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N.H. GOP leader an old hand

Longtime vice chairman steps up

For 35 years, Wayne MacDonald has been the guy at the clambake, the guy at the fundraiser, the guy going door-to-door, the guy you call for advice when you're thinking about running for elected office, the guy standing just outside the photo-op.

But in New Hampshire Republican politics, MacDonald has never been the guy. Until now.

"He's one of best political operatives and organizers in the state that most people don't know," said Steve Duprey, who called MacDonald one of his "most trusted advisers" when Duprey was the party's finance chief and then chairman in the 1990s. "He's a quiet guy. He doesn't put the spotlight on him. It's not about him."

On Sept. 1, then-state GOP chairman Jack Kimball announced his resignation moments before the party's executive committee would have voted him out of office following an internal saga driven by reports of poor fundraising, special election losses, and a rift between Kimball's Tea Party background and the party establishment. Amid the cameras and controversy, that night MacDonald graduated from a nine-year run as the party's vice chairman to become its leader. Under party bylaws, he is to serve out Kimball's term ending in January 2013.

MacDonald, 57, was born in Derry and graduated from Pinkerton Academy and Saint Anselm College. The summer after college, MacDonald was the Rockingham County youth chairman of Gov. Mel Thomson's re-election campaign. From there, he began a slow and steady ascent through state politics: from delegate to the state convention to founder of the Londonderry town GOP committee, from chairman of the state Young Republicans to five terms as head of the Rockingham County GOP.

 Vice chairman

 

In 2003, MacDonald was elected the party's vice chairman when Jayne Millerick took over as chair. He held the position up until 10 days ago, working under six different chairmen, and could probably remain in that role forever given the depth of respect he garners among the state's top Republicans.

"He's a person like many mainstream, longtime, loyal Republicans in that he really wants to work for the party and in the background," said Phyllis Woods, the state's other member of the Republican National Committee alongside Duprey. "He's never been a person that really wanted to be front and center and take that kind of role. He really wants to work with people behind the scenes and help and assist in any way he's called on to do."

Greg Carson, the party's secretary and a former state representative, remembers meeting MacDonald at the first local GOP meeting he attended in Londonderry, sometime in the late 1980s. The one thing that stood out, Carson remembers, was MacDonald "seemed like the Encyclopedia Britannica of New Hampshire Republican politics."

"He knew everything about every race, who did what when, how people did in primaries and general elections, what the difference was between one candidate's platform and another," Carson said. "He would just rattle this stuff off the top of his head when we were talking about races in town."

In his office Friday, MacDonald spent 15 minutes going step-by-step through his journey in New Hampshire politics. He remembered the three other people on the ballot for the three state convention delegate spots he coveted as a 21-year-old, and the fact that he beat out Dave Carney, now one of presidential candidate Rick Perry's top advisers, by three votes to lead the Young Republicans.

He even remembered Sept. 28, 1976, the day he started working at Merrimack Valley Wood Products. MacDonald spent 19 years at the window-making company, starting out on the loading dock and working his way up to business manager, aided by a master's in business administration from Rivier College. He is unmarried, and his elderly father lives with him in Londonderry.

For the past 15 years, MacDonald has been a welfare fraud investigator for the state Department of Health and Human Services. As vice chairman, he was careful to keep politics out of the workplace. But a run for the chairmanship in 2006, in which his 59 votes from a state committee of more than 400 was the least of three candidates, illustrated the apprehension within the party about his place of employment.

"I knew that my circumstances weren't ideal and I found out in that race . . . that there was a real concern in the party about me being a public employee," he said "Not because they don't like public employees, but because they felt that I'd be somewhat restricted in my ability to go after Democrats, especially with a Democratic governor."

MacDonald is still a state employee and cannot afford to give up his day job. He said he's watched up-close as previous chairmen have juggled their work and private lives with their volunteer post as party leader, and believes he can pull it off during lunch breaks, after hours and with about seven weeks of leave time he's accrued at work.

Skip Murphy, co-founder of conservative website GraniteGrok.com and a member of the state committee, said MacDonald's state employment is going to be a problem.

"He's already said, 'I can't take on my boss.' I think that's a definite problem," Murphy said. "Now, can this be done through surrogates? Yes. Is this making New Hampshire Democratic Chair Ray Buckley happy? I bet it is."

Woods said "there are a number of people in the party who can take those roles on" in attacking the state's executive branch.

 Bridging the gap?

 

Another question is whether MacDonald can bridge the gap between Kimball's Tea Party supporters and the party establishment that Kimball cited as fueling his demise. Andrew Hemingway, head of the Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire, a group that is aligned with the Tea Party movement, said "I have a pretty good sense of what's going on in New Hampshire, and I really don't know Wayne that well."

"I know he's been around for a long time, I know a lot of people on the inside know him," he said.

Murphy, also a Tea Party activist, said he could recognize MacDonald, but "all I know about him is he seems to have been the vice chairman of the N.H. GOP forever." Murphy said he was already concerned by MacDonald's response to Kevin Janvrin's victory in last week's special election in Rockingham County. Janvrin, a Republican, is a union firefighter who opposes so-called right-to-work legislation and has criticized the "radical agenda" of Republicans in the Legislature.

"Kevin Janvrin said the Tea Party ought to leave New Hampshire and Wayne MacDonald called him a solid Republican," Murphy said. "I would say as a Tea Party-type person I was not too thrilled to see even the slightest bit of admonition by the new N.H. GOP chair to say, 'Let's hold on just a little bit here.' "

Above MacDonald's desk at 10 Water St. hangs a portrait of Richard Nixon, whom he admired as a teenager. He has read all of Nixon's books, belongs to the Nixon Library and beams when pointing to his new "What Would Nixon Do?" mug.

"I just find the man very fascinating. I think he's a very effective leader. That's not to say he was perfect - that's not to say Watergate shouldn't be remembered," he said.MacDonald said Nixon was probably more liberal than he is, but he admired the Californian's ability to unite the party. The Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Health and Safety Administration, both started under Nixon, have outgrown their charge but still serve a purpose in protecting workers and the environment, MacDonald said. "We cannot win as a party if we don't try to work with everyone our ranks, don't respect everyone within our ranks. That includes the Tea Party," MacDonald said. 

Top Republicans say MacDonald can be a unifying force during a time of turmoil. Duprey said "he's probably one of the most respected guys in the party by all wings of the party."

"I think he's the leveling, calming influence to get us back on track for right now," Woods said. "He's not a real political person. I really think that he's ideal for what we need."

 On the attack

 

There is also the role of party chairman as something of a political attack dog. In an email to Kimball in the former chairman's final days, Duprey told him "when the other party attacks our elected officials, you should be the one to throw back the arrows, and frankly to absorb the blows."

Is this a role that MacDonald, the consummate nice guy - quiet friend of everyone, gracious in defeat - can take on during a contentious presidential election cycle? 

"Wayne will have great difficulty doing that," said Fran Wendelboe, a former state representative from New Hampton who ran against MacDonald for chairman in 2006. "It's really not his personality. Wayne is a very nice guy, but he's not viewed as somebody who's very dynamic."

MacDonald said he's up to the task, noting that last week he put out a statement criticizing congressional candidate Ann Kuster as calling for more government spending to boost the economy.

"It's not my normal persona - to be an attack dog - but I hope no one can question my commitment to the party and my commitment to see the party do well," he said.

Carson said no one "expects Wayne to be up in somebody's face on a TV show."

"Wayne's one of those people who kills you with the facts and details," he said.

Duprey said "it'll be very interesting to see how the Democratic Party reacts when they have a Republican chairman who, I think, will do this in a more understated way."

"I think Wayne will set a nice tone, not only for the party but for politics in New Hampshire," he said.

MacDonald said he hopes his chairmanship can be informed by his years as the the No. 2, when he would get feedback from all directions asking why the chairman wasn't doing this or that to better the party. But just over the past 10 days, he's gained a new perspective on how demanding the job can be.

"You just get so many phone calls," he said. "You don't know what it's like until you're actually sitting in the chair."

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com.)

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