Tussle for Leadership of Massachusetts GOP May Help Define Its Direction

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2021/01/01/tussle-for-leadership-of-massachusetts-gop-may-help-define-its-direction/

A largely behind-the-scenes campaign to lead the Massachusetts Republican Party culminates in a vote for party chairman this weekend that may help decide where the undermanned GOP goes from here.

The Massachusetts State Republican Committee plans to meet at 1 p.m. Sunday, January 3.

The current chairman, former state representative Jim Lyons of Andover, is a conservative Donald Trump supporter who was the flagship pro-lifer on Beacon Hill during his eight years in the state Legislature.

His one announced challenger so far is a current state representative, Shawn Dooley (R-Norfolk), who is generally right of center but not as conservative as Lyons, and has occasionally broken with conservatives.

Other potential candidates have said they are also looking at the job, which involves recruiting candidates, raising money for the party, steering party money to candidates, representing the party in public, and running its day-to-day affairs. The voters are the 80 members of the Massachusetts Republican State Committee, who are elected every four years in the presidential primary.

Republicans are in tough shape in Massachusetts and have been for years. Outnumbered nine to one in the state Senate (36-4 for Democrats) and four-to-one in the state House of Representatives (126-31 for Democrats), the party actually did slightly worse this past November, losing a net of one seat in each chamber.

The party is also fractured. The state’s governor, Charlie Baker, a nominal Republican, is no conservative, which alienates many of the party faithful. In fact, Baker is more popular among Democratic voters in the state than he is among Republicans. Lyons’s election as party chairman in January 2019 was in some ways a repudiation of Baker by state committee members.

Lyons and Dooley have both maintained at various points that they are on friendly terms with Baker, though each has had serious differences with him.

Lyons and Baker notably differ on abortion, President Donald Trump, and the coronavirus lockdowns of earlier this year. Dooley heavily criticized Baker’s coronavirus executive orders in August, even referring to Baker as “King Charles” in a column published by New Boston Post.

New Boston Post recently interviewed both Lyons and Dooley at length.


Jim Lyons

Lyons has confidence in the party’s messaging and candidates and thinks, all things considered, this wasn’t the worst year for the party.

“Historically, presidential election cycles are very difficult for Republicans,” Lyons said in an interview with New Boston Post. “We knew how difficult the presidential cycle would be, but we’re looking forward to 2022 to contrast what the message the Republican Party has — which is freedom, liberty, and personal responsibility, and a free enterprise system — with the positions of the radical Democrats who want to defund the police, raise taxes in the middle of COVID epidemic where everyone is trying to protect life — the radical Democrats’ priority is passing the infanticide act. I look forward to bringing our message to the people of Massachusetts, particularly in districts where Republicans tend to run strong.”

Lyons said that in a midterm election such as 2022, he expects the party to make some gains in the legislature — as it did when he began his first term in the state House of Representatives 10 years ago.

“We had a number of candidates that ran terrific campaigns and worked very hard and brought the message of our values to the people,” Lyons said. “We look forward to building on that like we did in 2010. That was the year I got elected. The radical policies of the Democrats helped me get elected then and I believe the radical policies of the Democrats are going create an opportunity again.”

He noted that he would love to see some of the same candidates who ran strong campaigns this time and came up short run again in 2022, including those who were first-time candidates.

“That’s the whole idea,” Lyons said. “They got out. They got familiar with running for office. We’re gonna build it over time and we need people like these people who have stood up and fought and even if they don’t run again, the next person who runs after them will be the beneficiary of their efforts. That’s why I got elected. Before I got elected, we had a candidate run for the seat I won in 2006 and 2008. It really is the efforts of the team that’ll turn this thing around.”

The candidate who ran before Lyons in the 18th Essex District was former Georgetown selectman and current Boston Broadside owner Lonnie Brennan. Before running himself, Lyons helped Brennan out with his campaigns.

Lyons said that this is an example of something the Massachusetts Republican Party is looking to do more of: get people with experience working on campaigns to also run for local office. He noted that this experience can prove to be an advantage for first time candidates.

“Yeah I think you’re pointing to something that’s very valuable,” he said. “When a candidate runs and creates an organization in the district, the hope is now that we can now get people who understand how to run a campaign to step up and run for a local office or even a state rep race. That’s the foundation we’re trying to build across the state with people committed to the values of the Republican Party: freedom, liberty, personal responsibility, and standing up for the rule of law. That’s a key component of what we’re trying to do across the state.”

Lyons mentioned some people specifically that he sees having a bigger role in the party in the future, including some of those who ran for state representative this year.

“Oh I think we have some great candidates,” he said. “Tatyana Semyrog, Summer Schmaling, Bruce Chester, Alec DiFruscia, Bob May. We’ve got a young man down in Westport Evan Gendreau who ran a great race down there. He got around 43 percent of the vote. We’ve got some excellent candidates across the state. That’s just a few names off the top of my head. We’re hoping to build a farm team so we can come back and beat these radical Democrats in 2022.”

Lyons served as a member of the Massachusetts legislature from 2011 to 2019 and earned a reputation as its most conservative member. For example, he was the only member of the legislature to score above a 90 percent rating by the American Conservative Union in 2017; he finished his career in the legislature with a 96 percent lifetime rating.

“I’m a Republican that was converted as a Democrat by Ronald Reagan,” Lyons said. “I view what we should be doing as a country as following what our Founding Fathers gave us. This country was build on freedom, individual liberty, personal responsibility, and a free-market system rooted in capitalism. That’s what the Republican Party promotes and I’ve always promoted:  less taxes, less government regulations, smaller government. It’s all of the things that have made America great and makes America great today. Government is too big, taxes are too high. That’s the kind of Republican I am.”

Lyons said he grew up in an Irish Catholic family and considered himself a conservative Democrat when he was younger; he said that the modern Democratic Party does not represent the values of Democrats of old, including his mother and father.

Lyons was also one of the most pro-life members of the Massachusetts legislature. He admitted that it’s not a popular stance in Massachusetts, but said that protecting the lives of the unborn was something he strongly believed in during his farewell speech to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in December 2018.

So as a conservative Republican, what is Lyons’s opinion of Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker?

“I think Charlie Baker has a very difficult job trying to run Massachusetts when he’s outnumbered about 30-130 in the legislature,” he said. “If given what his job is, it’s a very difficult position to be in — and I think Charlie is doing what he thinks is right.”

And while Lyons is to the right of Baker on social issues, the governor has held a fund raiser with the party chairman in the past and the two have gone doorknocking together as well, as State House News Service reported.

One complaint lodged against the Republican Party under Lyons came from Franklin town councilor Matt Kelly, a Senate candidate who ran and lost this past November against state Senator Becca Rausch (D-Needham). A member of Kelly’s campaign claimed that the party did not provide money for his campaign because he wasn’t a supporter of President Donald Trump, according to WBUR.

Lyons, asked about the situation, didn’t get into details. He said he doesn’t take the accusation personally, understanding that Kelly must not have been happy with the results of the election. Kelly lost to Rausch 59.7 percent to 40.2 percent.

“It’s always difficult when you lose,” Lyons said. “I’m not really going to get too much into it. When you put yourself out there like that and lose, I understand when I lost there’s a sting to it. I think Matt was upset with the results. He got beat rather soundly. I understand the frustration.”

As for what Lyons has in store for 2021, if re-elected, he said they will be looking for people to run for local office and preparing for 2022.

“We’re really focusing on reinvigorating our local town committees and what I call the top 75 state rep districts in our state. We’re going to keep recruiting people to run for local office so we can hopefully gain some seats in the State House in 2022.”


Shawn Dooley

Dooley portrays himself as a principled pragmatist who can help the Republican Party with a new approach.

He says that for years the party has made it too difficult and complicated for candidates to run for office. His experience, he says, makes him a good candidate to help others run.

“I never wanted to be in front of the camera,” Dooley said. “I always liked being an operative. I ran a lot of campaigns before I ever ran. I think we’re missing a lot of the blocking and tackling as a party. There’s so much more that could be done in terms of recruiting candidates and setting them up for success. There has to be good branding.”

“All of the day-to-day operational things should be taken care of by the party for the candidates,” he added. “Let’s have a boilerplate template with a really good web site that everyone can plug and play into as opposed to spending hours and hours and their own money figuring that out. Let’s just have the same one. And for signs, let’s have four or five templates for signs, a national contract with a local sign company. We’ll say, we want 10,000 signs at this price. Let’s have the party take care of it.”

Dooley said that over the years he has heard of stories over the years where candidates went to the party and the party told the candidate to go out and raise a large sum of money — he used $50,000 as an example — before the party starts offering the candidate much support. 

“These people come home and they’re excited to run, then they’re online figuring out how to start a web site, how to fund raise, they have legal questions,” Dooley said. “They have all of these things running through their head. They spend the next two days up until 3 a.m. trying to figure out how to do this, and then their spouse will say, ‘Why are you killing yourself over this? No one’s helping you. You’re on your own. You might lose. It’s hurting your job performance and your family life. Why are you doing this?’ And they’ll go, ‘You’re right.’ I’ve had that conversation with numerous people where it’s just not worth the headache especially when we have such a polarized social media.”

Dooley clarified that he wasn’t talking specifically about the Massachusetts GOP under Lyons when describing that scenario, but problems he says have existed for years.

Dooley said he also wants to see more unity in the Massachusetts Republican Party. The party is broadly divided between those who align with Governor Charlie Baker, a fiscal moderate and social liberal, and conservatives more inclined to align with President Donald Trump.

Dooley said while he understands there are sharp differences of opinion, the party is too small to divide even further.

“We’ve seen not necessarily a pendulum swing to the right, but away from Baker,” Dooley said. “It was previously seen as Baker-centric, but then you have people who are anti-Baker, which is nonsensical because he’s the governor. A very smart gentleman I talked to yesterday gave me an analogy:  the Republican Party is walking down a hall to pick up seats. For a bunch of years, we decided the best way to do that was to go to the left side of the wall and drag ourselves as tightly as we could all the way along. And then we see that’s not working, so then we go to the other side of the wall and we still have a lot of friction, whereas if you walk down the middle, you could make some progress.”

Conservatives call more left-leaning Republicans “RINOs,” which stands for “Republican in Name Only.” Some self-identifying moderates use terms for conservatives also found in the left-leaning mainstream media. Dooley said both approaches are misguided.

“I have a huge problem with the whole RINO, right-wing, these things in our party,” Dooley said. “What are we, at like 9.5 percent of the state? And now we’re gonna divide that into three groups of three and we’re gonna win with that? We should be banding together against the common enemy. We shouldn’t be fighting ourselves. We can talk party purity when we get to 81 and get to pick the speaker. Until then, it doesn’t matter.”

The Massachusetts House of Representatives has 160 members. It takes 81 to have a majority. Republicans currently have 31.

Additionally, Dooley said the party should focus on state and local issues, not the national Republican Party, which fares poorly in Massachusetts.

“We can’t recruit just based on ideology,” Dooley said. “It’s Massachusetts and all politics is local. We might think of politics nationally whether it’s immigration or free trade, but they vote on the pothole on their street and making sure their kids’ schools are properly funded, there’s a program in place to help their special needs get ahead in school, and when there’s a pandemic they want to call up their state rep to help guide them through bureaucracy.”

Dooley added that about 95 percent of his job as a state representative is constituent services, and that if it was all legislating on Beacon Hill, he probably would’ve only served for one term.

“You get to help people and we should be looking for people who actually want to make a difference,” Dooley said. “They have a calling to serve and they don’t know exactly what it is, that’s who we need. I think the party has done a poor job of it.”

At this point, Dooley says, Democratic politicians in Massachusetts are more afraid of the far left than they are of Republicans. However, he said that gives the party an opportunity.

“Hey, they want to abandon the center?” Dooley said. “Let’s take it! This is just math. There’s 60 percent of the voters in the center. Let’s take them. We feed into the Democrats and the media’s narrative about Republicans that they’re rude, evil, and old rich white guys, they hate immigrants, gays, women. Then when all of our rhetoric is aggressive and mean, we play into that. Let’s recruit good candidates, not extremists. Let’s have a message that we’re proud of. Republicanism in this state in some parts is a lot of people’s dirty little secret.”

“I have friends who are Republicans but they’re unenrolled because if someone finds out, they think it could hurt their job or their ability to progress,” Dooley added. “How sad is that? Those reasons are why I’m running. We can’t continue down this path. We can’t be anti-governor and be solely focused on the president. We need to focus on building a brand, getting municipal candidates elected, build our bench, and have good governance across the board.”

Before representing the 9th Norfolk District in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Dooley served town clerk in Norfolk and as chairman of the town’s school committee.

Dooley is more moderate Republican than Lyons, but still more conservative than average for a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. As of 2019, he had a 77 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, although it has been lower in recent years; he received a 57 percent rating from the ACU in 2019 and a 55 percent rating in 2018. The average for a Massachusetts Republican in 2019 was 49 percent.

“I consider myself a constitutional conservative,” Dooley said. “My focus is small government, personal liberty, let people live their own lives. I don’t think we need this big giant bureaucracy. I think what makes America great is that we have this American spirit where we can start from nothing and pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. The Republican Party emblemizes the American dream. That is the message we should get out there. If you’re in this country you have all of these opportunities if you work hard and do the right thing. We need to take care of those who are unfortunate, but we shouldn’t be creating this welfare state, especially in Massachusetts where the slope is so slippery heading towards socialism.”

Dooley broke with conservatives on the s0-called Bathroom Bill in 2016, which allows people who identify as transgender to use bathroom and locker rooms for the opposite sex. While supporters say the law promotes dignity, opponents, including many conservatives, object to biological males who identify as female being able to use public bathrooms and locker rooms meant for women. They say it threatens the dignity and privacy of women and girls.

Dooley, unlike most Republicans in the state Legislature, voted for the Bathroom Bill in 2016; Lyons voted against it.

Dooley said the Bathroom Bill helps illustrate his style of governance — working within the prevailing left-wing system to make incremental progress.

“The Senate passes this outrageous bill,” Dooley said. “When you have an 82 percent majority in the House and 93 percent in the Senate, you have two options. You can say, ‘Hell no’ and then it gets passed. Or you can say, ‘Listen, we can work with you and find some sort of compromise.’ ”

“They don’t need to compromise with us,” Dooley said, referring to Democrats, “but there are people in there who believe in a two-party system, democracy, and hearing different voices.” 

“If you look at the House bill versus the Senate bill, we got in exemptions for churches and private clubs and we got the three-pronged test in there that they have to be under a doctor’s care, living their life full-time that way including having a drivers license under that name,” he added. “Is it perfect? No. But was it better than the Senate version? Light years.”

Additionally, he said he would not have supported the legislation if he thought it endangered people.

“I’m a liberty guy,” Dooley said. “I want to protect our kids, but I’m not going to tell someone they can’t use the bathroom in a restaurant or that they’re a pervert. I’m a Christian, I don’t believe that’s what Christ taught us.”

Dooley said he has a solid working relationship with Governor Charlie Baker and that the two speak four or five times a week. He said while the two don’t see eye-to-eye on everything — and that Baker wasn’t happy when Dooley wrote an op-ed critical of him for New Boston Post — the governor still wrote up an endorsement for his campaign for re-election a couple of weeks later.

He said that he hasn’t discussed the chairman position in much depth with Baker, but that he did tell the governor that he would be pursuing the position.

Dooley said he supports the governor and that a stronger Massachusetts Republican Party could allow Baker to govern more to the right.

“You can go into a Hells Angels bar and pick a fight by yourself,  you’re going to lose,” Dooley said. “If we get more seats, I think our objection to him will be stronger. He’s doing a good job out there, but if you’re the CEO of a company and the board of directors is all against you, it’s tough. He has to work with the board of directors. If we pick up 15-20 seats, Speaker DeLeo won’t punch us. And I have colleagues who say they want to vote with me on a bill, but they see that 30 or 31 votes and they’ll get crushed for it. It’d be a lot easier if we had around 45 seats and only needed eight or nine more conservative Democrats to side with us to sustain a veto.”


The Vote

The Massachusetts State Republican Committee plans to meet inside 1A Auto in Littleton (co-owned by former GOP congressional candidate Rick Green) and in the parking lot of the business at 1 p.m. Sunday, January 3. Because of the coronavirus restrictions, some members will be asked to stay in their cars in the parking lot and participate by listening on their FM radios.

The party gathering is not open to the public.