Mass. GOP’s unconvincing urban strategy

Is party’s unpopularity in cities due to neglect or hostility?

REPUBLICANS ACROSS THE NATION gleefully passed the popcorn this past weekend as they watched the spectacular fall of Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor of Virginia. Northam, who had defeated his Republican opponent in part because of the latter’s support for protecting monuments to the Confederacy, suddenly came under fire for his own apparently racist past as documented in yearbook photos from his medical school days.

Among the Republicans relishing this reversal of fortune was our own Massachusetts Republican Party, which on Saturday called on Northam to resign for having contradicted “our American values.” The timing of Northam’s troubles may have especially pleased the Mass. GOP because it worked to reinforce the message of a press release they had sent out on Martin Luther King Day last month – the launch of a new initiative aimed at re-engaging the state’s urban communities, by which they meant primarily but not exclusively people of color.

Recent MassINC polls confirm that the Mass. GOP rather badly needs an urban initiative of some kind. While the Republican Party struggles for relevance all across the state, its standing in urban communities is particularly dismal: the percentage of voters statewide with a favorable opinion of Donald Trump is already low at 31 percent; among non-white voters and voters in Boston and the inner suburbs the number drops to 18 percent.

The possible success of such an initiative is another question altogether. The Mass. GOP seems to regard its current unpopularity among people of color not as the result of decades of overt hostility to their interests, but the result merely of its own neglect, a failing easily corrected through engagement: “If we make engagement a priority, we can compete and win in these communities,” said Republican State Committee member Rachel Kemp in the party’s Martin Luther King Day press release.

The engagement the Mass. GOP has in mind, apparently, would overlook its own history. The press release concludes with a pep talk of sorts to remind Republicans that not all that long ago, its future in the state was bright and to suggest that a return to those times is within reach: “It’s important to remember that our cities, particularly those with populations of people of color, were strong Republican bases as recently as the Eisenhower administration and the party saw a resurgence of support during the days of former Republican US Sen. Edward Brooke,” Kemp is quoted as saying.

Yes, and all that was before Richard Nixon’s southern strategy; before Ronald Reagan’s call for states’ rights at a fairgrounds near Philadelphia, Mississippi; before the gutting of the Voting Rights Act by five Supreme Court justices appointed by Republican presidents; and before Donald Trump’s secretary of housing and urban development put at least a temporary end to the goal of “affirmatively furthering fair housing,” the life’s work of the late Sen. Brooke.

Margaret Monsell is an attorney practicing in the Boston area.