Republicans have a positive role to play

For the past 16 years, the Massachusetts Republican Party, including its legislators and candidates, has been dominated by the agendas and personalities of single individuals: governors who mobilized the Republican base and appealed to voters wanting balance in state government. For all that time, the party focused its efforts on keeping hold of the governor’s seat, even as disparities in representation between Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature grew larger and larger.

Now the party of Lincoln has lost the corner office, and its numbers in the Legislature have reached a new low. There are just five Republican state senators out of 40, and 19 Republicans in the 160-member House. Not since the end of the Civil War has GOP presence in the Legislature been lower. And there has been no Republican in the Massachusetts congressional delegation, House or Senate, in a decade.

A key element in the current scenario is morale, and in this Republicans could use a boost. Two-party government is important to democracy. Yet many observers are left wondering how a small, if energetic, band of Republican lawmakers can provide for the robust debate that the founding fathers intended, and, in doing so, be a positive influence on state government.

Against this backdrop, I offer the following ideas to keep Republicans relevant in the State House:

LOOK WEST: While the situation for Massachusetts Republicans may seem uniquely difficult, there are lessons to be learned from Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and his path to political revitalization. After a series of humiliations in the 2005 elections, in which voters rejected every initiative petition he put before them, Arnold came roaring back to win a resounding victory in his bid for reelection a year later.

“You rarely see in politics anybody come up from where the governor was,” said the polling director of the Public Policy Institute of California in USA Today.

How did Schwarzenegger save himself from political peril and turn himself into an action hero at the ballot box last November? For one thing, he capitalized on another transformation, from confrontation to collaboration.

Early in 2006, he sat down with legislative leaders of both parties and vowed to work things out, for the good of the state. In a speech to the California Policy Issues Conference, he described the process this way:

“I think that it was really incredible, especially this year, that we are were able to sit down and we looked at each other and said, ‘We know it is an election year where normally everyone tries to derail each other, but let us be different. Let us make decisions [based not on] what is best for our party, but what is best for the people of California.’ And I tell you, it was a really incredible moment, because all four leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, all shook their heads and said, ‘Yes, let us be different, and let’s commit to that.’ And that’s exactly what happened…. We met in the middle. That is exactly what you do; you compromise.”

To his great credit, Gov. Deval Patrick also promised a new era of cooperation, in a post-election meeting with Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei and House Minority Leader Brad Jones. Patrick’s tone was civil, even collegial. We Republicans need to show, like Gov. Schwarzenegger, that we can cooperate—and test Gov. Patrick’s willingness to enlist Republicans in achieving his goals in the upcoming legislative session.

ENGAGE, DON’T ENRAGE: Although recent electoral results reflect domination by the Democratic Party, other indicators continue to support the case for balance. Between 1986 and last November’s election, voters registering as Democrats and as Republicans increased by almost the same number, with the GOP slightly ahead, 109,000 to 105,000. But the ranks of unenrolled voters leaped by 811,000 during that time, swelling from 40 percent of the electorate to 69 percent. It would seem that a significant percentage of today’s voters are not voting for candidates based on party affiliation.

Massachusetts Republicans need to resist the temptation to fall into the role of “loyal opposition” to the majority party, and instead seize the opportunity to develop an idea-based agenda. What is there to be gained—for the GOP, or for the Commonwealth—by Republican lawmakers setting themselves up in partisan opposition to a governor and a legislative majority whose party seems to have so little meaning for the electorate?

Politics has been a turnoff for many citizens of Massachusetts, but not so much because their favored party has been out of power. Rather, as media consultant Ben Kilgore put it to Joan Vennochi in these pages (“A Turn Toward the Flat and Bland,” CW, Spring ’06), the “ceaseless gamesmanship” between the Legislature and a series of Republican governors left things such that “the people simply don’t count for much anymore. Only time will tell if there is anything we can do to get back in the game, but the emergence of inspirational leadership would be a good start.”

Since then, Deval Patrick has emerged as a dynamic leader who captured the imagination of the electorate, and the people of Massachusetts got back in the game in a big way. Voter registration increased dramatically, and on Election Day, some polling locations in Boston ran out of ballots.

Now is not the time for Republican legislators to begrudge Gov. Patrick his due, or to set themselves up as reflexive naysayers. In fact, the leverage provided by his victory may be just what Beacon Hill needs to be a more open marketplace for ideas, regardless of their party of origin.

FOCUS ON WHAT’S IMPORTANT: Massachusetts is losing population, hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs, and becoming increasingly unaffordable for middle-class families. This is no time for monopoly control of state government by the Democrats. At the same time, problems like these ought to be a call to action for a Republican Party that too often has had its bread-and-butter economic issues drowned out by what are often more sensational, but less consequential, social issues.

Similarly, our state and our nation face extraordinary challenges surrounding energy independence and the impact of energy production on the environment. The scope and complexity of these issues call for debate and collaboration, not a closed door, with Democrats on the inside and Republicans on the outside.

I authored a comprehensive bill to promote alternative fuel vehicles and technology in Massachusetts, and co-sponsored it with Senate President Robert Travaglini and Senate Transportation Committee chairman Steven Baddour, both Democrats. The legislation requires that a minimum of 5 percent of new vehicles purchased by the Commonwealth each year be powered by alternative fuels, so that at least 50 percent of the state’s vehicle fleet will be alternative-fuel-based by 2010. The bill further provides sales-tax incentives for consumers who purchase hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles, and substantial incentives for corporations to purchase or lease these environment-friendly vehicles. Despite a 38-0 vote in the Senate in September 2005, and support from then-Gov. Romney, the bill never made it out of the House.

Here again, we can look west for contrast, and inspiration. In September, Gov. Schwarzenegger signed into law an extensive global warming initiative, calling the fight against global warming “one of the most critical issues of our time.” Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) said, “Today, we tell the rest of the world that California has the courage and the know-how to turn this tide and the ability to move forward to putting an end to this creeping disaster we know as global warming.”

Nunez helped write the bill, which passed in the last week of the legislative session, giving Schwarzenegger a triumph of good government just before the November election. Isn’t it time for such a thing to happen in Massachusetts?

The natural tendency of those in the opposition is to become abrasive critics of those in power. Massachusetts Republicans could follow that path, hoping that vocal attacks would make them appear involved in the process. That would be a mistake.

The time is now to advance innovative proposals, including those that Republican legislators have to offer. Those proposals that have merit should be well received by the governor and by the Democratic leaders of the Legislature, and form the basis for the type of collaboration that so many hope for. If not, the blame will be on them.

Meet the Author
Massachusetts is well known for the “shot heard ’round the world,” a revolution that put the power of ideas in the hands of the people. Let it be so again.

Sen. Bruce E. Tarr represents the 1st Essex and Middlesex District and serves as Senate Minority Whip. He is also Senate chairman of the newly established Republican Party Conference.