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