July 26, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Maine Republican chairman copes with twin images

When it comes to political messaging, images mean everything. So let's take a look at two visuals, both with deep Maine Republican roots, as they meander through cyberspace this week.

AIRING IT OUT

Listen to a podcast of Bill Nemitz talking about this column and other issues this morming on  NewsRadio 560 WGAN.

The first is that already iconic photo of George H.W. Bush with 2-year-old Patrick, the son of a Secret Service agent, sitting on the former president's lap at Walker's Point in Kennebunkport.

Patrick has no hair because of the leukemia treatment he's currently receiving. Bush has no hair because, following the lead of every member of his security detail, he had his head shaved to show his support for little Patrick.

"Everyone has nominated this for story of the week," Jim McGrath, Bush's spokesman, told Press Herald reporter Dennis Hoey this week. "The public's reaction has been very positive."

As well it should be. The older the 89-year-old Bush gets, the more endearing he becomes to Americans of all political stripes with his mismatched socks, his oh-so-candid utterances and that twinkle in his eye that suggests he's discovered in old age what's truly most important in life.

Now for the second image – an illustrated flier promoting a "Summer Fun Raffle" to raise funds for the Sagadahoc County Maine Republicans.

Fifth prize is a horseback riding lesson at a local stable; fourth is a gift basket from a local orchard; third and second prizes are a gift card and a camping package from L.L. Bean. And first prize is ... drum roll please ...

A handgun.

That's right, lucky Republicans. A $5 ticket (or five for $20) can make you the proud owner of a Sig Sauer P238 Equinox. It's worth between $650 and $700 and, as the manufacturer notes on its website, "is pretty to look at and beautiful to shoot."

OK, so the handgun giveaway is just the brainchild of a county Republican organization in a part of the state where talk of gun rights, among others, happens to be running rabid these days.

To truly gauge the current image of Maine's Republican Party, let's go to its statewide website and see what we find: That totally disarming photo of Kennebunkport's most famous resident sans hair? Or something less warm and fuzzy?

"You're invited! Maine GOP Firearm Training Day for Concealed Carry Permit," screams the banner headline atop the home page.

It's an all-day event that was supposed to be held on July 13 – except it wasn't. Click on the banner and you'll see that it's been postponed until September – except that might not happen, either.

"I think it's an idea that was something the previous chair (Richard Cebra of Naples) had initiated," Rick Bennett, Maine's new Republican chairman, said in an interview Thursday. "I'm not sure whether we're going to go through with it or not at this point."

Good answer. A better one might be: "Hold on while I take that firearms-training promo down off the website and plug in that can't-miss photo of President Bush!"

Bennett's election to chairman last weekend comes, as he put it, at "a very interesting time to be a Republican in Maine and probably across the nation."

He is, without doubt, a much-needed stabilizing influence on a state party that hasn't stopped ricocheting around the political arena since its now infamous state convention back in May of 2012.

That free-for-all, you'll recall, produced a party platform straight from the Twilight Zone and a slate of Ron Paul delegates to the Republican National Convention who had their seats pulled out from under them the moment they arrived in Tampa. Not surprisingly, it also handed Maine's Democrats majorities in both chambers of the Legislature.

Bennett, a former longtime legislator who served as president of the Maine Senate, readily concedes that his party's many and varied newcomers -- the tea party conservatives, the Ron Paul libertarians -- played significant roles in a 2012 state convention "which was by all reports an unmitigated disaster."

But that, Bennett insists, is all in the past.

"My job is to harmonize the energies as much as possible and move us forward," he said.

With guns here, there and everywhere?

"You see guns," Bennett noted. "Other people see freedom."

Touche, Mr. Chairman. But what about that still-in-effect platform that demands everything from "Reject the UN Treaty on Rights of the Child" to "Return to the principles of Austrian economics?" All due respect, but does Bennett have a clue what "Austrian economics" even means?

"Not really," he conceded.

That said, Bennett doesn't have as big a problem with the party platform as do those who think it has no business delving into, "Discard political correctness, make public the declaration of war (Jihad), made against the US on 23 Feb 1998, and fight the war against the United States by radical Islam to win."

In fact, Bennett said, beyond the occasional warped plank, the overall platform is "fine" as far as he's concerned.

"It talks about freedom. It talks about individual liberty. It talks about limited government. It talks about free markets," he said. "And those are the elements that tie us together as Republicans."

No argument there. But Bennett, who for the record is pro-choice and believes humans in fact do have something to do with climate change, is well aware that his bigger challenge goes far beyond persuading Maine's 270,000 enrolled Republicans (only 27 percent of the statewide electorate) to play nice with each other.

"At the end of the day, we're only going to be successful if we meet the demands of Maine voters," he said. "Not just the Republicans, but all Maine voters."

Precisely. So, with the vast majority of those voters in favor of some form of gun control, why would your party remain so fixated on guns?

"I think this speaks to something a little deeper than just people loving guns," Bennett said. "I think it's about people fearing for their communities and their safety and they feel like government has failed them in many ways. They feel like they need to take on certain things that they've never taken on before – and this is one of them."

Ah yes, the tsunami of fear that's been sweeping the nation since the day Barack Obama became president. We can only imagine how Bennett, a political pro if ever there was one, will translate that into an image Maine voters can all embrace.

Or he could just shave his head.

 

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

 

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