a stop that would probably have stanched the
bleeding on the religion question -- the Weld camp sent out the word that
Romney wasn't welcome.
The then-governor had his reasons for keeping Romney down. At the time, Weld
was jockeying to be a presidential candidate in 1996. A Romney victory over
Kennedy would have catapulted Romney into the national spotlight and pushed
Weld back into the shadows. All this merely repeats a familiar pattern in the
state GOP: Republicans who cut an attractive figure, such as Romney and Peter
Blute, are marginalized by the leadership at the earliest opportunity. Few
Republicans outside the inner circle are given a chance to become stars. And
sometimes when attractive candidates gain power, other leaders work against
That practice runs contrary to the way Malone and his mentor, Ray Shamie, tried
to strengthen the Republican Party (see "The Building Blocks," page 19).
"The way to build the Republican Party is to create as many stars as we
possibly can," says Malone. "Give them the spotlight that allows them to
Another way to build the party, Blute says, is by making party operatives earn
their stripes. Weld and Cellucci stressed executive appointments over elected
office throughout the 1990s. Instead, young Republican talents should have been
encouraged to go back into their districts and run for the House of
Representatives and Senate, Blute says, thus ensuring the creation of a
broader, stronger pool of candidates for higher office.
But one Republican operative says of the state leaders: "They don't want the
party to grow. The smaller it is, the easier it is for them to control."
There are dangers to keeping such a small leadership circle. "There's a
phenomenon when you have a weak party that is unlike other states where there's
a robust political party," says Blute, who is now a radio talk-show host on
WRKO. "In Massachusetts, if you get elected as a Republican, you start to
rationalize. You think, The most important thing I can do for the party is
to get re-elected. My job is to help myself. It forces you to make
compromises. It forces you to make accommodations with Democrats."
Blute says this has hurt Republicans' attempts to define the party. "I think
Weld and Cellucci did a lot of that. Cellucci has gone to Democratic
incumbents' fundraisers. I think Weld shares some of it. I think we all do."
The policy of accommodation grew out of Weld's 1990 victory. After his
election, the governor reached out to leading Democrats, including Senate
president William Bulger, to get his reform agenda passed. As Bulger writes in
his 1996 memoir While the Music Lasts: "Ours was a symbiotic working
relationship almost from the start. And it became more trusting and relaxed as
we came to know each other better."
At the time, Weld's ability to work with Democrats won him praise throughout
Massachusetts. But, in retrospect, some believe that the alliance with Bulger
robbed state Republicans of the opportunity to build a distinct identity as the
anti-Democratic Party. The Republicans had flourished in 1990 by running as the
party of reform. This became more difficult after Weld became so chummy with
Bulger and company, though it's fair to point out that Weld had his reasons for
keeping his distance from the Republican Party. The establishment endorsed
Steve Pierce over Weld at its 1990 convention and always remained wary of the
governor for his pro-choice stance.
Still, the House minority leader, Representative Fran Marini of Hanson, now
blames Weld for some of the party's problems. "Governor Weld went directly to
the public because he was a brilliant guy and glib, but he had less inclination
to build up this apparatus that had not been an ally of his," Marini says. "I
think we missed an opportunity in the early and mid '90s to do more than we
Even a key adviser to Cellucci, Rob Gray, says, "Weld had no interest in the
party. That's true."
It's easy to blame current travails on those who've moved on, particularly when
they're contemplating another run for governor -- this time in the Empire
State. (It should be noted that Weld ignored five phone calls placed to his
office seeking comment for this article.) But whenever you're assessing the
fortunes of the state GOP, it's useful to ask whether the Massachusetts
electorate is even willing to support two parties. Defenders of the state GOP
point out that the Bay State is just too liberal for the party to thrive here.
Only 13 percent of registered voters are Republicans. This problem is
exacerbated by the fact that Massachusetts's Democratic Party has an active,
viable conservative wing -- best exemplified by House Speaker Tom Finneran.
Ironically, Finneran came to power with the support of GOP representatives. In
an action Republicans now regret, 35 Republican state reps supported Finneran's
candidacy for Speaker. The vote vaulted Finneran to the leadership over
Representative Richard Voke, a liberal Democratic candidate. The presence of
Finneran -- who is a pro-life fiscal conservative -- in such a high-profile
position steals the Republicans' thunder on issues and prevents them from
finding a voice.
The building blocks
Former Treasurer Joe Malone is no longer a rising star in the state GOP, but
that's no reason to forget his role in bringing the party back to life.
Now employed at an Internet company in Central Square, Cambridge, Malone has
seen his record at the state treasury come under fire in the nearly two years
since he decided to challenge Paul Cellucci, then the acting governor, for the
Republican gubernatorial nomination. Since his defeat, seven people --
including three treasury workers -- have been indicted for a scheme to bilk the
state out of $9.4 million. Just this week a Suffolk County grand jury
handed down a second indictment of a Malone ally, Richard Arrighi, in relation
to new charges stemming from the scam, and Attorney General Thomas Reilly says
that his office is continuing to investigate "other matters" connected with
this issue. (Says Malone, who has not been implicated: "With each day that goes
by, it has become more and more evident that our record at the treasury was
outstanding. Unfortunately, a couple of individuals acted in a manner that ran
contrary to everything we stood for for eight years.")
It would be too bad if those woes obscured his real accomplishments, however.
Without the contributions of Malone and his mentor, the late Ray Shamie, the
1990 victories of William Weld and Cellucci surely would not have occurred. To
be sure, the work of former state Republican Party chairman Andrew Natsios (who
has replaced James Kerasiotes as head of the Big Dig) and Republican operative
Ron Kaufman (re-elected this week to the Republican National Committee) played
a role as well.
But Malone, who first became known to many Massachusetts voters when he
challenged Ted Kennedy for the US Senate in 1988, grew up in Waltham, in an
Italian family that had supported Republican governor John Volpe. His political
career began when, at Volpe's suggestion, he got involved in the Republican
Senate campaign of Ed Brooke after graduating from Harvard in 1978. Four years
later Ray Shamie asked the young Malone to coordinate his Senate campaign.
Malone learned a lot from Shamie's two races for the Senate, first against
Kennedy and then against John Kerry. The two GOP activists obsessed over how
best to build a state Republican Party that had for several generations been
limited to two types of people: liberal Republicans such as Brooke and Volpe,
and the pro-business country-club set. Out of those discussions came Malone's
decision to run his kamikaze mission against Kennedy. "For 10 years, starting
out in 1978, I worked for other candidates," Malone recalls. "I said, `There's
got to be a way to break the Democratic monopoly in this state.' "
Attracting Reagan Democrats, whom the Yankees tended to view as unwashed
ethnics, seemed to him and Shamie like a good way to do it.
"That [campaign] seems like a hundred years ago," Malone says now. He was a
tireless campaigner, often seen shaking hands with football fans in Foxborough
before Patriots home games. Nobody expected him to beat Kennedy, but Malone
emerged as somebody to watch. "I knew it wasn't going to result in a victory,"
he says of his infamous run. "This [was] a way of letting people know [the GOP
wasn't] just a stodgy old organization."
Malone and Shamie, who died last year, worked hard at rebuilding their party
from the ground up. And they succeeded. But unlike their party's symbol, the
elephant, the state GOP operatives who benefited from Malone and Shamie's
efforts seem to have short memories. Few have embraced the grassroots
organizing that was Malone and Shamie's formula for success.
-- Seth Gitell
If Republican representatives had let the much more liberal Voke into office,
they could have retained a rabble-rousing back-bench presence -- thereby
creating a contrast with the Democrats. "What won out at that time is the idea
that Finneran would be better not for Republicans but for the people of
Massachusetts," recalls Marini. "We got absolutely nothing for that. There was
no quid pro quo. There was no deal."
Still, Marini, like other Republicans, laments the strong presence of
conservative Democrats here: "These conservative elements in the Democratic
Party, they exist due to the lack of a Republican Party. If there were a viable
Republican Party in this state, you wouldn't have these conservative Democrats.
It distorts the entire political process."
As an example, Marini relates this story about last year's drawn-out budget
process: Finneran was asked why the budget negotiations between himself and
Senate president Tom Birmingham took so long, given that both men are
Democrats. Finneran explained, according to Marini, that the Democrats in
Massachusetts were a "big-tent party," and that some people in the tent might
be so far to the side that they are closer to those outside the tent.
Despite all this, some strategists point optimistically to the falling
enrollment of Democratic voters. About 38 percent of voters in
Massachusetts are registered Democrats, but that number is dramatically lower
than the 46 percent that Democrats had back in 1988. And with more and
more voters relocating to the suburbs -- harder to reach for both
organized parties, but especially for the Democrats -- Republicans may slowly
begin to recruit more activists.
In old-line towns, such as Hingham, building the Republican Party with
disaffected Democrats is as much of a battle as replacing the old country-club
Republicans with new blood. But it's working for Senator Bob Hedlund, of
Weymouth. Something of a maverick, and quite conservative, Hedlund has support
from blue-collar Democrats in his district.
It's questionable, though, how many people will be drawn to the state GOP if it
fields another primary battle like the bitter one fought between Malone and
Cellucci for the governorship in 1998. Malone was then the head of the
grassroots movement that rebuilt the party from its 1980s collapse. His run for
governor was an attempt by the grassroots wing to retake the party leadership.
He lost. Cellucci could have been magnanimous and given Malone's supporters a
place at the table. Instead, the new governor fell into the same thinking that
motivated Weld to undercut Romney's bid for Senate and that spurred Jane Swift
into ruthlessly tossing Blute from the party. Cellucci purged Malone supporters
from state leadership positions. By February 1999, Cellucci had installed his
own people in place.
"Weld did not control the state party during the 1990s, and neither did
Cellucci until February of 1999," says Gray, referring to Malone's control of
the grassroots wing. "The state party has only been under Cellucci's control
for a little over a year. There had been a lot of damage done to the party by
other chairmen and years of neglect."
Now, Gray says, Cellucci is working on rebuilding the party. The governor
spends four to five hours per week raising money for the state Republican Party
and an equal amount of time attempting to recruit candidates for state and
federal offices, according to Gray.
So where does that leave the state's Republican Party? One GOP member laments:
"It's absolutely hopeless -- 2002 will mark the end of this Republican stint in
the governor's office." Another says the only competition in the state now
exists "between the House Speaker and the Senate president -- both Democrats."
Yet another warns: "The party cannot be built from the top down. It's got to be
built from the bottom up. The governor can't do it all."
Maybe there's hope: House Minority Leader Marini recently traveled to
Washington, DC, with his counterpart in the Senate, Brian Lees (East
Longmeadow). There they met with national Republican leaders for tips on how to
build the party. They also visited the Virginia legislature, which was just
retaken by the Republicans after years of Democratic domination. "We're not the
only state in this situation," says Marini, who is stumping all over the
Commonwealth for Republicans. "I go around the state and say, 'One-party
government doesn't work. It doesn't work in fascism. It doesn't work in
Communism. And it doesn't work in the Commonwealth.' "
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.
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