In a year when it should have made a strong showing, the Republican Party fielded embarrassing candidates, suffered a humiliating defeat in the presidential election and lost seats in the House and Senate. After a debacle like this, someone ought to be held accountable.
In any sensible political party this would be seen as a failure in leadership and heads would roll at the top. This is especially true when the party’s top leaders went out of their way to alienate minority groups within the party and trample all over party rules at the national convention, unseating legitimately elected delegates, disenfranchising the Republican voters of several states and passing new rules which reduce the autonomy of state parties.
Despite all of the evidence that the party is rotten at the very top and the cries of rank and file party members for change and reform, sitting Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus has been claiming that he has already received pledges from as many as 130 of the 168 national committee members to support him for a second term. Supporters of the status quo have been circulating intimidating emails trying to get all of the members to toe the line and support Priebus, but a small minority of committee members have been listening to grassroots party members who are crying out for Priebus to pay the price for his corruption and incompetence.
Out of that group, one leader has emerged who is willing to take Priebus and the party establishment on, Mark Willis. Willis is a first term committeeman from Maine, a member of the Republican Liberty Caucus and has a diverse background in military intelligence and tech industry. Willis also led a walkout protest by the Maine delegation at the Republican National Convention this summer and gained a lot of credibility among the grassroots as a result.
The campaign for party chairman isn’t like a regular political campaign. It’s very quick, wrapping up in about two weekes, and is all about winning over a small number of committee members and state party chairs, half of whom are picked by party insiders in their state and half of whom are elected by party members. Just getting nominated is the first hurdle, requiring 2 out of 3 votes from 3 different states. But once you get nominated all bets are off and allegiances and vote pledges can change very quickly all the way to a series of votes at the committee meeting on the 25th where deals are made in backrooms, hallways and restrooms until a new Chairman is selected.
I got a chance to talk to Mark Willis a few days ago and find out exactly why he wants to leap into this pit of vipers and what his plans are if he comes out winning on a longshot with a mandate to reform a party whose leaders seem willing to fiddle while the Grand Old Party burns up around them.
What brought you to the point where you wanted to take on this challenge, one which is at a level of involvement in party politics which very few people are even aware of?
Being elected to the national committee was the first step, but doing this was not my intention at the time. I just wanted to do what I could in the next four years to move the football of liberty down the field as far as I could. Then with the convention in Tampa and the way the rules were passed and the credentials report was pushed through, in both cases gavel up, gavel down, I ended up leading the walk-out and by walking out we did the right thing. We fought until we could fight no longer. We took it outside, took it to the street, took it to the press and told the story.
From that point on we had basically put sunshine on the problem. Justice Brandeis said that “Sunshine is the best disinfectant” so casting some sunshine on the problems in the RNC and the way Mr. Priebus presided over it showed me that there are bigger problems than we had suspected.
Going into this RNC election a lot of us were talking among ourselves and wondering who would challgenge Priebus, because someone’s got to do it. People were talking to me jokingly saying “Hey mark, if no one else is going to do it maybe you should do it.” And I said “Yeah right,” because there was no way I could win. He says he already has the numbers, at least he says he does, and emails from states kept coming through saying they were voting for Priebus.
Then people started throwing out names and J. C. Watts and Michael Steele were mentioned, and this website StepDownNow was put on line and it was brought to my attention that my name had been submitted along with Ron Paul, Jim DeMint, Steve Munisteri and some other folks and that I was one of the top vote getters. I said I didn’t know if this is something I’m ready to take on right now and let me talk to Violet and think for a day or two. Part of me said that this is the right thing to do and part of me said maybe I shouldn’t because there’s no way to win with the way the numbers are stacked up.
The question became whether it made sense to do this if no one else will stand up and run against him. Then I guess it was last Friday night at the supermarket and I saw an elderly couple in the parking lot and I saw the old man with a cane open the door for his wife as they got in the car. And I realized that when I was old like that I wanted to be able to say to my kids or grandkids that I did the right thing at the right time when I had the ability to do so. Even if you lose sometimes doing things like this is the right thing to do. When I go out of this world I want to go out knowing that I did what I could to promote the cause of liberty and make this coountry a better place.
So I talked to Violet and said that maybe I’ve bot nothing to lose why not go for it. Violet was very supportive. And I told Brian (Daugherty) and of course he was very supportive and he said you’ve got to do it, that there was no one else stepping up and there were people throughout the grassroots that he talks to all the time that said there’s no one else, Mark’s got to do it. I told Brian to go back to the people in the rank and file around the country he was talking to and tell them that I need two RNC members in each of three states to nominate me and if you can get those people then I’ll go ahead and do this. And the rest is history. It got posted out on Facebook and it’s taken off like wildfire.
The Liberty Movement has a lot of young and enthusiastic activists, but they may not have the backgroiund and maturity and experience to take on a job like this. You’re different in that you’re a bit older and better qualified. Could you give us some details on what makes you well prepared to do this job?
I bring a unique perspective to this position, not just because I’m a newly elected committeeman, but if you look back through my life over the last 20 years or so. In the 90s I was a counter intelligence agent serving in Haiti and Bosnia. I’ve been in some pretty interesting situations and gotten out of them in one piece. I’ve worked with all kinds of people at every level in the army, briefed generals and worked with soldiers at the ground level. After that I got my master’s degree in management information systems in Germany and really got into computer programming. Then I got out and got a job down at US Army INTSCOM at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, where I became the IT liaison between the INTSCOM personnel divisions and he NSA personnel divisions. So I was doing a lot of briefings to colonels and generals and a lot of data mining and data migration, putting square pegs into round holes making the two systems work together.
From a technology perspective I think it is very important to bring that kind of technological background and that kind of database and programming experience to the job. So from that perspective I think you can check off one important box which any Chairman ought to have very easily. Also we have my law background. I went to law school for four years at night while I was working and got my law degree from George Mason. I don’t practice and I like to joke that I’m protecting America from having another one mnore lawyer in the world. But I do have that knowledge base and it taught me how a lot of politicians think. And your whole thought process is completely different when you come out of law school. You look at problems and solve them differently after being through that ringer for 3 or 4 years. I even found that the experience of law school helped me actually solve problems in the tech field as well by looking at them differently. So in addition to the technology background I also have the legal background so that I can walk into a room and know how to look at a situation and get things done.
Beyond that, seven years ago we moved from Virginia to Maine and became small farmers and began rebuilding a 20 acre farm on a salmon river and that made me very aware of farm issues and running a business, and things like the Food Modernization Act of 2010 got us very politically active because of the heavy handed way the government dealt with farmers and the danger to liberty if the government really pushed some of its powers under that act. So that got us really involved politically.
We had always voted Republican and like many Republicans wished that Congress and the President would act more conservatively. So we got more involved with the Republican Party. I actually met Governor LePage standing in line to see Sarah Palin in 2008 at the Bangor airport and got to know him and he’s a great governor who backed us 100% when we went down to Tampa and he boycotted the convention in support of our efforts. All of this came together and we supported Ron Paul in 2008 and did what we could but it was pretty disorganized. Then things changed in 2012 with a strong organizational infrastructure where we won everything at the state convention including the two RNC seats and almost all of the delegate seats.
I think this background and going through the process and seeing what was done right and what was done wrong, makes me uniquely qualified to run a nationwide organization. I think that fundraising is a necessary evil. It is part of the job, but I think that both parties have made fundraising an absolute obsession to the point where they have lost track of the overall message and ideology of the party. They pay lipservice but when it comes down to walking the talk it’s all about fundraising and that’s all you hear. To his credit Mr. Priebus came in and balanced the checkbook when the RNC was in financial trouble and put them back on a sound footing, but that’s really his only claim to fame and all he has to campaign on. To me money is important and I’ll definitely put forth a plan to all the current donors and tell them that there’s no reason for them to leave if I win. I embrace all people in the party. We’re a big tent. But we have to get to the point where we acknowledge that fundraising is important, but it’s not everything. There are internal problems in the party which everybody knows are there and no amount of money can solve those problems.
Before Priebus the chairman was Michael Steele and they’re almost exact opposites. Priebus has been good at fundraising but Steele was very good in the public relations aspect of the job where Priebus was weak. But there’s a third aspect of the job and neither of them seems to have been very successful in the party management role of being Chairman. How do you think you could meet all three of those needs which the job demands? Could you do it yourself or put together a team to get all of those jobs done?
As a manager at that level it’s the team you can put together to get the job done, people you can trust an people to whom you can delegate responsibilities with the expectation that they can do the jobs you give them without micromanagement. You’d have to have regular meetings with your team to make sure nothing slips through the cracks and keep the pressure on to get tasks done. As General Patton said, “Pressure makes diamonds.” You have to instill a little bit of positive pressure on the people who are working for you that you are checking up to make sure everything is going well. The fundraising may be relying on a lot of current donors, but there are even more who have become dissatisfied and stopped giving. So I really want to focus on two things.
First, convincing current donors that there is nothing to be afraid of if I win. This is a big party and I will treat everybody fairly. Going into 2016 for the presidential cycle. I want the party to be transparent and evenhanded and let the people pick the candidates. If they can be comfortable with that and letting party members pick the candidates in the caucuses and primaries and not the RNC then everything will be just fine. If donors see me coming along and think that it’s a problem for the RNC to give up the ability to pick candidates then I’d remind them that a candidate like Ronald Reagan who is picked by the rank and file is a better, stronger candidate than someone selected by the people at the top and that benefits everyone, especially going into a general election.
Second I want to get those people who have stopped donating staying away from the party and give them a reason to get excited again. If you’re a Republican and you’ve got ideas, you’re welcome and no one is going to be driven away or ostracized like some of our delegates in Tampa. The best thing Romney could have done in Tampa was to just let Ron Paul get nominated with his five states and make his speech. We all knew Ron Paul was not going to win the nomination at that point, but if he had been allowed to do that then Romney could have said that all of us were in it together no matter who we supported in the primary – Bachmann, Santorum, Paul, Gingrich – he could have embraced them all despite their differences and brought them all together on the same team. It would have made the party and the campaign stronger and brought people on board who instead felt left out and rejected. If that had happened it might have made a big difference in the general election and it would at the very least have made the partu stronger and united.
Now you have people like us in the party who want to make a better party but feel excluded. After all this the Republican Party should be grateful that we’re still around and trying to help. I think that if we take this approach it will help with fundraising and make a lot of people want to support the party and make them feel like they own the party again.
As far as relating to the media, I think you’re just honest and go out there with confidence and a smile on your face and tell them this is a great party and this is what we stand for. Michael Steele was great at conveying that and was very relaxed on camera and good at instilling confidence. I think when people get to know me and see me on camera and see I can go toe to toe with the liberal media that will speak for itself, so I’m not too worried about that.
As far as managing the party, you’ve got to be the kind of guy who isn’t afraid to let people go who aren’t doing their job and promote those who are. It can take some time, but in any organization there’s some dead weight, and you have to cut the fat to make the organization work better. What I want to do is go in and assemble a team and talk to them and tell them that the current top-down approach of selling policy to the grassroots is the exact opposite of what we should do, and we should be listening to the rank and file Republicans because they know what they want and are thirsting for leaders who speak the same language and will listen to them and hold the line on the issues which matter to them and do what they’re supposed to do when they get to Congress.
I believe that New Hampshire and Iowa should always be first in line and keep their first in the nation primary status, but beyond that I don’t think states should be penalized or lose delegates if they don’t have their primary or caucus within the RNC’s timeline. Give them a window to get their primaries done and let them decide when within that timeframe. We need to instill the managerial message that state parties are sovereign and we’re here to help facilitiate and provide them with support, running debates and settling disputes or solving problems, but generally letting them run their own business. Questions like whether states shoudl be proportional or winner take all or hold primaries or caucuses, should be left for the states to decide and the RNC should stay out.
There are groups out there like FairPrimary.org which are concerned with party groups like the RNC, NRSC or NRCC spending money and resources on primary elections, picking winners and losers from the top-down. The RNC has done a particularly bad job with this, blowing money on losing candidates who were not popular with the voters or who even turned on the party as was the case with Charlie Crist or who ended up not being very credible like Todd Akin. Would you consider ending the practice of picking winners and losers in primaries?
Why even have a primary then? Why say we’re a big tent and that everyone has an equal shot? Why encourage candidates to run and then tell them that they should drop out and stop costing us money so that a party-picked candidate can go ahead without a challenge. This fits with my idea of decentralization. If there’s a contested primary the RNC should just stay out. Let the state have their primary and don’t interfere.
Let’s say this campaign goes great and you become RNC Chair, you’re in an off-year now and you have plenty of time to prepare for the next election. What are the first three things you would do when you get into office?
The first thing that I would do is say that we need to repeal the rules that were passed in Tampa. I’d assemble a team and tell them that I don’t care what it takes, we have to repeal these rules. I might need to explain to them and educate them so they understand what happened with these rules which cut the grassroots out of the process and make it clear that at least rules 12, 16 and 40 need to be repealed and returned to the 2008 rules. These rule changes are not good for the party and they are not legitimate, because they were passed erroneously through a scripted vote. There should have at least been a show of hands, or even a superballot vote. In the voice vote, depending on where you stood on the floor it sounded like the nays had it, and that should have dictated some sort of counted vote. Repealing them will restore integrity and confidence in the process.
Second I would visit every state and let them know that there’s a new policy at the top. It would take a large travel budget, but I want to sit down with the party leaders in each state and tell them that we’re transferring more autonomy and more responsibility to them and explain to them why it’s important for them to take initiative and rebuild their state party their way.
Third, I would insure that we build the most effective technology team we can, assembling experts from day one to coiunter the significant technology edge which the Democrats demonstrated in the last election. I’d want to assess what resoures we have and how we can use them effectively and figure out what the Democrats have that gave them an advantage and figure out how to match or exceed their capabilities.
If I can break in, a lot of the experts remarked on the new demographic tools the Democrats had in this last election, but those of us working in the states have an ongoing concern that the RNC hasn’t even been able to get Voter Vault to work properly and can’t keep their data up to date. The Republican Party is effectively a technological generation behind, so you’d almost be starting from scratch.
All of that goes into assembling a technology team. You have to step back and ask the questions first. One of the first questions would be where are we with Voter Vault and is it even effective. Can it be fixed or does it need to be replaced and if so, what? Then you have to evaluate new technoogies. Answering those questions takes time and we’d need to bring in people from industry who are willing to work with us and who have experience with data gathering and migration efforts. We tell them were we are and where we need to be and ask them how we get there.
The RNC’s role is to lead the GOP, hopefully acting on behalf of the membership. It seems like the biggest challenge the party faces is one of image, stemming from a hostile media and the popular fall-off in support of the party and a perception that the party is out of touch and out of date? What is the root of this problem and how can you address it?
That’s an interesting question. It depends who you talk to. Some say its the alienation of the grassroots. They expect our votes every November, but when someone actually comes up through the ranks and runs for office from the grassroots, as you said the party leaders pick the winners and losers in the primary and it’s usually not the grassroots candidate. That’s part of the problem, but there’s more to it. If you look at the preamble of the rules it says “We are the party of liberty and equality and favoritism for none” and I say that if that’s the case why don’t we start acting like it?
The one word that ties it all together is “hypocrisy” and that is something people talk about all over the country and people say look at what they say and then what they do in example after example in every state. They say look at how they treat us every single time. There’s no respect for the voters. The party promises one thing and delivers something very different. It’s like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown and then pulling it away. We keep making promises that it will get better and then not delivering. People get frustrated and say why should we keep supporting this party. They ask why aren’t they electing better candidates? Why aren’t they following the platform? Why aren’t they implementing the ideas they claim they believe in when they get to Washington?
It all comes down to hypocrisy and you don’t want to be known for that as a party. That’s what we have to deal with coming out of 2012. We have to rebrand this party and convince people that there are people of integrity in the party and that it really can be a party of smaller government. We need to look at what we’re doing as a government and make hard decisions.
We have to admit we can’t keep fighting wars all over the world at our expense for the benefit of others. We need a Department of Defense, not a Department of War and at this point most Republicans are ready to accept that.
We need to draw some firm budget lines even in areas where it’s hard to do. We need to say “enough is enough” about the fiscal cliff. We need to tell the Democrats that we’re not going to keep raising the debt limit again and again and that we have to live within our means.
We need to show grassroots Republican voters that we deserve their confidence and that we are actively implementing a fiscally conservative policy. And we need to show it by not putting obstacles in the way of candidates in the primary who embrace that kind of change and honesty.
We have to rebrand the party. A recent poll showed that we are the most disliked party in the whole country. To me that’s because we’ve lost the trust of the people. So many people believe the party is beyond reform and they ask me why I’m even trying to change it when I might as well just give up. Well, I was elected for four years and I want to do as much as I can in those four years to get this party moving in a better direction and that’s what I intend to do.
As a followup question, one thing the party has really done very little on is candidate training and development. A lot of candidates are left hanging with little preparation for what they are taking on. In many cases state parties have fallen through on this as well and extra-party organizations are left doing the job and doing it pretty unevenly. Is that something the RNC could take on?
A very good point and I believe that’s another team we could develop at the RNC or help the states develop their own programs based on a strong candidate development plan which they could implement. That’s how I would approach it. Look at the party now. We’ve lost the presidency. We’ve lost the Senate. For a while it looked like there was a possibility of even losing the House. Lucky for us it didn’t happen. It’s a little too close for comfort right now.
We can’t afford to do less than our best or keep alienating potential supporters. Look at the harm Boehner has done by how he has treated the more conservative and libertarian members in the House. If you worked for Justin Amash or one of the other candidates Boehner kicked off their committees, how would you feel about the party which treated him that way? You work for months and donate money and work with the party and do all these things and you finally get your guy to Congress and election night you’re high fiving and then he gets to Congress and something like that happens. That’s the kind of thing which causes people to leave the party. We need to tell people like Speaker Boehner that he doesn’t have to do what we tell him to, but that we’re not happy and he’ll be held accountable if he does this kind of thing again.
From a position of leadership in the RNC you could set a different tone or character for how the party operates that others might follow.
That’s certainly better than passing a symbolic resolution against him. I’ve been in all sorts of different units in the army. Some are happy and vibrant and you’re glad to be in them and then sometimes you’re in one where everyone is filing inspector general reports and complaining right and left. It all stems from the top. The tone or the spirit of the leader – the colonel or the general – filters down and the other officers under him follow his lead and act the same way.
If I go in and I’m the new boss, people are going to like my management style. I’ll be open and honest with everybody and give everyone a chance who thinks they can help the party and get the job done. Inclusiveness. I will not exclude people from the party If I do get elected some people may be angry and stomp off, but I say stick around and get to know me. I’m not so bad, and even though I came out of the liberty movement, there’s a lot of us who are very principled people who can bring a new perspective and a new tone to the party and I’ll be able to go out on TV and in the media and say honestly that this is a new and revitalized party and tell them why and that we want to be inclusive and it’s okay to come back. I’ll tell them we’ve had our problems, but the new management is going to be positive and not heavy handed.
To wrap up, people probably want to know what they can do to help. What are the best things they can do for this effort?
If people read this and they’re inspired and they want to help, I’d say they should go out and respectfully explain to people in the party leadership why I deserve to be on the ballot. They can tell their RNC members they don’t even have to vote for Mark, but please support his right to run.
I need 2 votes from each of three states for a nomination. I have 2 from Maine and Nevada and one in a number of other states, so any help to get one more key vote in those states would make all the difference. A nomination doesn’t mean a hard commitment to support me, just that they want to give me a chance to be heard. The deadline is 5pm on Thursday the 24th. If 2 or 3 committee members from a state wanted to support me for nomination all they have to do is get a short form in to the legal council at the RNC and I’ll be ready to stand for nomination the next day on the 25th.
Where should people go if they want to find out more and give you some help?
I’m working with the group StepDownNow.com and there’s the Facebook group at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Mark-Willis-for-RNC-Chair/ and what we need most right now is for people to spread the word and talk to their RNC members.