Lawyers having a Grand Old Party

Issue March 2010 By Paul McMorrow

"For the first time in a long time, the wind is at our back instead of in our face," says Massachusetts Republican Party Chair Jennifer Nassour, a Watertown resident who is of counsel to Consigli & Brucato PC in Milford.

Brown's election to the late Edward M. Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat may help usher in the next act for politics in Massachusetts. Energized by Brown's victory, a number of prominent attorneys think the Republican Party can become a player in state politics again. Certainly, his win means that state attorneys active in the party are feeling a renewed sense of mission, energy and enthusiasm.

Jeanne Kangas, an attorney with Concord-based Arnold & Kangas, is also vice-chair of the state Republican Party. She compares Brown's U.S. Senate win to the feeling of being a Red Sox fan before the team won the pennant: "Some people couldn't believe we'd won." Now, she added, people are hungry for more."

In a typical week, Kangas said, she would spend roughly eight hours on political work. Now, with districts across the state suddenly in play, that figure is easily doubled. It helps, she said, that as the majority owner of her firm, she doesn't have to tangle with workplace bureaucracy. The recession has also slowed her family law caseload a bit, making the balancing act "a bit less frantic than it could have been."

Ed McGrath, a partner at Burns & Farrey's Boston office, said balancing a full-time caseload and an ambitious legislative campaign "takes a lot of thought and effort, but it's certainly manageable." As a litigator, McGrath said, he has a more flexible schedule than others might enjoy. "No question, though, you make your hours one way or another."

Yet Kangas also points out that a frantic election is what most state GOP volunteers signed up for: A light campaign workload means you're not competing well at the polls. "It's easy to say you care a lot about public issues," she argued. "Things don't improve if you do nothing. It takes a personal commitment to action."

A Demographic Shift

While the Bay State has historically been viewed as the bluest of blue states, Independents count for half the commonwealth's voters. Statewide voter turnout in the Jan. 19 election exceeded 40 percent, with three towns clocking in at 70 percent. Looking ahead, the Nov. 2, 2010, midterm elections may well top the January figures.

Republicans are now a tiny minority in the 200-member state Legislature. Democrats outnumber them 144-16 in the House and 34-4 in the Senate with Brown's departure.

But across Massachusetts, dozens of candidates for statewide and congressional offices have rushed to take out nomination papers - many of them on the first day the papers were available. Candidates have until the end of April to gather enough signatures to appear on the ballot, so it is too soon to tell how many will actually run. At the end of Jan., the Massachusetts Republican Party had fielded more than 75 candidates for state and federal elections. Twenty more rushed out to grab nomination papers in the weeks after Brown's victory.

That list is likely to get much bigger, according to a roster of experienced players in the Massachusetts legal community whose involvement with the Republican Party goes back years. Lawyers Journal tapped their insight for what the changed landscape might mean.

Coming To The Party

The clearest result of the Senate election is that GOP legal insiders are seeing more interest now from other lawyers, who have been emboldened by Brown's win.

"Particularly when you're involved in the Mass. GOP, you tend to see the same names over and over," said Dan Haley, an associate at McDermott, Will & Emery. Haley serves as Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Baker's campaign treasurer, responsible for overseeing compliance with state campaign finance laws. "The most frequent comment I'm hearing at meetings now is, 'We're seeing a lot of new names,'" he says.

Some of those new names came from Haley's own office. During the Brown campaign, he said, "several new people came up to me to ask, 'How can I get involved?' Now they're saying, 'Keep me involved this year.' Excitement is building. It's more fun and interesting when you have a chance to win."

When he ran for the Legislature two years ago, Haley burned through vacation time. Now he's devoting large chunks of his free time to Baker's campaign.

"It's like anything else - it's a balance," he reasoned. "Some people play softball. Others get involved in politics. My firm has been very, very supportive of me. That was true in 2008, when it was not a Republican year, at all. It's a civic-minded firm. But you don't let your client work suffer. Especially in this economy, you can't let anything at work slip."

"I think what we're seeing is insiders out, and outsiders in," says Daniel Winslow. He has served as chief legal counsel for both Mitt Romney and now, Brown, and he is running for the 9th Norfolk seat being vacated by Richard Ross (see sidebar).

Haley sees a stark difference from 2004, the last time the GOP took a run at the Democrat-heavy state Legislature: That push was top-down recruiting, but now candidates are emerging from the grassroots. "That's the most profound change Scott's win created," Haley argued. "An awful lot of people are politically-minded, but before this winter, the calculus was, maybe someday, but for now, there's not much prospect of winning. All of a sudden, now people are deciding to run. That potentially has very long-term ramifications."

A Healthy Outlook

Nurse-attorney Sharon Randall, affiliated with the medical malpractice firm Crowe & Mulvey, concurs with Haley about the changed political climate since 2004. Back then, she ran in a House district covering Lynn, Marblehead and Swampscott.

"In 2004, it was harder for voters to see beyond party politics on the ticket," Randall said. "I was personally blamed for the Iraq War twice when I was door-knocking. Now voters are seeing that not every candidate can be compartmentalized. It's less about party lines."

Randall sees new optimism bubbling up from the local level. "The Republican town committees in my community are feeling energized, they're gearing up for a busy election cycle."

For herself, Randall said the demands on time as a volunteer are different than when she ran for the Legislature, in 2004. What hasn't changed is the sheer number of hours a campaign requires. "When I was a candidate, I kept my job, and I was certainly multitasking," she said. "Now, my weeknights and weekends are quite busy. Evenings can be double-booked sometimes. It depends on your level of activity and how much time you want to spend. I enjoy being hands-on, so I sign up for lot of opportunities."

Randall said this election cycle has made more demands on volunteers' time than past cycles because of the sheer number of candidates running locally and statewide. "I'm proud to call a number of them friends," Randall added, "so, to help a friend, you spend more time, and you're pleased to do it."

Lawyers in the local GOP are also pleased that they are finally finding a receptive, and broad, audience for their message.

"When unemployment's at 4 percent and housing prices are going up and up and up," said Burns & Farrey's McGrath, the public is "not as receptive to questions like, 'Are we spending too much money?' It's a harder sell." Not any more.

McGrath hears concerns about jobs, spending and debt on the campaign trail. He said he assumed the economy would turn voters against incumbents, but he's surprised at how quickly that turn has taken place. The challenge, he said, will be in tying incumbent legislators to the overall economy.

"We've had Republican governors before, and the Legislature did what they wanted," McGrath said. "We have a Democratic governor now, and the Legislature still does what it wants. Clearly the corner office's powers are limited, and if people want a change, it's going to come from the Legislature. The trick is getting that message out. We are going to pick up enough seats to sustain [gubernatorial candidate] Charlie Baker's vetoes."

Elissa Flynn-Poppey, an associate at Mintz Levin's Boston offices, says she sees Baker as the potential focus for many young Republican voters. She has worked for former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld and Mitt Romney, and the Republican who formerly held Brown's legislative seat. She served as Romney's deputy legal counsel, and also as executive director of the governor's Judicial Nominating Commission. She points out that she also once worked for Joseph Moakley, the former stalwart Democratic congressman from South Boston. In Massachusetts, she says, you have to cross the aisle.

"I enjoyed working with Democrats at the Statehouse," she said. "Everyone was trying to make Massachusetts a better place. I think it helped the Democrats to hear a different point of view. And as an attorney, it increased my advocacy skills."

No Time To Stop

Flynn-Poppey ascribes Brown's win to his willingness to engage in a conversation with the electorate. "For a long time, people were being told what to do," she argued. "When he spoke, it touched people." She believes the U.S. Senate victory will be the catalyst for "systematic changes" in state politics, by mobilizing a new generation of young activists.

"Republicans better not rest on their laurels if they win these offices," Winslow warned. "People like the capitalist system; when the choice is creating government jobs or empowering private-sector jobs, people prefer to go out and work."