The two-party solution

Two-party government is critical to the future of Massachusetts, but if it’s to become a reality, Republicans must do a better job of attracting more voters and viable candidates to our ranks.

During my time in the State House, a Democratic leader once confided that having a Republican governor was very valuable: It gave him a reason to say “no” to the loony left. Having a strong minority party is what leads to tough questions being asked about important policy initiatives. Also, the likelihood of competitive elections makes all representatives and senators stay focused on the best interests of their district and the Commonwealth.

Yet, since I first entered the Massachusetts Senate as one of 16 Republican senators in 1990 — enough to sustain first-term Gov. William Weld’s vetoes — the GOP has lost significant ground. Republican legislative seats are at near historic lows and we don’t hold a single executive branch office. In the last quadrennial election, the only Republican statewide candidates that were even viable were for the governor/lieutenant governor slate.

As our state and nation grapple with an historic economic crisis and our legislators are forced to confront ethical indiscretions by their colleagues, a strong two-party system is badly needed to keep our state on course. In fact, President-elect Barack Obama successfully articulated and captured the voters’ desire for both parties to work together to address our nation’s challenges. And while it is always harder to practice bipartisanship than it is to preach it, it is impossible to reach across the aisle if there is no one sitting on the other side.

While our party’s core principles of fiscal restraint, a competitive business climate with limited taxes and regulation, and a strong belief in individual responsibility resonate with voters, we still see our base of support narrowing and our electoral victories diminishing. One problem for the GOP is that we are not attracting women or minority voters, and we are not attracting young voters. While the reasons and accompanying possible solutions for this are many, one path back to power has got to be a serious plan to reach out to non-traditional GOP voters.

It’s been well-documented on the national level that the Republican Party is suffering from a gender gap. But it doesn’t have to be that way. As a surrogate travelling the country for Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign, I was approached by dozens of women who said they support Republicans on many issues, including homeland security and taxes, but felt like the party wasn’t for them.

One way to convince women voters to embrace the GOP is to field more qualified women as candidates. When the new Legislature is seated in January at the State House, only five out of the 40 senators will be Republicans — a mere 12.5 percent, none of whom are women. During my first term in the Senate in 1991, we not only had enough senators to sustain a gubernatorial veto but women composed 25 percent of our caucus. This year, there will be just 16 GOP House members and only three will be women. The state party must focus on recruiting and supporting women to run for legislative and municipal elections, and offer specific strategies and training that will help them win.

Similarly, the GOP needs to reach out to younger voters as well as blacks and Latinos — demographic groups that overwhelmingly went for Obama in the presidential election and Gov. Deval Patrick in the last gubernatorial race. Younger voters will embrace a return to a traditional Republican view of environmental conservancy that has been absent from recent party platforms. Republican support for charter schools and school choice can help attract urban black and Latino voters who hope for a brighter future for their children. But without a strategy, these demographic groups will continue to be reliable Democratic voters on the state and federal levels.

Our party must also focus on issues that matter to voters. In 1990, Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci swept into office thanks in large part to a focused policy platform of “Crime/Taxes/Welfare Reform.” And lots of legislative candidates were swept in with them. (That was my first run and win.) Candidates Weld and Cellucci were able to articulate a clear vision of how to address these challenges in a way that resonated with Republican, Democratic, and independent voters.

In recent years, divisive social issues have been at the top of the GOP policy agenda on the national level and, to a somewhat lesser extent, here in Massachusetts. Rather than being viewed as the Big Tent, Small Government party, the Republican brand has been positioned by its opponents as intolerant and angry. That hurts Massachusetts candidates, as well as moderates across the country. Identifying the next GOP policy triangle — say “Fiscal Discipline/Education/Ethics Reform” — will go a long way toward rebuilding the moderate voting bloc that elected Republican governors in the 1990s.

While Barack Obama gets accolades for his integration of technology in politics, Deval Patrick’s meteoric rise to the corner office two years ago was an early look at a candidacy powered in large part on a savvy electronic communications strategy. Starting off as a political unknown with no existing support base, Patrick built one from scratch in large part by reaching voters who had never before been active in a campaign.

One tangible benefit of Gov. Patrick’s “netroots” strategy was in fundraising. He had 20,000 individual campaign donors — a remarkable amount for a governor’s race. An enhanced netroots focus would not only help the GOP reach a younger audience, but also generations of older voters who are becoming more tech savvy by the day. (Case in point: My 67-year-old father just joined Facebook.) Technology has been a backroom function on GOP campaigns for too long; it needs to become completely integrated into fundraising, field operations, grass-roots coordination, and communications for Republican candidates to compete in the 21st century. The state GOP should invest the necessary resources to help candidates run tech-savvy campaigns.

I have seen firsthand the improvements in the economy, educational quality, and environmental policy that strong two party-government can bring to Massachusetts. I am convinced that with renewed focus and energy, our party can offer candidates and policies that will best serve all the families of the Commonwealth — and that we will get there faster if we corral the energy and enthusiasm that empowered candidates and grass-roots activists can bring to our party.

Jane Swift, a former governor of Massachusetts, is the founder of WNP Consulting LLC and a lecturer in the Leadership Studies program at Williams College.


The Republican Party can learn a lot from Boston’s sports teams

For our parents’ and our grandparents’ generations, state and local politics was not an abstract concept. It was often a crucial lifeline. Access to jobs, health care, educational opportunity, and other “rewards” were routinely allocated through the political system. But as government safety nets were established and Americans rose from economic poverty, the perceived direct impact of politics on their lives diminished. People were no longer compelled to participate in politics as a way to put food on the table.

The establishment of a permanent government system of support for the working class has had the effect of diminishing the need for politics. As the need has lessened, so has competition for elected office and voter turnout. Government programs, mostly Democratic programs, have put a lot of old-time politicians out of business and turned voter attention to other life concerns.

Why do Massachusetts elected officials routinely serve 10 years or more without serious competition? Because the stakes are no longer so high, and candidates are unwilling to undergo the scrutiny that goes along with running for office. The spoils of office are also less attractive, and a candidate’s supporters no longer campaign as if their life depended on it. There are also significant barriers to entry in politics, including the large campaign war chests held by some incumbents.

Democratic domination of Massachusetts politics is based on these historical realities, combined with the fact that voters recognize Democrats as being responsible for vast improvements in the quality of life over the past 75 years. The current Democratic-led Legislature did not invent the weekend, workers compensation, Social Security, Medicaid, or Medicare; nor did it establish professional police and fire departments and public education. Still, their Democratic predecessors did, and this generation continues to build on the accomplishments of the past.

But those who feel complacent ought to look around. A perfect storm is brewing to fester unrest in the body politics, with ethics scandals at seemingly every level of government (including the indictment of two state senators), government revenues plummeting, serious cuts to local and state government on the horizon, and the real possibility of $7 tolls. Political fortunes can change overnight: Just look to the north at the once “forever red” state of New Hampshire.

Or look at how our local sports teams have changed things around. It is hard to believe now, but it wasn’t too long ago that every Boston sports team was a joke. In the year that Bill Clinton was elected, the Patriots were 2-14, the Red Sox finished in last place, and the Celtics and Bruins were on the cusp of entering a long winter’s nap of many seasons without a playoff run on Causeway Street.

But today, Boston has become Titletown USA. As I write, all three active Boston sports teams are in first place. For those yearning for a competitive two-party state in Massachusetts, there are lots of lessons to be learned from the resurgence of our sports teams.

Have a great farm system. When the Red Sox were losing, they were investing in their farm system, with players like Nomar Garciaparra, Jonathan Papelbon, and Dustin Pedroia. In elective politics, local offices are the farm system. You can’t have competitive statewide and congressional races until you have more competitive races for city council and state representative seats. That means encouraging people to get involved at the local level. As Tip O’Neill used to say: “All politics is local.”

Money matters. The success of the Pats has been in no small part due to the ability of their front office to manage the salary cap. In politics, there is no salary cap, but money still matters. Until we come up with a public financing system that works, it’s always going to be hard for people to get involved. Would you apply for a job if it meant you have to call 250 of your friends and ask them for $250 each? Yet that’s what we’re asking state representative candidates to do. And that’s only a small fraction of what we ask for our statewide officeholders to do.

Have a vision. From the day he bought the Pats, Robert Kraft had a clear vision of what he wanted: a Super Bowl ring. So Kraft and his son, Jonathan, went out and built the framework over time that has given us the National Football League’s most successful franchise of the past decade. Republicans in Massachusetts have lacked a clear vision. They want to win but are unwilling or unable to build that framework. That, more than anything, has cost them elections.

Watch out for “clubhouse cancers.” The Sox traded Manny Ramirez because he was great at the plate but allegedly a “cancer” in the clubhouse. For the Republicans, their clubhouse cancer has been absentee governors — people who were in the office but always had their eyes on a different prize. It takes committed leadership to build a party.

Play good defense. The Celtics have some tremendous offensive players, but they are the world champions because they play tenacious defense. The Republican numbers in the state Legislature are at historic lows — five of 40 in the Senate and approximately 16 of 160 in the House. As they are looking for seats to challenge, the Republican legislators ought to make sure that they keep the seats they have and not dip any lower.

Take advantage of opportunities. When Drew Bledsoe was injured, Patriots coach Bill Belichik went with a sixth-round pick named Tom Brady. When the Celtics didn’t get the first pick in the 2007 draft, Danny Ainge went after Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Dan Duquette traded Heathcliff Slocumb for Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek. The biggest opportunity for growth in a two-party system in Massachusetts was the Clean Elections Law that was passed by a two-thirds margin in a 1998 statewide referendum, barely implemented in 2002, and repealed by the Legislature shortly thereafter. It would have leveled the playing field for incumbents and challengers and encouraged more women, minorities, and, yes, Republicans to run for office. Massachusetts Republicans can ill afford to stand idly by when good legislation like this is repealed.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
As a lifelong Democrat, I am not praying for the Republicans to take over the State House any time soon, but I do recognize that some modicum of competition in electoral politics is good for government. Competition would be good for Democrats, and it would be good for our government.

Warren Tolman, a former Democratic state senator and candidate for governor, is an attorney at Holland & Knight LLP in Boston.