Local GOP committees report surge in wake of Brown’s Senate victory

The Boston Globe

February 21, 2010 Sunday


BYLINE: By Megan McKee, Globe Correspondent

SECTION: REGIONAL; West; Pg. 1

LENGTH: 1088 words

With its orange plastic chairs and fluorescent lights, the community room in Arlington’s police headquarters is perhaps as far from the glamour and excitement of Scott Brown’s recent US Senate win as one could imagine.

Yet Monday night it was standing room only when about 40 people attended the Republican Town Committee’s monthly meeting at the Community Safety Building.

“Before Scott’s victory, Arlington had about 2,000 Republicans, but almost 7,000 Arlingtonians voted for Senator Brown,” said the group’s chairman, Jim Dolan, 26, adding that meeting attendance has tripled since Brown’s campaign for last month’s special election kicked into high gear. “It’s really time for a change.”

From Arlington to Lexington, Belmont to Natick, Republican town committees report increased interest as voters explore the GOP as an antidote to what ails both state and local governments. If the Republicans get their way, they say, their organizing will not only change the Beacon Hill races in the fall, but also the many local elections this spring.

“I’m running for Town Meeting. There are a number of people who are running for Town Meeting,” Dolan said of his fellow Republicans from Arlington.

If they’re successful, it would mark a change in dynamics for historically liberal Massachusetts, where many Republican committees have suffered from lackluster membership while their Democratic counterparts enjoyed robust interest.

A 2008 Gallup Poll of 350,000 US residents found Massachusetts to be one of the top three most Democratic states in the country. Of the Commonwealth’s state senators, 34 are Democrats and four are Republican.

But interest in Republican town and city committees has spiked recently, said members.

One of those communities is Lexington, where 10 people have said they’d like to join the local Republican committee since Brown’s election, potentially doubling the number of its active members, said chairman Jesse Segovia.

“This is just the beginning,” Segovia said. “What we did for Scott Brown, I think that same effort is going to be seen in a lot of races in November,” he said, referring to the grass-roots momentum that propelled Brown into the late Edward Kennedy’s US Senate seat over his initially heavily favored Democratic rival, state Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Political parties are allowed committees in every city and town in Massachusetts, though not all communities have organized them. Voters registered in a party can elect a maximum of 35 members to four-year terms on a local committee, but an unlimited number of people can join as associate members. Meetings are open to anyone.

In the past year, the number of active Republican town and city committees has jumped from 300 to 400, said Tarah Donoghue, communications director for the state Republican Party. “I think the groundswell will continue and there’s tremendous momentum . . . people are ready to hold the party in power accountable” she said.

In places like Lexington, Arlington, and Belmont, where Coakley handily beat Brown, Republicans say his victory has given their viewpoints on fiscal conservatism and transparent government a wider audience.

“There are so many outlets for progressives and liberals, but not for conservatives in town government,” said Segovia.

In Belmont, Tommasina Olson, chairwoman of the Republican Town Committee, said recent meeting attendance has been triple its usual numbers.

“The conservative base in Belmont has been afraid to come out and say we’re conservative,” said Olson. That has started to change, she said. “We need to be brave about presenting our perspective and not hide.”

Despite all of the Republican back-clapping and talk of a renaissance, local Democrats say they are skeptical of any lasting change as a result of Brown’s win.

“There are three state reps that represent different portions of Arlington. They will all remain Democratic, no question. Our Senate seat will remain Democratic,” said Timothy Shannon, a member of his town’s Democratic committee. Brown’s win “has not discouraged us at all. No one has thrown up their hands in disgust. No one has quit the town committee. No one has stopped working out of despair. We’re going strong.”

In Newton, where the Democratic City Committee has hundreds of members – Newton gets 35 members for each of its eight wards – chairman Tim Snyder said Brown’s win has been a boon for his group.

“We’ve expanded the ranks,” he said. “It energized a lot of people and reminded people what’s at stake and that you can’t take” a Democratic win for granted.

But Republicans say they are convinced their candidates have better chances of winning thanks to Brown. They say people who fear for the financial states of their communities – amid property tax increases, higher fees, and major cuts to staff and services – want to see an end to business-as-usual in government.

“People before would run out of party loyalty. Now there’s actually a thought that there’s real opportunity.” said Michael Linhan, chairman of Natick’s Republican committee, who reported that attendance at his group’s meetings has tripled.

Natick is facing a budget deficit next fiscal year of $2.7 million and is making tough choices about where services or people will be cut. Residents will also vote on March 30 whether to approve $56 million in higher property taxes to pay for a new high school and community center.

Republican committee leaders said they have been networking with their counterparts in other communities with renewed vigor, seeing it as the perfect time to coordinate talent and resources to make inroads in Massachusetts politics.

At the Arlington meeting Monday, there were representatives from GOP committees in Belmont, Billerica, Lexington and Medford.

The audience heard a talk by 16-year-old Sean Harrington, an Arlington High School student. They also applauded when Kamal Jain, a Republican candidate for state auditor, displayed a New Delhi newspaper with a front-page article about Brown’s win.

“Attendance at meetings and interest has exploded since November,” when Brown’s campaign started gaining steam, said Dolan, the committee’s chairman. Since the Arlington Republican Town Committee has 25 voting members, Dolan said, he was heartened by the 15 new people who have expressed interest in joining.

“We don’t know what the true fallout of Scott Brown’s victory will be,” he said.  “I can only expect another rapid expansion” for the state’s Republican Party.

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