Want To Grow the Massachusetts Republican Party? Run For Local Office, Politicians Say

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2020/06/21/want-to-grow-the-massachusetts-republican-party-run-for-local-office-politicians-say/

Massachusetts is one of the most heavily Democratic states in the country. What can Republicans do about it?

Not much, at the moment. But some state Republican officials see a longer-term strategy.

Before the GOP can make meaningful inroads in state and federal offices, they say, the party may need to make more meaningful inroads closer to home.

“Running for local office is the most effective activism a Republican can do,” said Jim Lyons, chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party, in an email message to New Boston Post. “By running, and winning, you create a team at the local level that can fight against ill-conceived overrides, stifling zoning laws, and useless plastic bag bans, just to name a few issues. And it always helps for statewide candidates to have that Republican selectman as a local contact, and eventually, that Republican selectman could become a governor or a United States senator, as has happened in the past.”

The party has attracted a number of first-time candidates for relatively high office in recent years, most of whom have lost. But there is another way. As Lyons notes, prominent Massachusetts Republicans got their start in local politics.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s first elected office was on the board of selectmen (the board that oversees day-to-day affairs in most towns in the state) in Swampscott. Former U.S. Senator Scott Brown started lower than that — he was first elected to the board of assessors (which oversees property valuations) in Wrentham, and later won a seat on the town’s board of selectmen. He used the selectman’s seat to win a state representative seat, later became a state senator, and in 2011 got elected to the U.S. Senate.

Former Governor Paul Cellucci also worked his way up. In his early 20s he served as a member of the Hudson Charter Commission and then got elected to the town’s board of selectmen. From there he went from state representative to state senator to lieutenant governor to governor.

More recently, Patrick O’Connor of Weymouth and Ryan Fattman of Sutton, now Republican state senators, started in town politics. O’Connor’s first elected position was on the Weymouth town council; Fattman’s first was on the Sutton Board of Selectmen.

For those aiming higher:  President Calvin Coolidge got his start in elected politics on the Northampton City Council. His stops along the way included both chambers on Beacon Hill, lieutenant governor, governor, and vice president of the United States. (When Warren Harding died, he became president, and then was elected in his own right.)

To be sure, that was 100 years ago, when Massachusetts was a largely Republican state.

Today, Democrats have a supermajority in the state legislature. (The margin is 4 to 1 in the state House of Representatives, 9 to 1 in the state Senate.) All nine members of the U.S. House of Representatives and both U.S. senators are Democrats. The last Republican members of the U.S. House from Massachusetts left Congress in 1997. And the last time Massachusetts voted for a Republican for president was 1984 — the year Ronald Reagan won 49 states.

Breaking through can be hard — which is why some GOP officials say start small.

Oftentimes, town elections don’t attract many candidates. In some cases, races either don’t have any names on the ballot or don’t have enough names to fill all of the seats in question.

For example, later this month, on June 30, the town of Dennis on Cape Cod plans to hold a town election, but there is no name on the ballot for school committee. In Westport, only one candidate for constable will appear on the June 23 ballot despite voters being allowed to pick two. Stow’s June 27 ballot has no one running for assessor or housing authority. Hull’s June 23 ballot has no one running to be on the planning board or the board of trustees of the public library. And on East Brookfield’s June 29 ballot, there are no candidates for selectmen, board of health, planning board, finance committee, cemetery commissioner, trustee of shade tree & cemetery funds, or tree warden.

Similar under-filled ballots appear in annual town elections every year.

State Representative Shawn Dooley (R-Norfolk) says he is passionate about getting more Republicans to pursue local office. One problem the MassGOP has faced for years, he says, is “an inability to nurture a strong bench for higher office.”

Dooley got his start in local politics as the town clerk in Norfolk. Then he got elected to the school committee.

He offers a few reasons why other Republicans should think small.

“First, as the party of small government — we should be embracing the ability to manifest change and promote fiscal responsibility at the level where we can make the greatest impact — our own communities,” Dooley said in an email message to New Boston Post.

“Second, while certainly not required, acquiring the experience of navigating the political landscape of town politics, understanding local needs, forging relationships, while gaining name recognition and respect with your constituents gives one a tremendous advantage when the opportunity arises to run for higher political office,” he said in early June. “We saw this play out a couple of weeks ago in the two state senate races where we got trounced in two districts we previously held by opponents who had local experience while our candidates did not.”

The races Dooley referred to occurred on Tuesday, May 19.

In the Plymouth & Barnstable District, Falmouth Democratic selectman Susan Moran beat Bourne lawyer Jay McMahon, the Republican nominee, 55 to 45 percent. In the Second Hampden and Hampshire District, John Velis, a Democratic state representative from Westfield, defeated John Cain, a Republican businessman from Southwick, 64 to 36 percent.

Since then, Republicans lost another seat in a race where their nominee had never held elected office. On June 2, longtime Taunton school committee member and former Massachusetts Teachers Association president Carol Doherty, a Democrat, defeated Taunton Republican Kelly Dooner in a race to fill a seat in the Bristol Third District in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Doherty got 57 percent of the vote to Dooner’s 43 percent. The seat was previously held by a Republican, Shaunna O’Connell, now the mayor of Taunton. 

Dooley says  getting more people elected to office — at any level — is the best way for the MassGOP to counter the Democrats’ stranglehold on the state.

“It is critical for Republicans to have a strong presence in this state if for no other reason than one-party rule destroys democracy,” Dooley said in the email message. “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We need to embrace this notion of good governance and build partnerships up and down the political spectrum. This model takes time but it is the only tried and true formula — and as we sit on the edge of a precipice, we must embrace this strategy of growth before it is too late.”

Getting elected to any contested office is hard. But getting elected locally is often easier than aiming first for Boston or Washington.

State Senator Ryan Fattman — one of only four Republicans in the 40-seat Massachusetts Senate — was 21 when he was elected to the Sutton Board of Selectmen in 2006. 

“I think if you look at the evolution of how parties are built that’s how they start,” Fattman said. “When you start in your town, you build a rapport that transcends party politics. You may be from this party or that party but at the local level, there’s a lot of issues that are not party-based. It’s not a Republican issue or Democrat issue. It’s, ‘what does the town think of building a solar field?’ 

“They get to know you as a person outside of this grandiose hyperbolic political world we live in, and you can use that when running for office,” he added.

Fattman said he has supporters in his district who are registered Democrats — many of whom got to know him when he was a selectman in Sutton.

In Massachusetts town elections are nonpartisan. When candidates run for selectman, school committee, library trustee, or another position, no R or D appears next to their name on the ballot. So when people go to vote, they are not voting a party ticket.

Fattman also told New Boston Post that his experience in town politics helped prepare him for the State House.

“Without question,” he said. “I think it’s helpful about life. You learn about human nature and what’s important to people — and sometimes, you get surprised. It certainly takes a skill set that allows you to be able to listen to people’s concerns and apply them to solutions.”

In many communities, a board of selectmen like the one Fattman sat on has a mix of Democrats and Republican. Whatever their differences, the board members must find ways to work together to serve their community — which is preparation for life in the state Legislature.

State Representative David DeCoste (R-Norwell) says his time on the Norwell Board of Selectmen put him in a position to serve his community at the state level.

“I was better able to identify some of the needs locally,” DeCoste said. “When I ran, I was able to speak about, for instance, 40B abuse, and the need for higher local aid. As a Republican, we champion local aid over earmarks.”

Chapter 40B, which DeCoste referred to, is a piece of Massachusetts housing policy, which allows developers to avoid most local zoning rules as long as they set aside a portion of units in a development as below market rate. It’s a frequent topic in towns where there’s demand for buildable land.

DeCoste said he would like to see more people run for office, especially from viewpoints the left-leaning state lacks.

“I think more people who have a conservative outlook and have worked in the private sector should bring that point of view with them,” he said. “I also wish we’d see more former police and veterans run. We have a whole bunch of lawyers in the legislature, but very few veterans.”