Shortly after I was elected San Diego Republican leader in 2001, I met with my south-of-the-border counterpart: a leader of the conservative PAN party of Mexico, to compare notes and discuss politics on our respective sides of the border.
I asked my counterpart how the conservative PAN party succeeded in breaking the monopoly of the liberal PRI, taking control of state government in Baja California at a time when the PRI controlled every other Mexican state government.
“Local elections,” was the answer. The PAN built their governing majority in Baja by systematically identifying, recruiting and supporting candidates for local government offices. Once elected, these local government officials became the “farm team” for higher offices, concurrently establishing the PAN’s credibility by demonstrating responsible governance.
As someone who has trained candidates on four continents, I’ve seen first hand how success in local government is a common, and often necessary, precursor to a political party’s success at the state and national levels.
We applied this approach with great success during my term as San Diego Republican chairman by systematically identifying, training and supporting Republican candidates for hundreds of local, so-called “nonpartisan” offices, like school boards, fire boards, water boards, city councils and the like. While the Democrats chose to act like a debating society and pass meaningless resolutions at their meetings, we concentrated our efforts on the core campaign functions at the heart of a successful party: voter registration, endorsements and nominations, turnout, fundraising, and volunteer recruitment.
As we succeeded in placing more Republicans in local government, we experienced three especially visible results:
First, more Republican ideas were being put into action, applying the same principles of lower taxes, smaller government, and support for law enforcement in local government that Republicans in state and federal government found successful.
Second, we dramatically expanded the “farm team” of future state and federal candidates with a proven record of success in government and at the ballot box. Many of these farm-team members become our most formidable candidates in difficult districts. For example, Assembly member Shirley Horton first established herself as the successful mayor of Chula Vista.
Third, we diversified our party without compromising on principle. When we expanded our reach to every elected office, we soon found our party was electing more women, Latinos, Asians, and others from a diverse array of backgrounds.
Luis Acle, born in Mexico, is today president of the San Diego Unified School District, one of the largest in the state. Mitz Lee, a Chinese immigrant, now serves on the same board. Rocky Chavez is a leader on the Oceanside City Council. Evelyn Wills was the first African-American in recent memory elected to public office in East San Diego County. Jillian Hanson-Cox is now an El Cajon city council member. The list goes on.
Other counties have adopted a similar approach. In San Jose, Pete Constant broke the Democrat monopoly on the San Jose City Council with strong support from the Republican Party of Silicon Valley. Two of the three countywide elected officials in liberal Santa Clara are Republican women.
Today, the California Republican Party is applying the same approach.
With legislative districts heavily gerrymandered to virtually guarantee the re-election of incumbents, seats in the State Assembly and Senate open up at most twice in a decade. In fact, the Soviet politburo had greater turnover than the California State Legislature. Congressional seats come open on average about once in a generation. Given this reality, our best opportunities for expanding our reach, and diversifying our party, come in local government.
Earlier this month, the California Republican Party changed its rules in one swift stroke, dramatically streamlining the process for bringing state party resources to bear for officially endorsed Republican candidates for local offices. Concurrently, we are identifying every local government official in California, and their party, so we can reach out to each Republican, while concurrently working with our county committees support Republicans for seats we don’t hold–yet.
Make no mistake, our party will continue to vigorously campaign to expand our presence in the Legislature–a process that has led to Republicans holding more than a handful of seats that the Democrats specifically drew for themselves.
In the long term, I look forward to seeing an entire new, expanded and diverse generation of Republican candidates for higher office who got their start because the Republican Party said to them, “you’re important.”