They talked about restaurant workers robbed of their cash tips, better services for Vietnamese schoolchildren learning English, and transforming an abandoned lot in Fields Corner into affordable housing.
Kirsten Hughes, head of the state Republican Party, talked — and listened — her way through part of Dorchester’s Fields Corner neighborhood Tuesday afternoon, ducking into restaurants, a pharmacy, and a community center. Her goal was simple: learn the needs of the neighborhood and share them with Republican candidates running for office.
“Public safety, education for our kids, and affordable housing are our top three issues,” Nam Pham, executive director of VietAID, a 20-year-old community development agency, explained to Hughes in a quiet conference room as the community center around them bustled with teens and seniors.
With six of its seven statewide candidates running unopposed in the September primary, the state Republicans are focused on buoying candidates to victory on Election Day in November. To do so in heavily Democratic Massachusetts, the party must expand its base in urban areas, places voters can be hard pressed to find Republican politicians out on the stump.
Hughes and other party leaders have vowed to change that this election cycle. Some national Republicans are making similar efforts to expand their appeal to a broader demographic, eyeing long-term population trends. But in Massachusetts, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1, they are simply looking for voters.
Tuesday’s visit was the start of an 11-city tour for Hughes, who will speak with elected officials, business leaders, and community leaders. She is reaching out to voters in urban areas, where there are significant pockets of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, and letting them know that there is a place for them in the Grand Old Party.
Some Republican candidates are tagging along, too. John B. Miller, who is running for attorney general, joined Hughes for part of Tuesday’s tour in Dorchester. Karyn Polito, candidate for lieutenant governor, will join her Thursday in Gardner.
The cities — Boston, Lawrence, Attleboro, Taunton, Lowell, Marlborough, Chicopee, Westfield Peabody, Lynn, and Gardner — are communities where the party feels it can make a difference, Hughes said.
“But also communities we typically haven’t gone to,” she said in a previous interview.
While some communities on Hughes’s tour, such as Marlborough and Gardner, can be more conservative-friendly, others, such as Boston and Lowell, show Democratic leanings in statewide elections.
Republican losses in recent elections are often pegged to a failure to capture voters in urban areas, analysts say, with many pointing to Scott Brown’s Senate loss in 2012 as a prime example. Elizabeth Warren dominated in the cities and claimed the Senate seat.
“We’re not giving up the cities this time,” Hughes said. “That is just a no-brainer from my perspective.”
As Hughes networks with influential community leaders, another, more intimate form of outreach is taking place in parts of Suffolk, Middlesex, Norfolk, Bristol, and Plymouth counties.
The project, titled “I’m your neighbor,” is a much more grass-roots campaign that has been slow to start but involves Republicans in cities connecting with the people in their neighborhoods, said Rachel Kemp, the only black woman elected to the Massachusetts Republican State Committee.
“It’s pointing out your house and saying, ‘I live there’ . . . talking about the gas tax and making sure people know about it from the sidewalk,” she said in an interview. “We are really focused on building political infrastructure.”
And so on Tuesday, Pham served as Hughes’s guide through part of Boston’s Ward 13, a diverse neighborhood filled with Vietnamese, African-American, Caribbean, Cape Verdean, and Latin American residents.
They walked up and down a section of Dorchester Avenue that bisects the city’s Vietnamese community. Bilingual signs in English and Vietnamese advertised hair salons, dentists, frozen yogurt, and jewelry.
One bilingual campaign sign hung from shop windows and fences backing Steve Tompkins, a Democrat, running for Suffolk County sheriff.
“That’s what we need for every candidate,” Pham said.
At the corner of Dorchester Avenue and Charles Street, Pham pointed to a building with homes on the top and shops on the bottom. It was a bar until his organization bought it and redeveloped it, Pham said.
As they continued walking north, Hughes asked: “Do you feel like politicians come to your community? Do you feel that you are being outreached to enough?”
“Yes,” he said.
“By Democrats or Republicans?” Hughes pressed.
“Mostly Democrats. We don’t have enough Republican politicians,” Pham replied.
They stopped inside of Pho Le, a popular restaurant at the corner of Kimball Street, where Miller met them.
Noshing on a mango salad, lotus salad, shrimp spring rolls, and beef skewers, they discussed public safety issues at certain stops on the Red Line. They talked about needing better data sharing and coordination between Boston and transit police.
As they talked, Pham noticed Van Le, a prominent real estate lawyer, sitting at a table with two others. He made an introduction, hands were shaken and pictures taken. Le works in Fields Corner but lives in Quincy, where Hughes is a city councilor.
Then the stump speeches began.
The conversations lasted just a few minutes, but they left a good impression, said Le, who thinks the neighborhood is far too often overlooked.
“The Republican Party has not had the best image of being as diverse as we would like, so this type of engagement is always positive because no one has a monopoly on good ideas,” said Le, who considers himself an independent. “What happens after this and how it translates to policies and helps the neighborhood remains to be seen.”