Grand Old Picnic

The driveway leading from the main road out to the Elks Pavilion in West Springfield is long, patchy, and potholed, and as I motored over it on my way to the Western Mass Republican Picnic on July 15, my car bounced up and down like a moon buggy. I passed a row of yard signs for candidates like Gregory Neffinger and Scott Brown, the first Republican to be elected to the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts since 1972, and then rolled into a big gravel parking lot bordered by a forest of scrawny trees on one side and the pavilion on the other.

Among the first to arrive, I surveyed the scene and spotted an American flag the size of a bed sheet strung up by the rafters and a middle-aged man wearing what looked to be a militia outfit idling by the registration table. I saw no “Coexist” bumper stickers in the lot, and sensed that I was far from my home in Northampton.

The gathering had been organized by the Western Mass. Republicans, a grassroots organization of conservative citizens and activists living in Hampden and Hampshire counties (but not Franklin or Berkshire). The WMR was founded in the 1980s by a group of conservatives led by the late Fred Whitney, a five-decade figure in Springfield politics, and its objective has been to nurture the Republican cause in the Pioneer Valley by campaigning for local and statewide candidates, mailing out a monthly newsletter, and hosting social functions like the annual picnic, which was convening that day for the twentieth time.

As the sun dropped below the treeline and the pavilion began to swell with guests, I sat down at a round wooden table with a man who claimed to have attended every one. Wendell Carduff, an eighty-five-year-old retiree who sported two tan hearing aids and a thick shock of silvery hair, told me that he had lived in the area his whole life, earning his law degree at Western New England College in the 1940s and moving briefly to Vermont before settling for good in Springfield.

The fact that Wendell had never really left the Valley made him typical of the picnickers I spoke with over the evening. What distinguished him was that he had been a Republican all his life, and thus lacked a compelling conversion story. Some of the people I met had been Kennedy Democrats who felt the party had moved to the left in the 1980s and no longer cared about ordinary, working families. Others, like WMR Secretary Victor Davila, had joined the GOP in the 1990s and 2000s because it was more in sync with their views on abortion and gay marriage.

By six o’clock about 180 guests had arrived—a record turnout for a non-election year. Most looked to be in their thirties and forties or older, and a few had children in tow. Tony Pluta, the son of Holyoke Mayor Elaine Pluta, manned the sound system, spinning nostalgic classics like “American Pie,” while diners caught up with friends and shuttled back and forth between their tables and the buffet, loading up on hamburgers, hot dogs and kielbasa.

Having not purchased a $20 ticket, I was turned away from the food spread but, thankfully, given a delicious ice cream Sundae by a warm and generous woman at the dessert booth. Who says Republicans can’t be charitable?

Soon the music died down and Jay Fleitman, the chairman of the WMR and a practicing physician, took to the floor to welcome his flock and introduce the event’s guest speakers. His tone was playful. Dressed in a blue tie and blue shirt and crowned with an ironic Kerry/Edwards baseball cap, Fleitman joked about the loneliness of being a Republican in Northampton and recounted some of the Democrats’ more embarrassing recent wrongdoings, from Michele Obama’s shopping sprees to Charlie Rangel’s tax evasions.

He then promised free angioplasties if the buffet was too much for anyone, adding, “A gift to Republicans—no co-pay.”

Fleitman has been a versatile leader in the Valley’s conservative movement for the past decade, playing at different times the part of organizer, candidate, and intellectual steersman. Since 2005 he has served as the ward chairman of the Northampton Republican City Committee, and in 2010 he tried to unseat 11-term U.S Congressman Richard Neal, a Democrat. He campaigned on economic issues but ultimately lost his party’s nomination to Tom Wesley of Hopedale, who in turn lost to Neal by 31,000 votes.

Fleitman’s consolation prize was a monthly column in the Daily Hampshire Gazette titled Right Mind, in which he offers a conservative take on topics such as health care reform and tax cuts. In March of this year, a few months after joining the paper, he was elected to lead the WMR as chairman. Under his aegis, the organization plans to continue to campaign for the GOP in state and national races but will also focus more on local elections, working to get Republicans onto city councils and school boards in the Valley.

“It’s not a sporting event,” Fleitman assured his audience. “This isn’t about blue versus red.” He went on to explain that at all levels of government the people need representatives who care about individual liberty and the Constitution and who practice fiscal responsibility and common sense. He also hinted that excelling at smaller jobs is how candidates build records and become legitimate contenders for bigger jobs on Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill.

But another reason to play small ball, of course, is that in this, the bluest of blue states, it may be the only game in town. In the last election, Democrats claimed 12 of the region’s 15 state congressional seats and five of its six state senate seats. Hampden County hasn’t voted for a Republican president since 1984, and Springfield hasn’t had a Republican mayor since 1972. In 2004, Northampton was designated the most liberal city of its size by the geo-coding website EPodunk, and The Daily Caller, a conservative e-magazine, has ranked Hampshire the seventeenth most liberal county in the nation.

I thought about that reputation as I watched the next speaker, recently retired Holyoke Chief of Police Anthony Scott, light up the crowd by thundering against lifetime appointments for judges and the state’s soft prisons, which he alleged coddle criminals with air-conditioning and reading privileges. I thought about it some more when presidential hopeful Buddy Roemer, a former governor of Louisiana, led the pavilion in a gripping, revival-style harangue against corporate interests and government profligacy.

I probably would have continued to mull over the region’s political outlook during Governor’s Councilor Jen Caissie’s speech had I not been lured to the middle of the parking lot by a quiet, brooding man who urged me to investigate the mercury content of fluorescent light bulbs. I told him I would, so here goes: CFLs contain mercury, and studies suggest many states may experience increased mercury levels in their environment if they don’t develop adequate recycling programs. Either way, experts are convinced that LEDs are the lights of the future.

And will they be illuminating many election-night celebrations for the WMR in the coming years? Do the Republicans have a shot at being real contenders in one of the most liberal swaths of the most liberal state in the Union?

Maybe. While it’s hard to imagine Hampshire blushing away its blue, Hampden is another story. In 2010, Scott Brown took the county by almost 14,000 votes. Of the Valley’s three Republican state representatives, all three hail from Hampden, and two—first-termer Nick Boldyga and third-termer Todd Smola—wrested their seats from Democrats. While registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in the county three to one, almost half the voting public is unaffiliated.

And WMR Secretary Victor Davila points out that the GOP may have an untapped reserve in the region’s large Hispanic population, many of whom may be, like Davila, sympathetic to the party’s traditionalist stance on marriage and abortion. Mix in some eastern resentment and a struggling economy, and the political map of Western Massachusetts begins to look less stable.

That all depends, of course, on the volunteer-powered WMR and its ability to build support in the Valley through mailings, through its newsletter, and through social events like the summer picnic.

By nine o’clock the speakers had spoken and the food had been eaten. Most of the nearly two hundred guests remained, but now they started to exchange goodbyes and head towards the parking lot. Fleitman hung around near the podium chatting with an endless parade of friends and well-wishers. He seemed to be almost humming with energy.

I chatted with a few folks about the debt ceiling and the Republican presidential nomination, but soon I was walking out to the parking lot as well. It was there that I again spotted the man in the militia outfit I had seen when I first arrived, although as I got closer I found that he wasn’t a radical separatist. He was just an ordinary man wearing a dark shirt, suspenders and a black brimless cap.

We spoke for a few minutes about Buddy Roemer, and then I asked him about a Latin phrase on the side of his cap. It meant “Never Forget.”

“What aren’t you supposed to forget?” I inquired. He pondered for a moment.

“I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that,” he concluded, “but I imagine it means we should never forget our origins.” Fine advice, but in life and in politics the past is already written. The Western Mass. Republicans have their sights set on the future.

Author: Daniel Platt

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