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Asian American Republicans accuse state GOP of pursuing discriminatory scheme to disenfranchise them in party elections

GOP Chairman Jim Lyons is selectively enforcing procedural rules and targeting voters of color in an effort to consolidate his own power on the little-watched panel, a group of Asian American Republicans have charged.
GOP Chairman Jim Lyons is selectively enforcing procedural rules and targeting voters of color in an effort to consolidate his own power on the little-watched panel, a group of Asian American Republicans have charged.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/file

More than two dozen Asian American Republicans are alleging discrimination by the state party, claiming GOP Chairman Jim Lyons is trying to keep them out of the political process in elections for two seats on the Republican State Committee.

Lyons, the Asian American voters and other Republicans claim, is selectively enforcing procedural rules and targeting voters of color in an effort to consolidate his own power on the little-watched panel, which sets party bylaws and runs its conventions.

“This is a callous and underhanded scheme to discriminate against Republicans who worked tirelessly to file and deliver the proper paperwork,” the group of Asian American voters wrote in a letter last week to the Republican State Committee. “We ask that you respect our right to vote and treat us as you would any other citizen. . . . More than ever, the GOP must build bridges with new voters and stop dividing our communities.”

The Asian Americans voters say Lyons is disenfranchising them by disbanding ward committees needed to elect state committee representatives in the South Boston and Dorchester district, where two seats are currently open.

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Lyons rejects the allegations and says he is merely adhering to procedure.

At stake is not just the two open seats on the 80-member panel, but also the very identity of the Massachusetts GOP, which like its national counterpart is struggling to define itself in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency — and to boost its vote share in a state where Democrats remain dominant. Lyons, a vocal Trump supporter, represents one vision for the state GOP; Governor Charlie Baker, a moderate who has often been at loggerheads with Lyons, represents another.

Amid this struggle, the party faces existential questions about whether it can broaden its appeal to communities of color.

Critics say Lyons, who in January was reelected to the chairman post with a slim majority, is trying to manipulate the process in an attempt to ensure that those elected to the state committee share his approach over the governor’s. In addition, they claim his actions have excluded Asian American voters from the party at a time when Republicans should be diversifying their ranks.

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Jim Lyons spoke from the back of a truck at a GOP rally in Wilmington last August.
Jim Lyons spoke from the back of a truck at a GOP rally in Wilmington last August.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/file

Lyons insisted he is not discriminating against the South Boston and Dorchester district’s Asian Americans, but said some “technical components weren’t done correctly” in the process of forming the ward committees.

“We are as a matter of fact encouraging them to bring more people to our meetings,” Lyons said. “The allegations are unequivocally false. There are people out there who are what you would call political critics of mine who are running with the story without any facts.”

Lyons said the party is seeking to convene Zoom meetings to ensure all voters participating in the state committee elections are properly signed up. But in their letter, the Asian American voters said forcing members to “‘prove’ their identities” on Zoom meetings would be a major obstacle to civic participation, as “many of our Asian-American Republicans are elderly, do not use computers, or have language barriers.”

Filling the seats in a special election involves forming ward committees in a complicated process that involves a number of procedural steps. Timothy Smyth Jr. and Jeanna Tamas, who are running as a slate for the two open First Suffolk seats, said Lyons and the party recruited them to run earlier this year and they carefully followed his instructions for forming the ward committees in the runup to the election. They are the only declared candidates for the seats, they said.

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It was only when Lyons realized Smyth and Tamas would not back him over the governor that Lyons began to question their conservative bona fides and to claim that the preelection procedures had not been followed, they said Friday. Lyons made clear to them that if elected, they would be asked to vote to remove Baker from the state party’s executive committee, a step they refused to support, they said.

Now, they allege Lyons is leaning on procedure and technicalities to delay the voting for state committee members — no date has yet been set — and recruit candidates who will “do his bidding,” Tamas said.

Lyons “insinuated there was no way all of the new Vietnamese members could possibly be all Republican,” Tamas said in a letter to state committee members.

“Chairman Lyons knows and understands there is a language and technology barrier in this Dorchester community, and I believe he is using it to push his own personal agenda,” Tamas wrote.

As she and Smyth work to challenge the stereotype of the Republican Party as a home only for older white voters, and to recruit support within the diverse communities of the South Boston and Dorchester district, Lyons is only undermining them, she said.

Both said they hope to see the Asian American Republicans participate fully in the process.

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Asked whether he supported Smyth and Tamas in the race, Lyons said “that’s not what I’m getting involved in right now.” Lyons also said it is “absolutely untrue” that he asked the two candidates to vote with him to remove Baker from the executive committee.

Lyons said he supports making Baker, along with other elected officials on the executive committee, non-voting, ex officio members, but insisted he would never tell someone how to vote.

Earlier this year, Jaclyn Corriveau became the only Asian American member of the state committee after winning a similar special election in the Peabody area. In setting the rules for her race, Lyons was much more flexible, and waived the same procedural requirements at issue for the Suffolk County seats, Corriveau said.

“He’s applying a different set of rules. … To me it’s inequitable treatment,” Corriveau said. “At a time when we’re trying to grow the party and diversity, he’s making it very difficult for people of minority status to participate. He’s not acting in good faith in my eyes.”

Simon Cataldo, an attorney representing Smyth, Tamas, and voters in the district — including some Asian American Republicans who signed the letter — said Lyons is “selectively” disbanding certain wards.”

“Mr. Lyons’ interpretation of the rules is novel — he’s never relied upon them to disband other ward committees, so his actions now could fairly be viewed as a message that he does not welcome minorities’ participation in the party,” Cataldo said in a statement on behalf of Smyth and Tamas, who are both white, Nhat Le, who is Asian American, and Donnie Palmer, who is Black. “Asian-American and Black party members deserve to participate in the political process on the same plane as anyone else, and our clients will pursue every avenue available to combat this disparate treatment.”

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A spokesman for the party said Corriveau was comparing her election process to “something completely different” and the same rules will be in place for the First Suffolk caucus as were in place for Corriveau.

State Representative Shawn Dooley, a Norfolk Republican who recently lost to Lyons for the role of party chairman, said Lyons’ recent decisions look like a power grab, a claim Lyons denied.

“It’s unfortunate that instead of working on getting Republicans elected, he’s spending all of his time and energy trying to continue to control and manipulate things purely from a power-play mode,” Dooley said. “It’s all gamesmanship. ... Which is bad for democracy.”


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.