Gio Cicione: Closing the Primary – Not in Haste, Not During an Election Year
Dear Members of the Republican State Central Committee:
I am writing to you today to discuss the recent debate arising from a request last week by the Executive Committee of our organization to schedule a special state Central Committee meeting. This debate has, unfortunately, become something of a public spectacle, and in my opinion has unnecessarily hurt our party because of its public nature and the tone it has taken. I have made every effort to refocus public discussions in the last few days on the important work this party should be doing as the election season kicks off. However, I have instead had to spend an inordinate amount of time responding to media inquiries and internal questions about this debate.
I hope in spite of all of this you have taken note of the four substantive press releases issued last week addressing our concerns about Linc Chafee as a candidate for Governor and his plan to raise taxes if elected. I hope that you appreciate that instead of sharing with voters the hard facts that our researchers have dug up on his free spending ways as mayor of Warwick, we have instead had to respond to questions about our own inter-party squabbling.
And because I have tried to shift the discussion back to our strategic messaging rather than this dust-up, I have not taken the opportunity to fully explain my reasoning relating to the decision to not hold a special meeting. I do, however, feel that as committee members you have the right to hear both sides of the debate and judge for yourselves who is acting in the best interests of the party. While I fully expect this public embarrassment to escalate over the next few days, including calls for my resignation, please be assured of two things: I will continue to try to limit the time wasted on these matters, and I have no intent to abandon this party as we begin the most productive election cycle we have potentially seen in over a decade.
For those who may have missed it, let me start with some background. The RIGOP bylaws and state law currently allow voters to register as Republicans on the day of a primary election and vote in our primaries. The same applies to the Democratic Party. This is referred to as an “open primary” system. For many years some advocates of a “closed primary” system for the RIGOP have been suggesting that we require voters to be registered as Republican for at least 90 days prior to casting a primary ballot.
The process for considering such a change is clear. Under our bylaws it would require that a resolution be submitted to the Executive Committee, then to the state central committee at a full meeting, and then voted on favorably at a successive full meeting of the state Central Committee by two-thirds of the delegates present.
There are good arguments on both sides of the debate as to whether a closed primary would help or hurt Republican candidates in Rhode Island, and I don’t intend to restate them here. I will leave it to the advocates of each position to state their arguments before the state Central Committee as a whole. I myself have not yet seen enough facts to allow me to determine one way or another whether this type of move in other states has had a positive or a negative impact.
There is also some debate about whether we can make this change on our own or if it would require a change to state law. The Board of Elections has publically stated that they don’t believe we can, and so a legal fight is likely if this were to move forward. I have assumed, based on assurances given by an attorney for a specific campaign, that we would eventually win a legal challenge. Nonetheless, I have asked the promoters of this initiative to provide written assurances from a lawyer who will take on a potential dispute without cost to the party (we cannot afford a legal battle, and I have been assured that they have secured such a commitment from Joe Larisa, who is more than qualified to do the job.)
I also believe that any such change would require a concrete plan of action and dedicated resources to educate voters, register those who want to participate in our party primary as Republican is time for the elections, and control the perception of this move so as not to allow it to be positioned as a ‘snub’ to unaffiliated voters. The Republican brand is not at its strongest today. It is vital that if we close our primary we take strong public steps to reach out to the citizens of this state to welcome them into the fold, because the news media and our opponents will unquestionable try to make it look like we are simply closing our doors to those who don’t agree with us.
Given these three points – the need for a full assessment of the merits, the potential time and expense of a legal challenge, and the potential time and expense of a voter education effort – I feel strongly that this discussion should not be made in haste and should not be made in an election year. Not only is it questionable whether any change would be implemented in time for the 2010 elections (in large part because the time required to fight a legal battle is an unknown), it is unavoidable that in an election year this debate becomes tainted with the biases of its impact on particular candidates. In other words, rather than doing what’s best for the party and all of the hundreds of state and local candidates, the decision is influenced by how it might affect an individual race.
I had discussed my concerns about the timing of this potential change with closed primary advocates over a year ago. In response to these concerns they had submitted a proposal for the change early last year. That proposal was put before the Executive Committee last summer and received a negative recommendation. At that point the proponents withdrew the proposal.
For reasons I will leave to them to explain, five proponents of a closed primary came back to me again in December and asked to meet with me to discuss a re-submission of the proposal. We met in my office and they laid out a very accelerated schedule that would require me to call a special meeting of the full state central committee on January 19^th , just two weeks before another tentatively scheduled full meeting on February 9^th . They argued at that time that this was the only way to close our primaries in 2010. They also understood that only the chair has the authority to call a full meeting of the state Central Committee.
While I again restated my concerns about attempting this in an election year, I told the proponents that I would at least agree to schedule the required executive committee meeting to allow them to submit the proposal, and would in the meantime talk to the Governor and other interested parties and constituencies about the schedule.
Having consulted with dozens of people over the following days to gauge the interest of the party leadership, elected officials, donors, candidates, and other in this fast-track approach, I determined that this accelerated effort did not have broad support and would not be good for the party as a whole. While the party should _and will_ have the opportunity to debate the possible closing of the primary, I was unwilling to exercise my discretion to cut short the decision making process.
Prior to the Executive Committee meeting held last Tuesday, I informed the proponents of the measure of my concern, and of my intent not to schedule a special meeting. I also asked them to withdraw the proposed bylaws change in order to avoid a negative public debate at this time. At that point, their tactics and approach changed dramatically. It is my understanding that more than a week before I had even made my decision, they had already discussed how to force my resignation and had circulated a no-confidence petition that was signed by approximately eleven committee members. I view the timing of those actions as a clear sign that this effort was at least in part an attempt to undermine my leadership without reference to the merits of my pending decision on whether or not to fast-track the debate. Why they would attempt to derail the party at the start of an election year remains a mystery to me.
The Executive Committee meeting was held, and with little or no debate on the merits of a closed primary, a 26 to 10 vote was cast to recommend holding a special meeting on January 19^th . As the Executive Committee can only recommend such action and has no authority to schedule full meetings, the discretion remained with me, and I indicated immediately after the meeting that because of a balance of many interests, I did not intend to schedule such a meeting on the 19^th . It is worth noting that the person asking me whether I would do so was David Cote, a former committee member who has not been active in the party for well over a year.
A few days later David circulated an email expressing his anger with my decision and calling on me to resign. When asked by the press – Kathy Gregg from the ProJo appeared to have a copy of the email almost immediately – I responded that I have no intention of resigning and that I have the full support of the Governor, the majority of elected state Republicans, and state party activists. It remains my intent to ignore any such calls from this splinter group and more importantly, I intend presently to get back to the business of this party – electing Republicans in November.
It has been asserted that there is no reasoned argument for the decision I made, and therefore I must be acting at the direction of someone else. Of course, that’s insulting on its face, but the specifics are actually funny: I have heard that the Governor asked me to do it in order to favor one candidate over another (when it was I who asked him to weigh in, not the other way around), that I’m supporting the Chafee campaign because we held the executive committee meeting in Scott Avedesian’s office, that I’ve been offered a job by Frank Caprio in exchange for not addressing his record, and that I’m really a moderate who has fooled the republicans into putting me in charge. If anyone thinks these absurdities merit a response, feel free to ask me. I could use a laugh.
Please keep in mind that this is a debate about scheduling one meeting two weeks prior to another. It is not a debate about whether the Committee gets a say in closing the primary. It does. It is not a question of democracy versus dictatorship. We are a party of rules, not pressure groups.
My hope would be that we raise the question at our December meeting, after the hard work ahead of us in this election season is done, but the proponents would be fully within their rights to have it raised on February 9^th and then again at the next scheduled state central meeting. While I personally think that debating the issue before December is a bad idea and a distraction, I would not lift a finger to stop them from properly moving the question forward.
My decision to not fast-track this process was not made in haste. Many factors were taken into account, and while there are persuasive arguments on both sides, in the balance I consider it most consistent with my duties and responsibilities as Chair to not do so. Aside from the reasons stated above, there were other factors that weighed on the decision. Some – for example the impact on candidates in various races who have already committed resources to their campaigns with the expectation of an open primary – are easily discussed. Others – which may relate to broader strategy questions or matters of candidate recruitment – are better off left private.
All I can really say is that in my three years as Chair and my twelve years as a party activist, I don’t think I have done anything that would lead anyone to question my commitment to this party, my integrity, my character, or my goals. Those of you who know me well know that I consider subterfuge and secrets a waste of time. Perhaps that is a flaw in the political world, or perhaps people just can’t believe that a political leader doesn’t have a use for Machiavelli or Alinsky. But to say that after fifteen years I’ve suddenly changed my approach strains credulity.
I therefore find it most unfortunate that this debate has devolved into public insults. I have always welcomed open and vigorous debate, but I have also tried to consistently practice and recommend Reagan’s 11^th commandment – we gain nothing by criticizing fellow Republicans. Yes, I did say on the radio that people who thought there was some vast conspiracy behind my decision were ‘crack-smoking lunatics’ (I thought it was a way to inject a little humor into an incredibly frustrating discussion), and I apologize if anyone took that personally. But even understanding that we are all imperfect and will slip up from time to time, I do not see how we can be expected to support people who publically question my character or my integrity and insult our elected officials and the party itself. While I will not publically call out individuals on this point, please understand that I will focus my efforts and the efforts and resources of the party on working with those Republicans who share a positive vision for 2010 and see the value in working towards a common goal as a team.
So something has changed – I will not deny that. Unfortunately what has changed is that a small group of party officials have put a higher priority on jabbing at me than on winning 120 state and federal level and hundreds of more local elections this year. And every poke, every insult, every criticism of the party itself – no matter how un-credible – costs our candidates votes in November. Every minute we spend continuing this discussion is a minute we are not productively striving for our goal.
Let’s be very clear. Votes for Republicans in Rhode Island are now being sacrificed because a party faction lost a fight to force my hand. Not a fight over some core organizational value, or over a violation of rules, or over corruption. A fight over holding a meeting two weeks early.
One would hope that such a fight – a fair fight held in a manner consistent with our bylaws and among people with a common purpose – could be put behind us. The arguments were made, and inevitably one side had to end up unsatisfied. That’s life. If some members of this party find it impossible to lose a fight, pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and move on with the business of the organization, that is not a flaw of the RIGOP. It is their choice as individuals.
What hasn’t changed is my approach to leading the RIGOP. Although this is the first time in three years in this office that I have had to take such a firm stand, that is only because we have we have been focused and unified behind a common purpose during that period. If some individuals think we lack unity today, then perhaps they should ask themselves what has changed. While they ponder that question, I will continue as Chair to strive for consensus and unity in guiding this party and our candidates forward.
Victory in 2010
It would have been my preference to start the year with a 2009 recap and a few thoughts on 2010 strategy. With another good off-season year of investment in donor prospecting, a banner year for volunteer recruitment and organizing, outfitting the office with new furniture and resources, the establishment of a technology committee, and many other notable improvements, we have made the state party a more effective tool for our candidates in 2010. With help from the Governor we were able to secure commitments for a new website and a 2010 voter ID project from the RNC. With the help of national consultants and a few key donors we were able to set up a “Dump Kennedy” website and fundraising project to keep the heat on the shame of our First Congressional District and provide resources to a Republican challenger. With the help of our legal and research volunteers, we were able to publicly target our most likely challenger for Governor in 2010, Patrick Lynch, and over the course of seven months, see his approval numbers dive down by a heavy 18 point margin.
All these actions, along with dozens of other projects, have put our candidates in a better position to win in November. It is my intent to build upon these gains over the next eleven months rather than focus on internal disputes. I appreciate the time you have taken to read this very long note, and I hope every one of you will choose to join with me this year as we work hard to move the Rhode Island Republican Party forward to victory.
Giovanni D. Cicione
Gio is the Chairman of the Rhode Island Republican Party.