Charlie Webster’s war never ends. And his approach never varies. For over a quarter of a century, he’s stuck to the same strategy like yellow-gray mold sticks to the back of an old refrigerator.
I’m more inclined to go with block-headed stubbornness.
Webster, a former state legislator from Farmington, and the new chairman of the Republican State Committee, never grows weary of his 25-year-old stump speech, even though it’s somewhat simplistic, slightly illogical and resonates with voters like an infomercial for forcible nostril-hair removal.
He keeps plugging away, talking about how “hard-working Maine people” get conned into voting for liberals, who then spend their tax dollars to build a welfare state and an anti-business bureaucracy.
If, as Webster keeps claiming, Republicans represent the values of “working-class people,” who, in these difficult times, has been doing such an excellent job of advocating for the interests of corporate CEOs, Wall Street investment bankers and insurance company lobbyists?
Democrats, I suppose. But the fat cats have to endure a lot more abuse from the Dems than they ever had to take from the GOP – before collecting their usual bailouts, tax breaks and subsidies.
Back to Webster. Who are the members of this gutsy-but-gullible “working class” he’s mentioned in nearly every interview and speech he’s ever given? In a recent story in the Morning Sentinel, he described them as “truck drivers, factory workers, secretaries and nurses.” In a January interview on the As Maine Goes Web site, he defined them as “the grass roots, everyday people, people that drive a truck, real people.” In a speech to the 1992 Republican state convention, he mentioned “our tax base of factory workers, farmers and fishermen,” which is believed to be the only time in his career he didn’t include truck drivers. By the 1994 GOP convention, the drivers were back in the working class, joined by “teachers, retirees and first-time voters.”
Webster runs an oil-burner business and presumably drives a truck. “I’m living like a real Maine person,” he once told a radio interviewer, prompting the Portland Press Herald to label him “Maine’s Everyman.”
Webster spent 14 years in the state Legislature, arriving as a Democrat, but, like Ronald Reagan, switching parties soon after. He earned some measure of statewide notoriety in 1991, when, as Senate minority leader, he held together his tiny caucus – dubbed the “Gang of 13” – during the state shutdown, forcing both Democrats and wimpier Republicans to yield to many of his demands in order to pass a budget. This inspired a fledgling political columnist to dub him “the Legislature’s most reluctant compromiser.”
Capitalizing on his newfound notoriety, Webster decided in 1994 to run for governor. His mix of quasi-populist rhetoric (“And the Democrat viewpoint that business is bad and that business is out to rape and pillage the worker is not the viewpoint of the average Maine worker”) and ultra-conservative economic policy (“Maine is trying to do too much for its people”) earned him a seventh place finish (out of eight candidates) in the GOP gubernatorial primary. He received a whopping 7 percent of the vote. That’s the Republican vote.
After that, Webster retreated to his working-class roots, fixing oil burners and staying well below the media’s radar. But he remained active behind the scenes. Campaign insiders give Webster much of the credit for the strong Franklin County turnout for Chandler Woodcock in the 2006 GOP gubernatorial primary and for the only Republican upset of an incumbent Democratic legislator in the 2008 general election.
When it comes to in-the-trenches politics in rural Maine, Webster is the GOP’s go-to guy. But when somebody sticks a microphone in his face, he’s still the same old Charlie.
“I’m convinced that the working people of this state are not liberal,” he told the Daily Bulldog in January, shortly after being chosen party chairman.
On the whole, though, being a party chair is less about what you say (“Democrats have abandoned the working class”) than what you do. Webster won the post over more refined competition based on his reputation as a tireless worker who gets results. In interviews, he’s promising to recruit more electable legislative candidates, organize more effective campaigns and publicize the records of Dem incumbents who’ve voted “the wrong way.” He told the Sentinel, “[T]he Democrats are better campaigners. We need to run better campaigns.”
To date, this pledge hasn’t induced widespread panic among Dem leaders, whose off-the-record assessments of Webster tend to range between “a buffoon” and “an annoying buffoon.”
Understandable, given his public pronouncements.
Dangerous, given his tenacity.
Because the part of “working class” Charlie Webster understands best is that first word.
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