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Party boy
To succeed as governor, Mitt Romney must build up the moribund state Republican Party. Is the patrician politician ready to make such a concerted personal effort?
BY SETH GITELL

WHEN ALL IS SAID and done, Mitt Romney’s biggest test as governor will be getting his sweeping budget and government-reform plans passed. That eventuality hinges on two factors beyond his control, namely the House and the Senate. And therein lies a big problem: Romney may cut an attractive figure on TV, but the viability of his program over the long term depends on how he cuts it with legislators on Beacon Hill — not an easy task for a Republican leader in heavily Democratic Massachusetts.

Romney, then, must do something no other Republican governor in recent memory has been able to do: he must work aggressively to build up the moribund state Republican Party. Since 1990, Republicans have had a hammerlock on the governor’s office, but they have failed miserably at building their party organization. The 13 percent of the state's electorate that registers as Republican is about what it was 13 years ago, when William Weld was elected. Aside from the high-profile positions of governor and lieutenant governor, Republican statewide officeholders are nonexistent, and that’s partly the fault of the party itself. The state Republican Party, for example, failed to run a candidate against Attorney General Tom Reilly. It presented no challenger to Senator John Kerry, whom it should have countered, if only to force him to spend money he can now use in his run against President George W. Bush. The best the party could do against Democratic incumbent secretary of state William Galvin was Jack E. Robinson, a farcical figure who took the stage at the Republican convention in Lowell last April to the theme from Rocky. The party even failed to run a candidate for the seat formerly held by Senate president Tom Birmingham, which now belongs to Senator Jarrett Barrios of Cambridge — a race that, while uphill, could have raised the visibility of an up-and-coming Republican.

At least partly as a result of such lackluster efforts, all 10 members of the Bay State’s US congressional delegation are Democrats. And, most serious for Romney, he has only six fellow Republicans in the state Senate (a body of 40) and 23 in the House (a body of 160) — far less than the one-third (14 in the Senate, 54 in the House) he needs to uphold his vetoes. Without the key executive power to veto legislation, Romney will not be able to sustain himself as a strong governor.

State Republicans want to change all that. Charged with building up the structure of the party is new state-party chair Darrell Crate. Crate, who raised roughly $1 million for Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey’s campaign and the Republican Party itself during the last election cycle, was installed one month ago with Romney’s backing. Says Romney’s press secretary, Shawn Feddeman, "We’re thrilled that Darrell Crate has come on as chairman. We think he has significant executive experience as well as proven fundraising abilities." The party has also hired Dominick Ianno, a 29-year-old veteran of the Cellucci-Swift era best known for his energetic research skills, as executive director; retained several particularly effective staff members; and brought on a full-time fundraiser.

These staffing commitments reflect a belief that the party’s prospects are sunnier since the events of 2002, primarily Romney’s election, but not limited to that. Republicans point to the fact that Romney beat Treasurer Shannon O’Brien by five points, a huge margin for an election that had been forecast to be close. Further, an outlandish statewide referendum calling for the elimination of the income tax won the support of 45 percent of state voters, many of them Republicans concentrated in the suburbs. And an October 2002 Kennedy School of Government poll found that 43 percent of state voters would favor President George Bush in a head-to-head match-up against Massachusetts Democratic senator John Kerry. Taken together, these factors lead Bay State Republicans to think the time is ripe to resurrect the state GOP.

"It’s a huge opportunity," says Ron Kaufman, a Republican National Committee member from Massachusetts and former state-party executive director. Adds UMass Boston pollster and political analyst Lou DiNatale: "The hope of the Romney administration is that he’s not a drive-by governor. He’s got a significant mandate."

There’s no question that Romney’s election has put Democrats on notice. Democrats take seriously the notion that Romney could complicate life for them — particularly in the legislative races they’ve had a lock on for so long. "I’m under no illusions about the power of an incumbent governor to raise a significant amount of money to challenge Democratic officeholders around the state," says state Democratic Party chair Phil Johnston. "We’re aware of that threat, and we’ll be prepared."

Officially, Crate and other Republican leaders aren’t saying much about their plans. In an interview, Crate relates the three-part strategy that helped get him elected party chair. "Build the grassroots. Raise money. Cultivate candidates," he says. "I’ve been out meeting with activists, town committees. There is a real energy and vibrancy among Republicans out there." And where others might despair at the low percentage of the Massachusetts electorate represented by Republicans, Crate sees room for growth. More than half the state’s voters, after all, are unenrolled or independents, not Democrats. "When you look at the state ballot questions — the tax rollback, capital gains, bilingual education," says Crate, "this is a state where values are consistent with the Republican Party."

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Issue Date: February 27 - March 6, 2003
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