[sidebar] The Boston Phoenix
April 13 - 20, 2000


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 lobbyists.

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 award damages.)

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 them.

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 shine."

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 did."

Even a key adviser to Cellucci, Rob Gray, says, "Weld had no interest in the party. That's true."

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
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.

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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