Former national party chairs deride their own parties

Republican Michael Steele & Democrat Howard Dean

Former national chairmen of the Republican and Democratic parties spoke in Denver Wednesday, criticizing political strategies on gun control and multiculturalism that could dissuade voters.

Speaking at the Political Law and Compliance Seminar hosted by the McKenna Long and Aldridge law firm, Howard Dean, a Democrat, and Michael Steele, a Republican, were both critical of their parties startegies.

Dean pointed to an “over-reach” by Democrats in the Colorado legislature, while Steele worried that Republicans were doing a poor job reaching out to young and minority voters.

Moderator Eli Stokols, a political reporter with KDVR-TV Fox31 Denver, asked the two political heavyweights for their input on the recent recall elections in Colorado. A grassroots coalition of gun rights activists this month successfully recalled two Democrats, Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs and Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo.

Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele and former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean joined Fox 31 political reporter Eli Stokols Wednesday at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel for a discussion on evolving politics.
Photo by Peter Marcus/The Colorado Statesman

Both lawmakers had supported stricter gun control, including banning high-capacity ammunition magazines of more than 15 rounds and universal background checks with associated fees. The legislation set the stage for the recall efforts, which proved to be the first time in state history that state lawmakers had been recalled from office.

Morse was ousted in a slightly Republican-leaning district by just 343 votes, while Giron, who sits in a Democratic-leaning district, was recalled by a stunning 4,154 votes.

Dean, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and former governor of Vermont, pointed to the libertarian spirit of Colorado, suggesting that Democrats may have taken on an agenda too ambitious for Colorado voters.

“There’s some local factors that have nothing to do with anything, and I also think there’s probably a little over-reach on the part of the legislature,” said Dean. “This is a pretty libertarian state. Just because it’s keeping votes more Democratically now that’s partly because the Republicans’… have taken such a hard line that they’re really not libertarians, they’re authoritarians, and there’s nothing more aggravating to a true libertarian than running into an authoritarian, which is what the right wing is…

“Just because the Democrats won in a lot of the big wins and control the House and the governorship, they probably should have thought a little more carefully about just exactly what they were doing,” Dean suggested.

He then referenced New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, co-founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, who supported the gun control legislation in Colorado and even wrote a personal check for $350,000 to fight the recall efforts.

“Mike Bloomberg may have a good point, but I think having out-of-state people from New York City coming to Colorado… is probably not a winning strategy…” opined Dean.

“I do think that’s a warning shot,” he said of the recalls.

Steele believes the recalls were successful because Democrats ignored voters. Gun rights activists tend to cross party lines, and Democrats took a risk when they advanced a gun control agenda.

“Those elected officials summarily ignored them and the voters said, ‘OK, fine, we’ve got something for you,’ and put in place an effort to recall them…” said Steele, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland who assumed the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee 2009-11. “It is sort of a little bit of a kernel of possible truth on a national level…”

Reaching a new generation

But Steele said there is no traction for Republicans on the national or local levels if they are unable to reach a new generation of voters. While Republicans often invoke the spirit of the mighty Republican Ronald Reagan, Steele said his party doesn’t do a very good job carrying the torch for Reagan, which includes bridging gaps within diverse voting blocs.

“Ronald Reagan wouldn’t win a Republican primary today to save his soul…” said Steele, who is now a political analyst for MSNBC.

He pointed out that the next generation of voters is a multicultural generation that includes all walks of life, such as gay people and immigrants. Steele said the Republican Party used to stand for assimilation and civil rights, but that there has been a departure from those values.

“The more we lose sight of that history, I think the harder it becomes to rewind; to wind all that crazy in and begin to refocus the country,” opined Steele.

He recalled how when he was 17 years old preparing to vote in his first presidential election, he was captivated by a Reagan speech at the Republican National Convention.

“I realized he sounded a lot like my mom, because my mother was teaching me about being personally responsible, contributing something to the broader community, going out and making my own way…” explained Steele. “And he just sounded so smart and so together and so right. This 17-year-old kid signed up and joined the party… That 17-year-old wouldn’t do that today.”

Part of the problem, he said, is that Republicans have been unable to accept different cultures and backgrounds, such as being gay, a minority, a woman, or an immigrant.

“The message is that we’re generally not welcome…” said Steele, who is black. “I may be personally welcome, but you don’t welcome my gay cousin; you don’t welcome my Hispanic neighbor; you don’t welcome my sister because you think you should have more say over what she does with her life than she does.”

He opined that similar problems might arise over voting rights issues, which could become an issue on the campaign trail and offer a tough debate for Republicans.

“I can see the Democrats coming back next year and, particularly in my community, saying, ‘You want a Voting Rights Act? Fire [U.S. House Speaker John] Boehner,’” declared Steele.

Dean said that when he ran for president in 2004, he also found the need to shift inter-party thinking.

“When I ran I was running as much against the Democrats as I was against the Republicans because the Democrats were all supporting [President George W.] Bush’s tax cuts and the Iraq War,” explained Dean.

But he said his party has done a better job embracing diversity and the rise of younger generations, which has helped them make gains.

“My campaign was really the vessel for our children’s generation taking over politics…” said Dean. “I knew what the face of new politics was, and I knew that it was really different than the Republican Party.

“The face of the Republican Party are these people who are talking about racism, and they talk about immigration, they talk about homophobia, and they talk about women in the most unflattering terms… The brand of Republicans has been completely screwed…” Dean continued.

He said younger voters would vote Republican if the party simply moved away from certain wedge issues. Dean, who is now a strategic advisor with McKenna Long and Aldridge, pointed out that many young voters are more conservative than people think.

“They don’t particularly like unions, they’re somewhat libertarian on their views on the economy, they do care about fiscal matters…” he said. “The reason they can’t vote Republican… is because this new generation is the first multicultural generation in the history of America… They’re not going to throw their friends and lovers under the bus for anything.”

Colorado Republican reacts

Republican attorney Mario Nicolais, who is seeking Democratic Sen. Andy Kerr’s Senate District 22 seat in Lakewood, attended the panel discussion.

Nicolais has seen Republican infighting firsthand.

He launched a coalition of Republicans who supported same-sex civil unions legislation. Despite their effort, the Republican majority in the House at the time killed the bill through last-minute gamesmanship in 2012. The bill didn’t pass until Democrats took over this year.

Nicolais agrees that his party could use some work. But he doesn’t believe the situation is as dire as Steele and Dean portray it.

“The party’s principles are still good and they’re still strong,” he said. “The real critical piece is that the party needs people who are going to go out and get engaged with their communities. We need to stop telling communities what we think and start listening to what communities have to say.”

He opined that the Republican brand has been altered by a select few, which does not necessarily speak to the party as a whole.

“Republicans do care; they care a lot,” said Nicolais. “The difference is they don’t expect the government to do their caring for them.

“That’s the real tweak that Republicans have to make, is that they have to start showing people that they care…” he continued.

But Nicolais does not believe that any faction of his party needs to be silenced, even if its political future is on the line. He said ultimately voters would have the final say.

“We live in a country where you have a marketplace of ideas, and people are going to weigh the things they hear and they’re going to give it weight depending on whether they agree with them…” said Nicolais. “Young voters, in particular, see a lot of messages they disagree with that are not inclusive, and they tend to discredit them… then they dismiss the candidate.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com