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Keith Downey Q-A: New GOP chair wants to stress ‘customer focus’

“We are customer service organizations.  We have a set of tools and capabilities and systems …  that all support the caucuses, the candidates and the local district officials.”

Keith Downey gives a speech during the convention of the party’s state central committee. Downey's predecessor as GOP chair, Pat Shortridge, is at left.
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday

The chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota, Keith Downey, started his first week on the job with some retooling efforts that he says are meant to turn the party into an organization with a “customer focus.”

He began by rewriting jobs descriptions for the party’s staff positions and telling the current staff that they need to reapply for their jobs under the restructuring.

Those moves, plus Downey’s announcement of a new finance team, are what he defines as the first critical steps in making the party a credible political force.

Here are edited excerpts from an interview with MinnPost in which he elaborates on his priorities.

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MinnPost: You’ve already started restructuring. What are you looking for?

Keith Downey: We’ve got roughly the same job responsibilities and positions at the state party that we’ve had for a long time.  I think working for the future — and thinking about how the state party works with and for the caucuses and the candidates and the local Senate districts and congressional districts and the outside groups that are now such a part of the political mix — I think the state party should rethink what it does and how it performs.

The first and most important piece of that is … that we are customer service organizations.  We have a set of tools and capabilities and systems and the like that all support the caucuses, the candidates and the local district officials. And so focusing on those elements first, those customer-service elements, I think, is Job One for the party.  It’s really the basic blocking and tackling, and that’s what we need to perform better on in the next election.  

MP: You’ve named finance team. Any news on that front?

KD: I think the fact that we’ve got the team in place and that we’re off and running is probably the extent to which I’ll go on that.

MP: Any feedback from potential donors?

KD: All very positive, and equally positive is the response that I’m getting when people understand that we have a business plan and a political plan and a structured approach to it and that we will be running a little bit more like a business down here. People are very receptive to that. 

MP: How does running the party differ from running a campaign?

KD: I always understood that a campaign is very much about serving the local district, the people of your district, representing them and doing that from a policy standpoint. And it has always been apparent to me that the party job in terms of a platform and having policy positions is important. But our primary job, our first job, and the one we have to focus on right out of the block in my term, is: How do we support the candidates and how do we support the local districts?

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 So, I am more focused on not the political parts of it right now. Eventually we’ll be full blown in a campaign in the election of 2014 and so obviously the party has more of a political role then.

MP: What must you absolutely do before the caucuses in 2014?

KD: I would say the No. 1 job is to restore confidence in what we’re doing and to restore credibility in the state party, not just within the activists and the candidates and the political types but also with the pubic in general. That can’t wait until the caucuses.

I’m hopeful that we will have shown enough evidence that we are running things well, that there’s going to be an execution plan and a strategy and we are going to do things in an excellent fashion. And I hope that is obvious very, very soon to people because restoring credibility is really Job One.

MP: What have you learned are the party’s strongest assets?

 KD: We have obviously spent the last five months, six months since the election thinking about and examining all the things that went wrong. And there were plenty of them, and that’s an important thing to do.

But when you think about our strengths — No. 1 — I think we are right on the issues. You look at what’s happening here in St. Paul — literally 10, 12 percent spending increases and raising taxes to accomplish that at a time when our economic recovery is very fragile still — I think our biggest strength is that we’re right on these issues — our reform ideas and our policies for education and taxes and the business climate and the budget and health care. We’ve got solutions for the future, so that’s No. 1.

No. 2 is … based on traveling around the state these last three months, that when you look at the basic values of Minnesotans and how they live their lives and how they run their businesses and their affairs and their communities, I think they are fundamentally aligned with Republicans.

The third strength we have is the grass-roots base of the Republican Party. We are still a party of the people, and we had a good, strong discussion in this campaign about how we remain a party of the grass roots and that we don’t become a top-down small group of people dictating everything to everybody. We have a lot of debate. We have a lot of activists with a lot of ideas.

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MP: What are the challenges that you face?

KD: Challenge No. 1, at the state party level, is positioning ourselves for the future and finding a way to get our finances back under control and on solid footing.

Challenge No. 2 — and the bigger one, I think — is making sure that we come together as a united Republican Party, working together, taking our respective strengths and the differences that we do have and seeing those as a positive. Directing all the energy that we have, getting those back out in front of the people of Minnesota, as compared to talking with each other about who’s right about those things. Let’s get back out in front of the voters, directing everyone’s attention to the people of Minnesota, instead of inward to the Republican Party.

MP: How do you plan on getting back in the consciousness of the general electorate?

KD: Some of it is just setting the tone at the top. As the chair, I have the ability to continue to stress that and emphasize that and appreciate that and reward that.  

The second thing — I’ll say it’s a process.  The fact that we have our precinct caucuses, then our endorsing conventions, then our primaries — that needs to be run well and be a fair process and give everybody a complete, full chance to have their ideas vetted, their candidates put forward and voted on.  I think just having that fair process goes a long way toward getting people to be on board with those candidates and those policies ideas after those primaries as we start running in the general election.

MP: What qualities would you look for in a candidate to oppose Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken?

KD: When you look at the challenges we face, for the long term, the unsustainable spending growth trends, I think we need somebody who’s focused on the fiscal issues and credible and competent on those issues. 

I think we need somebody who is credible and competent on what actually makes our private-sector economy work and what actually produces the revenue for government to perform its necessary functions. So somebody who has those two kind of dimensions in a really strong and credible way before the people of Minnesota, I think will do really well.

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MP: You responded to the Jim Graves announcement as a congressional candidate for the 6th district with a strong defense of Michele Bachmann. Are you unequivocal in your support for her?

KD: Michele Bachmann has been an extremely strong representative. I think even the folks who might disagree with her on various fronts believe that she’s played an important role, drawing attention to the fiscal situation in Washington. She was credible enough in the Republican Party to take a run at the presidency.  As she now gets back to full-time legislating off of the campaign, she’ll be that strong voice for her district and represent her district really well.

MP: In the 2nd Congressional District, Congressman John Kline may face a primary challenger, probably from the right. Do you have a position as party chair?

KD: It will be important for me as a chair to protect a fair process and give everybody a chance to participate through the channels that exist.  But John Kline is such a strong congressman for Minnesota — his background, his experience, the quality of individual that he is, the way that he represents his district, the fact that he’s the chair of a power committee, an important committee as we go forward when you think about the educational reform challenges we have. I think John is just such a strong person. If he runs again, John Kline is going to represent the 2nd Congressional District again. 

MP: Will you change the tone of the party’s messages? Will they be more positive?

KD: To say that it will be more or less positive than the others, I’ll leave that to you folks to opine on. My perspective in general, and one that I will bring to this position as well, is that I think we are right on the policy formulations and the budget proposals that we would put forward, and I just wont be shy about putting those out there. 

I know that there’s a political tactic of parrying against the opponents’ ideas. I just think the public is really looking for strong leadership. And whether they agree with you on everything or not, the fact that you have ideas, you defend them, you’re willing to listen to the other person but you’re going to put your ideas out there and push hard for them, I think that’s what people are looking for. And that’s the kind of communication that I hope you’ll see coming from me as the chair.