Happy Days Are Here For Now

Earlier this year, I paid a visit to state Senator Richard Tisei in his wood-paneled office on the third floor of the State House. Tisei is one of the newer generation of Republicans in the Legislature, one of those youthful politicians who might be described as “up-and-coming” if there were a functioning Republican Party in Massachusetts to come up in. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1984 at the age of 22, one of the youngest state representatives ever. When he came into the Senate in 1990 he was part of an upsurge: The ranks of the Republicans in the 40-member chamber grew to 16, which was the best showing for the minority party in 30 years. But since that momentous election their numbers have dwindled again, to the point where Tisei is now one of only seven Senate Republicans.

I was interested in what it’s like to be a Republican in the Legislature these days. An inside joke among Democratic partisans was that the most notable piece of legislation to come from the Republican camp in recent years was Sen. Robert Hedlund’s bill to allow caskets to be rented instead of purchased. Was this what it had come to for the GOP? Serving the dying population of parsimonious Yankees who saw an opportunity to save a few dollars by recycling their coffins? Other than that, what legislation had they crafted? “They just don’t come up with cool stuff,” one Democratic aide told me. “They don’t have the votes to do anything.”

What surprised me as I began to talk to rank-and-file Republicans like Tisei, and then to the leaders of the party in the Senate and the House, is that the acknowledgement of defeat one might expect to find is not there. Readily conceding that something must be done about their dismal numbers, Republicans nonetheless take satisfaction in the conservative tilt of the Legislature these days. Things seem to be going their way. Senate Minority Leader Brian Lees has established a respectful working relationship with Senate President Tom Birmingham, who is seen as a fairer hand than his predecessor William Bulger. On the House side, Republicans have a better partnership with Speaker Tom Finneran than most of the liberal Democrats do. Since the Republican delegation voted for Finneran, House Minority Leader David Peters has, at the least, some claim to the Speaker’s attention.

And there is a more important source of comfort: With Paul Cellucci, a former legislator — one of their own — in the Governor’s office, GOP legislators do not feel frozen out of power. “Brian Lees and David Peters are probably two of the most powerful legislators in the building,” Tisei contended, “because they have the governor’s ear.” Tisei tends to be the exuberant sort — at one point he sketched out for me a plan that had the Senate going Republican in the next 10 years — so he might be accused of stretching it. But like most Republicans I spoke with, he sees a potential upside to the retirement of the popular former Gov. William Weld and the elevation of Paul Cellucci. If Cellucci can hang on to the corner office this fall, the GOP will have a leader who takes the Legislature seriously and is ready to work to build up the party.

So while small cadres of party activists feuded across the state during this spring’s intra-party jostling between Cellucci and State Treasurer Joe Malone, his rival for the GOP nomination, the feeling among Republican legislators was calm. In fact, more than calm — downright pleased. They are working constructively with Democrats to cut taxes, to improve the business climate, to change welfare rules, and perhaps next year to reinstate capital punishment. They are happy with the bipartisan cooperation that has broken out in recent years and they are almost unanimous in their belief that Cellucci is the man to keep it going. In this new “Era of Good Feeling,” as Tisei calls it, they like what they see. And no two Republicans seem to be feeling as good these days, in different ways and for different reasons, as minority leaders Lees and Peters, the field marshals of the dwindling troops.

Lees and His Mentor

Brian Lees will be the first to tell you that he worked for Senator Edward Brooke, the moderate Republican from Massachusetts, the only black man elected to the U.S. Senate since 1912, when Senators first became elected by direct vote of the people. Listening to Lees, and watching him, you can detect that he learned from Brooke. But at certain times it seems more than that. Being an “Ed Brooke Republican,” as Lees has described himself, is a badge of singularity. It suggests a black man making it in a white society. A Republican winning in a solidly Democratic state. A fiercely independent thinker becoming one of the state’s most popular politicians, which Brooke was until he was defeated by Paul Tsongas in 1978.

Brain Lees
R–East Longmeadow

Title: Senate Minority Leader
Elected to Senate: 1988
Age: 44
Place of Birth: Amesbury
Education: Salem State College (B.S., Business Administration, 1975)
Family: Married (Nancy Ward), no children
Previous Jobs: Staff Assistant to U.S. Senator Edward Brooke (1976-1978); Westvaco Envelope Division, Springfield, Mass. (1980-1988)
Legislative Record: Early champion of television coverage of Senate; early proponent of welfare reform; specialist in worker’s comp. issues; opponent of assault weapons ban.

Not many of the law students who’ve come out on a chilly February night to hear state Sen. Brian Lees of East Longmeadow speak at Western New England College in Springfield could be expected to remember Ed Brooke. But the 50 students and smattering of professors gathered in Room D on the second floor of the Blake Law Center get a lesson in the quirky, unpredictable, and oddly appealing style of that rare species that is a successful Massachusetts Republican. Whatever it was that got Brooke elected in 1962 as state Attorney General and twice thereafter to the Senate, Lees has studied it, thought about it, and absorbed enough of it to make an updated Brookeian politics work in his solidly Democratic district.

Tonight’s topic is capital punishment. Lees will be arguing in favor. There is a distinct feeling in the air, as students shuffle into the cinder-block amphitheater-style classroom, that some are here to glimpse the enemy. A tall dark-haired man who is almost always seen in a dark blue suit, Lees sounds surprisingly like Fred Gwynne, the late actor who was famous for playing Herman Munster. He has a hale and hearty way about him, and a self-deprecating air that lets you know he wants to be liked, though he will not soft-peddle his opinions.

The Senator hits the students with every argument in the book. He describes the dramatic vote last fall when death penalty legislation passed in the House, passed in the Senate, and then came one vote short when it was brought up for final passage in the House. He discusses the atmosphere created by the horrifying murder of Jeffrey Curley, the Cambridge boy who was killed shortly before the legislation began to move. He mentions that he was the first person to introduce legislation, years before the Curley murder, to reinstate capital punishment in Massachusetts. He believes strongly that the death penalty would be a “powerful deterrent,” but even if that can’t be proven he believes it to be “the right thing to do.”

The students and professors then begin to cross-examine Lees. A few things become clear: Lees has his mind made up on the death penalty and is unwilling to entertain doubt. And yet he seems anything but doctrinaire. There is an I-have-my-opinion-you-have-yours attitude that creeps into his answers. At one point he mentions his stance in favor of abortion rights, a position he holds knowing that his district leans strongly the other way. Though he is pro-choice, he says, he respects the views of the other side — that’s what being pro-choice means.

Inevitably, the subject of race comes up. A student in the back row wants to know if Lees realizes that many minorities do not trust the justice system to administer the death penalty in a way that is not discriminatory.

“I had the opportunity to work for the only black man elected to the U.S. Senate,” Lees begins. “My mentor is Ed Brooke — and I’m not saying that because he’s black.” He hints that the negative headlines that ended Brooke’s career (the bitter divorce, the financial questions) had a tinge of racism. Yes, he insists, he takes the racial disparity issue seriously. That’s why the Senate version of the bill would have required studies to make sure there was no racial inequity in the application of the law.

Another student who identifies himself as a former Florida police officer says to Lees, “The death penalty is irreversible. If you make a mistake, you’ve got a huge problem.” Though he later tells Lees he’s a Republican, he is unmoved by Lees’s case. “The arguments you presented I don’t think are compelling enough,” he tells the Senator. Judging by their pointed questions, the professors are also skeptical. And the minorities in the back row seem unconvinced.

One point that Lees leaves out, and that nobody thinks to bring up, is this: After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state capital punishment laws in 1972, former Senator Edward Brooke voted against the measure in Congress that brought the death penalty back. But no matter. Part of being an Ed Brooke Republican, as Brian Lees will tell you, is following your own conscience and standing up for what you believe in.

He may not have made a single convert tonight, but as he greets students on the way out it is plain that he has won at least their respect. He had spoken his mind. He parts on good terms with these future voters. Afterward, Lees tells me that he didn’t expect to have many supporters in a class of law school students — though there were a few. But being outnumbered is a way of life with him. It’s hardly any different in the Massachusetts Senate: As minority leader, his job is to keep pushing unpopular views, despite long and sometimes impossible odds. The average person might find such a job to have little appeal. But Brian Lees seems to be good at it. What is more peculiar, he seems to enjoy it — and more than a little.

The Peters Principles

David Peters, Republican from Charlton, is no one’s idea of a fun-loving, slap-happy politician. But he’s having fun these days, too. He occupies the modest office of the minority leader in the House of Representatives on the basement floor of the State House, where, it is safe to say, few in-depth, sit-down interviews with members of the press are conducted. The House minority leader’s primary usefulness to the capitol press corps is to be a source of occasional blistering quotes about the Democratic leadership. But lately, Peters has not been blistering, in which case he tends to be ignored.

On this day, during school vacation week, he is taking his two daughters to see “Miss Saigon” at the Wang Theatre, but he clears some time in the morning to talk with me about his work and about the role of the Republican opposition. “I like to work hard,” Peters says, as he settles into a settee in his baby-blue-walled office, just in from a traffic jam on Storrow Drive. “I like what I do. I think work is more fun than fun. And I get up in the morning and I like to go to work.” He is not especially convincing. Peters has a way of talking to a reporter that can seem rehearsed or artificial — as if he is trying to imagine how he would like to come across to a credulous Boswell. “And I don’t think I have many bad days. I get up in the morning and I love to come to work. I love to work with the members. I love the legislative process.” He goes on like this at some length.

David Peters
R–Charlton

Title: House Minority Leader
Elected to House: 1990
Place of Birth: Hartford, CT
Age: 44
Education: Bryant College (B.S., Business Administration, 1976)
Family: Married (Donna), two children (Erin, Ashley)
Previous Jobs: Charlton Selectman; self-employed (real estate development; licensed construction supervisor)
Legislative Record: Pushed various tax cuts and tax credits, including investment tax credit and dependent child care deduction; active in fight to reinstitute capital punishment; opposed assault weapons ban.

 

Peters does not enjoy the favorable reputation as a happy warrior that Brian Lees does. Word around the State House is that Peters can be self-important and that he occasionally shows a temper. That he is humorless. That he takes himself very seriously. An obvious guardedness around the press tends to emphasize such characteristics. He is full of talk about his “core values” and “the Republican philosophy” and his “belief in the individual spirit,” but he reveals little about himself other than that he has a penchant for partisan patter.

One way to get him to drop his guard, I found out late in the interview, is to ask about hunting. It’s been rumored that Peters had starred in a hunting video several years back. In one version it was an instructional video in which he skins a bear in Northern Michigan. Was it true? He pauses momentarily. “Now who told you that?” he asks, beginning to smile. Then he confesses. “I did, years ago. Because I’m an avid bow hunter. And I have in fact done a bow-hunting video. Bow-hunting video. It was simply a video. I’ve done a couple of them.”

He pauses again. “Who told you about this? [Sen. Bruce] Tarr? Lees?” He begins to loosen up. The video was shot in upper Michigan and was in stores years ago under the title “Memory Maker.” Peters supplied on-screen narration and insists that none of the filmed action shows him killing an animal. He points to a group of photos on the other side of the room. “See now, there’s a bear we shot with my daughter. See that on the mantel? With a tranquilizer gun.” The photo shows a very large black bear with the tongue hanging sideways out of the mouth. “Yeah, the bear was O.K.” he says. And there’s another picture of our family climbing Mt. Washington.”

“So someone told you about the video, huh? Oh, there’s my daughter with our horse. See there on the TV? We live in the country. Listen, I’m a working person! I’m a blue-jeans-type guy! I also do a lot of fishing. We do a lot of striper fishing. So I’m an avid outdoorsman. Sportsman. And I have done those videos. But they weren’t instructional videos.”

It’s the few loose moments that give a clue on how to read Peters. You know you’ve broken through the shell when you get him to sit up straight and break into a silent grin. He momentarily betrays himself; he’s about to move away from the prepared text in his mind. Earlier, we had been talking about the Speaker of the House, Thomas Finneran, in whose long shadow Peters, like the rest of the members, labors. Peters counts the election of Finneran as Speaker as one of the accomplishments of the tiny Republican delegation in the House. In the spring of 1996, with the Democrats split between Finneran and a more liberal contender, the Republicans had tipped the balance.

On the death penalty, Peters says, “We went in there and said, ‘Tom, we’re going to debate this.'”

“We’ve helped the Speaker stay on track,” Peters says. “We helped him stay on track with the death penalty: We went in there and said, ‘Tom, we’re going to debate this.’ There was a little bit of reluctancy. He didn’t want to do it: ‘It’s too emotional. We’re not going to do it.’ And I ultimately said, ‘Tom we’re going to do this and we’re going to offer the death penalty every time you crack the gavel.'”

The bill was debated. But in the end Finneran prevailed. With clever parliamentary maneuvering it was shot down at the last minute — in such a way that it wasn’t likely to be brought back up until the 1999 session. Peters had fumed to the press that day and had blasted away at the Speaker with both barrels.

I ask if he’s since talked the matter over with Finneran. Does he still hold it against him?

Peters grins. “Oh, we had coffee that night. We had coffee that night. In his office.”

What did you tell him?

“Let’s move on. Next battle.” He’s still smiling.

Then the moment is gone and Peters slips back into the party-commissar voice. “Uh, I happen to have a tremendous respect for the Speaker as an individual. And there are battles…”

In such glimpses, you see an indication that Peters honestly loves being a player in the legislative drama. He is honored to be associated, albeit as an opponent, with someone of Finneran’s caliber. Perhaps he is even in the Speaker’s thrall. Nonetheless, it is clear that he is reveling in his job on the House side every bit as much as Lees is in the Senate.

Wily and Aggressive?

Sen. Henri Rauschenbach is leaning back in his office chair with both feet resting on the corner of his desk. Rauschenbach is the dean of the Republican Senate delegation, having come to the Senate just before Lees. Elected to the House in 1984 and to the Senate in 1988, he represents the Cape and the Islands. He’s one of the few legislators to have a district with a sizeable block of Republican voters, though at 25 percent of registered voters that block is hardly overwhelming. He’s talking about how different the politics at the State House are now, compared to the waning days of the Dukakis administration, when Republicans had a Democratic governor to rail against and the state budget was in serious distress. “What took us to 16 members, a lot of that is distant noise in the background now,” he says. Rauschenbach doesn’t mind the bipartisanship that has marked recent years. What he cares about most, he says, is the public policy side of the job. “The vast majority of issues I’m involved in are not necessarily Republican or Democratic issues,” he says.

At the same time, he concedes, “There’s no doubt that having a strong minority creates a healthy tension in the body.” And though their numbers are small, he believes Senate Republicans have proven themselves to be “a wily and aggressive crowd.” He sees Lees as “a very dynamic guy in a very tough spot.” Look at the way he got up in the beginning of the year and pushed (unsuccessfully) for fellow Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, a Boston Democrat who pleaded guilty to not filing her income tax forms, to resign. “That takes an awful lot of canastas,” Rauschenbach says.

But some Republican elders and activists outside the State House aren’t so sure GOP legislators are proving themselves “wily and aggressive.” Former Sen. David Locke is one. Locke, now running a law practice in Wellesley, was minority leader before Lees — in the noisy days at the end of the Dukakis era. Locke describes Lees, his former assistant minority leader, as “a superb politician.” But he is disturbed by the lack of debate these days in the Senate. “I think you could almost call it ‘the Silent Senate,'” he says. “I do not see the hard-fought battles, being reported at least, that I saw when I was there.” The former nemesis of Senate President William Bulger (who nonetheless was a personal friend of Bulger), Locke worries that too much bipartisan cooperation can be bad for the Republican Party. The lack of “a vibrant two-party system,” he says, further fuels the growing number of independent voters. “It’s become very fashionable to say you don’t belong to either party. People will puff out their chests and say ‘I’m an independent,'” Locke scoffs. “They don’t really stand for anything. And it causes the parties to move philosophically closer to the middle to attract the independent voters.”

Anti-tax activist Barbara Anderson, who sometimes describes herself as an independent, has a different take. She advances the theory that both parties have decided to pander to the “soccer moms.” “Women don’t understand that politics is a game; it’s supposed to be adversarial. They’re trained to be kind to their neighbors, to the children and old folks, which is fine in your personal life, but not in politics. That is not the way it works.” But she lands in the same place as Locke. “What’s happened up there is entirely different than anything before,” she says. “The Republican leadership has decided not to fill the role of the minority party — which is to be an adversary to the majority party.” She sees Lees as being too “cozy” with Senate President Birmingham. And she’s still reeling about the idea of the House Republicans backing Finneran for Speaker. She says Rep. Peters can be a good debater on the floor “when he wants to be,” but “I didn’t recognize how quickly he’d get rolled. Maybe it’s because he’s from Western Mass. and doesn’t understand how Boston politics works, which Finneran certainly does,” she surmises. But as events have played out, Peters has not proven himself to be in the same league with Finneran. Anderson says Peters “wasn’t good enough to know he was being schmoozed and used.”

The point that escapes no one is just how deep a hole Republicans are in. From their 1991 high point of having 16 members in the Senate and 38 in the House, they are down to seven in the Senate and 29 in the House. That’s a drop from 27 percent of the seats in the Legislature seven years ago to 18 percent now. This means they are of limited use, even with a Republican governor: They cannot prevent Democrats from overriding the governor’s veto. It would take 14 votes in the Senate or 54 in the House to sustain the veto. Though they had enough in the upper chamber in 1992 and 1992, Republicans haven’t held that many seats in the House since 1974.

GOP Membership in House, 1998-’98
(House has 160 seats. 54 votes needed to sustain governor’s veto.)
1988 33
1990 32
1992 37
1994 34
1996 35
1998 29

As Cozy as I Wanna Be

In any legislature there is a balance to be struck between compromise and confrontation. Lacking strength in numbers, confrontation will only get the Republicans in the Legislature so far. But the simple fact is, the Republicans have less to be unhappy about, as Democrats have blurred some of the usual ideological distinctions. “It’s difficult to do party building because the Democrats very much look like Republicans,” says Rauschenbach. “Most everybody’s wearing the same clothes up here.” Democratic Sen. Robert Havern uses a similar metaphor to make the same point: “Without jerseys, it’s hard to tell what side the players are on anymore.”

“Policy-wise, we have been head over heels in front of any Democrat in this state,” Lees asserts. “We’ve led the agenda on taxes, revamping government, downsizing government.” And Peters goes even further. “Most of the major pieces of legislation that are getting passed had their origin in the House Republican leader’s office,” says Peters. “They’re reported out of committee with the chairperson’s name on it, but they’re Republican bills.”

“I don’t see my job as standing on the sidelines throwing stones.”

That’s an exaggeration, but even if it were true, what good does it do the Republicans if it is not apparent to the voting public? What worries activists is that cooperation between the two parties helps the party in power more than the party that needs new recruits. “I don’t see my job as standing on the sidelines throwing stones, so I can build a separate image and a separate party,” Peters says. “I’m often asked, ‘Are you too cozy with the Speaker?’ And my answer is, ‘I’ll be as cozy as I need to be in order to get a better quality of life for the people of Massachusetts, and [to get] more closely aligned with the Republican philosophy. And in terms of philosophy with the Speaker, there is very little difference between Dave Peters and Tom Finneran when it comes to political philosophy.”

Where Peters and Lees most frequently draw the line between the two parties is in how open the legislative process should be. During a lengthy interview in his State House office, Lees returns several times to the good government themes that matter to him. Afterward, he wants to know if it was my observation that he had been somehow falling down on the job. “What do you think?” he asked. “Is there something you see that I’m not doing that I should be?” It doesn’t seem to matter to him whether I agree with his stands on the death penalty or taxes, or his refusal to go along with a ban on assault weapons. But the suggestion that he is not doing a good enough job playing an oppositional role in the Senate does not sit easily with him.

“We don’t have many members,” Lees says, “But we can at least be counted.”

In Lees’s view, the bad old days of unbalanced budgets and major bills slipping through the Senate on unrecorded voice votes are gone. “Maybe I don’t, you know, coin a phrase the way David Locke did,” he says. “But I can tell you, I was here then. That was a time when we should be ashamed at what happened to this state.” Lees has made a habit, as anyone who has watched the Senate for five minutes knows, of standing up and asking Democrats what a bill or amendment would do and how much it would cost the taxpayers. “One of the first things I said to my staff” upon becoming minority leader, Lees says, was “we’re going to learn these rules. And we are not going to go down the road we’ve gone down for the last 10 years in this building of letting things slide through and not objecting. We’re at least going to be counted. We don’t have many members, but we can at least be counted. And I believe we’ve done that.”

Lees insists that there are more roll call votes in the Senate than there used to be. Even on the infamous legislators’ pay raise, which passed in a lame-duck session in 1993, the Senate at least took a roll call vote. “I was outraged, what happened in the House on that,” Lees says, claiming he tried to get Gov. Weld to push for an appointed commission to take the issue to the public. “That’s why people get disgusted at this building.”

On the House side, Peters sings from the same hymnal. “The Speaker’s weak point, the Achilles heel, if you will, is the legislative process. Sometimes he does not want to come to terms with the fact that there are 160 members and that 160 members are part of the legislative process. And if there is any criticism I have of the Speaker it is that he still tries to struggle with the legislative process. That’s an area, with all respect to the Speaker, he needs to grow.”

I asked Peters about one especially telling example of Speaker Finneran’s style: his insertion of pay raises for his legislative floor leaders last summer into a supplemental budget bill that passed in an informal session, in which only “non-controversial” measures are expected to come up. After the move was reported in the press, Peters was nowhere to be found. He took no role in opposing the move. Peters says now the Republicans were already on the record opposing the leadership positions in the first place, and so he saw no reason to block the pay raises that went with them. Besides, he says, he knew “it was going nowhere.”

In fact, the leadership pay raises did get derailed — when the budget bill went over to the Senate. “It stopped here,” says Lees. “I said, ‘We’re rollcalling it.’ That’s an internal House matter. But the fact of the matter is, it should have been rollcalled [in the House].” Lees says stopping such under-the-table legislation is one of his priorities. “Nothing pisses me off more than trying to hide something and not being upfront.”

Peters makes the point that part of the legislative game is to pick your battles. He rejects the suggestion that he is unwilling to oppose the Speaker, and points to the ruckus he raised when Finneran tried to change House rules to prevent tax amendments being attached to the budget. Peters led Republicans and some Democrats in resisting that change. “That’s a success story,” he says. It’s one he hopes to build on, as he looks for a chances to force roll call votes on key tax issues. (As it turned out, Republicans didn’t have to wait for the budget bill — they got 34 votes to cut the personal income tax back to 5 percent when Finneran’s modest tax cut bill passed the House in mid-March.)

One of the traditional roles of a Democratic Speaker in recent times has been to protect the membership from taking controversial votes on just such questions — on cutting the income tax, or on pay raises, term limits, or the death penalty. You can find Republicans and Democrats alike who say Finneran is bent on continuing this pattern. Republican Rep. John Locke (the son of former Sen. David Locke) complains, “There’s no debate, to speak of, anymore.” Democratic Rep. Ellen Story, who co-chairs the Progressive Caucus, says there is “shockingly little debate” in the House. Even some liberal Democrats say a stronger Republican delegation would improve things. “If we had a real opposition Republican Party then there would be open debate about issues there ought to be debate about,” Story says. “I certainly like having a vast majority in the House,” says Democratic Rep. Anne Paulsen, “But at the same time, it is important for people at home to understand that good people have differences in philosophy.”

The question has been frequently raised over the year since Republicans helped elect Finneran: What have they gotten out of the deal? “The answer has become obvious,” says Anderson. “Nothing.” Rep. Locke agrees: “There’s absolutely nothing.”

“I’m often asked that question,” says Peters. “What did you get? What did you get by voting for Tom Finneran? My answer: I hope we got good government. What we got, I think, was good government. And I think we got a man with character and integrity. That’s what we wanted.”

Good government or not, Republicans enjoy at least a style of bipartisan cooperation that is unusual in the recent history of the Great and General Court of Massachusetts. The question no one seems sure about is how it will play with the voters. Citizens are said to be distressed when politics becomes overly partisan and nothing appears to be getting accomplished. Yet when controversy dies down, it’s easy to tune out — and decision-making gets left to a few inside dealmakers. Of course, if citizens aren’t paying much attention to their legislature, the charge that a pliant Republican delegation is hurting the party is moot. Anderson turns the argument upside down: Since no one’s paying attention, what do Republicans have to lose by fighting noisily for their principles?

Lees says there is, in fact, an oppositional strategy at work. It is to lay out as many roll call votes as possible that clarify where Republicans and Democrats stand. Though it got little notice, Lees attached an amendment last year to the budget that would have returned the state income tax to 5 percent. In the Senate vote, Democrats are recorded against it and Republicans in favor. The record is clear, as well, on the death penalty bill. Come election time, Lees says, voters who care about the issues will be able to tell the difference between candidates. Of course, as Lees has reason to know, sometimes voters just go with who they like most.

The Republican Future

Brian Lees and I are standing outside on the steps of the Blake Law Center at Western New England College. He feels his defense of the death penalty went well. He’s jovial, as usual. It’s all in a day’s work. Watching him, you can see how he manages to win, even though his district is about 17 percent Republican. He’s developed the skill of taking strong stands without coming across as a fire-breathing ideologue. Hard work is part of it, too: He claims that in his first year in office he attended 1,142 political events.

Lees breathes in the cool night air. “I love this kind of…” he begins, neglecting to finish his sentence, as he often does. Is he worried he will sound corny, or has his mind simply flitted off to the next thought? I tell him it looks to me like he’s missing out on the real action in the district — the parking lot at St. Catherine of Sienna was absolutely packed. “Bingo!” he calls out. “Yes, I cut the ribbon when they opened that building. You know, I’m not Catholic. I think I told you I’m Congregationalist; but I love going over there.”

The thought occurs to me: Does this guy represent the future of the Republican Party? Is it just a matter of finding more candidates who have enough personal appeal that they can render the dearth of straight-ticket Republican voters irrelevant? But that was the Weld formula, and perhaps the formula of every successful Massachusetts Republican — Ed Brooke, Frank Sargent, Eliot Richardson. By now it seems established that such popularity alone does little to build the party.

Meet the Author

Dave Denison

Founding Editor, CommonWealth magazine
Young, energetic, hard-working smooth-talkers like Richard Tisei and Brian Lees have proven that if you knock on enough doors and write enough notes and spend enough money, you can win as a Republican. But what about the charisma-challenged candidates? For there to be a future for the workaday Republicans there needs to be a growing party organization. The average, as-yet-unknown conservative Selectman who might want to run for the Legislature is not always going to make it on personal appeal alone. In the long run, aspiring Republicans need a party that can recruit good candidates and, through them, recruit consistently loyal voters.

It’s getting late, but the evening is not over for Brian Lees. He is heading back to Longmeadow, where the town’s Republican caucus will choose delegates for the upcoming state convention. Lees will get up and say a few words for Paul Cellucci. He knows the Republicans don’t need to take over the House and Senate this year. But they need to hold the governor’s office. He almost springs into his forest green Jeep Cherokee and is off to the next battle.