Something remarkable was happening as dozens of political activists crammed into an unremarkable storefront in Hyde Park. The energetic crowd was diverse, a mix of men and women from a variety of racial, ethnic, and geographic locations.
And they were Republicans.
“See. See. See,” said Rachel Kemp, the only black woman elected to the Massachusetts Republican State Committee, pointing in jest to the African-American, Cuban-American, and Haitian-American activists in the room Tuesday.
It was the latest of several recent rallies meant to energize the base for the upcoming election and for Saturday’s party convention at Boston University, where Republicans will gather to nominate candidates for statewide office.
What happened during this pre-convention rally is the embodiment of the party’s quest to expand its base in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 3 to 1.
To expand their support, Massachusetts Republicans are reaching out to voters in urban areas and in general to people of color, letting them know there is a place for them in the Grand Old Party. Their pitch: the economy and the disproportionate effect of unemployment among minorities, which according to the Boston Foundation was as high as 33 percent in parts of Roxbury in 2010.
“It’s no secret that the reason we lose on Election Day is because we lose in urban cities,” Kirsten Hughes, chairwoman of the Massachusetts Republican Party, said this week before grabbing the microphone to fire up the crowd at the pre-convention rally. “It’s not rocket science. We have to go to places we haven’t typically gone.”
So the state’s Republican leaders are focusing their outreach on the voters who they say have been failed by the Democratic Party’s policies, while trying to avoid getting mired in the racial and ethnic quagmires plaguing the more right-leaning faction of the national party.
But when a national leader steps on the third rail of cultural politics by saying something contentious about race, poverty, or some other social justice issue, much like Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan recently did, black and Latino Republicans in Massachusetts say their outreach efforts become that much harder.
Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential candidate, said in a radio interview: “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”
Dana Gonsal said he became a Republican five years ago, in large part to ensure that there was a black person in the room to push back against such comments. How can the party become inclusive and culturally attuned if it there are not many people of color present to hold it accountable, he asked.
“If we’re not in the room, we’ll never be heard,” said Gonsal, who is the Republican chairman of Ward 18, a massive swath of the city anchored by Hyde Park and Mattapan and teeming with residents from Haiti and other Caribbean nations as well as voters of Polish, Italian, and Irish heritage. “You can’t leave it the way it is. You can’t be marginalized. Sometimes, we need to step up to the plate.”
He talks about the party of Lincoln and abolitionists. He talks about fiscal responsibility and job creation. He talks about the party as it existed before a Democratic president signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which solidified black voters as a Democratic bloc.
Gonsal said his wife “thinks I’m crazy for being a Republican, but she’s starting to understand.”
That wincing reaction is something Robert Fortes said he has become familiar with while campaigning as a black Republican in communities of color. “What’s it like to be a Republican in Boston?” Fortes asked the crowd at Tuesday’s preconvention rally after gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker pulled him to the microphone to say a few words.
“Rough,” he answered as Alex Veras, a member of the Massachusetts chapter of a group called the Café Con Leche Republicans, called out: “Tell us how you really feel.”
Fortes, who worked in the administration of Governor Mitt Romney, said later that the current political climate creates “an added layer of toughness” in what is already an uphill battle when campaigning for Republican candidates.
“The biggest response . . . is, ‘What are you talking about? I support President Obama. I support Deval Patrick,’ ” he said.
With two black Democrats occupying the seats of power at the White House and the Corner Office of the State House, Fortes said, Republicans have a hard sell with African-Americans who support both Obama and Governor Deval Patrick overwhelmingly.
“You have to get beyond that,” he said. “When you are talking about issues such as charter schools, issues such as jobs, the high unemployment rate of African-American males especially, and when you point out who’s been in charge and how a different direction could change that, people always listen. But it’s a long process.”
At the same time the state party tries to woo communities of color, it also faces a problem on another front.
Republican congressional candidate Richard R. Tisei, the nominee for lieutenant governor in 2010, says he will not attend Saturday’s convention to protest planks in the state party platform that oppose gay marriage and abortion rights. Tisei is gay and got married last summer.
The process of trying to broaden the party’s reach is further complicated by the deeply polarized nature of modern politics, said Kemp, for whom being a Republican is something of a birthright.
Kemp, who was in the same graduating class with Baker at Harvard College, where she majored in German studies, was 18 when she became a member of the Republican Party. It was years after her mother, who was born in Panama, became a US citizen and registered with the GOP.
Kemp was a party activist in New York and Massachusetts for years before being elected to the State Committee in 2012. And in the decades since registering as a Republican, she said there has been a deterioration of discussion among people of differing viewpoints.
The persistent need to be right has replaced political persuasion, she said.
“Dialogue, that’s what’s missing,” said the Dorchester resident, who works in financial services. “Everyone needs to put their piece of the puzzle on the table in order to create the type of United States we’re looking for.”
She said she cringes at the way Republicans have put themselves in a position of “always saying no when in fact it’s no, but.”
When Republicans in elected office do not fully explain why they reject a bill, like the one extending emergency unemployment benefits, she said it reinforces the narrative that the party does not care about those in need.
“It comes back as you people don’t care, and I say, ‘That’s not true,’ and I have to find an explanation that extends beyond the word no,” she said. “We have to be able to excite, educate, and then engage. Those are the things we must do, regardless of color. That’s how we are moving to capture more people of color and others in our urban demographic.”
The state Republican Party, she said, must do a better job of engaging voters beyond its base. This summer, she said the Massachusetts party is launching a campaign tentatively called “I’m your neighbor” to show the diversity within the party, to show that not all Republicans are wealthy, middle-aged white men.
The campaign will also help reveal some people’s inner Republican, she quipped, adding: “There are a number of small businessmen who are really Republicans but don’t know it. Why do you start a small business? Social mobility, wealth creation, and limited but effective government.”
That is the real message, she said.