Exclusive Interview: CRP’s Harmeet Dhillon Talks New Job As Vice Chair, 2014 Midterms
The thought of being a Republican voter, much less a Republican leader, in blue California may be unappealing to some. The state is completely run by Democrats, Republican voter registration is weak, and voters recently approved a huge tax increase that would make even a moderate conservative shudder.
But don’t expect that attitude from Harmeet Dhillon, the California Republican Party’s new Vice Chair. The California Briefing had a chance to talk with Dhillon Wednesday afternoon about the party and her plans to kick it into high-gear. Her election has brought a fascinating new perspective to the ranks of California’s political leaders at a time when the Republican Party is actively seeking new ways to diversify and grow. Dhillon serves as the head of the San Francisco Republican Party – no easy job. She is a first-generation Indian-American, a graduate of Dartmouth Law, and a strong fiscal conservative with a pool of diverse experiences to draw from in leading the GOP forward.
“I’ve had a diversity of experiences in my life,” Dhillon told the California Briefing. “I’m a first-generation immigrant. I lived in the rural south. I’m from a conservative family. I’m a religious person. I’m a business owner. I deal with business issues everyday as a lawyer. I understand what small business owners and big business owners are concerned about.”
After a short chat, at least one thing is clear: Dhillon is calm, cool and confident about the future of the Republican Party in the Golden State. Some Republican leaders may rely on rhetorical finesse and spin; Dhillon operates with an analytical, almost business-like approach to getting things done, and there’s no drought of ideas for what she wants to do with her new leadership position.
That’s good news for the California GOP. So California Briefing wanted to know: what’s on the agenda?
“Our main focus is getting the party out of debt,” Dhillon said when asked what she has seen as the single-biggest challenge facing the organization so far. The 2012 election cycle left the California Republican Party (CRP) with hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills. If this is a daunting task, Dhillon didn’t show it. Such debt “is common after an election,” she added. The CRP, she said, has already made inroads to shaving down that debt, and is actively talking to donors. But the fundraising won’t stop there.
“The next step is to get additional funds to help run our operations for the party,” Dhillon said, with a cool confidence.
It’s an inspiring approach. Other leaders in her position might over-exaggerate (or under-exaggerate) the debt the CRP is in. Dhillon does neither, tackling it as a challenge that needs to be met, and then pushed aside.
Dhillon’s confidence strikes again when assessing the political landscape of California. She takes issue with the labeling of the state as ‘deep-blue.’ “California is largely a red state, with a deep blue fringe,” Dhillon said, referring to the coastal regions. Nor does she think that the 2012 election results, which some saw as a disaster for the GOP in California, are cause for despondency.
“We had strong candidates,” Dhillon said. “Unfortunately, they lost in part because of a lack of enthusiasm for the top of the ticket.” That enthusiasm gap, she said, had a ripple effect across state-wide races.
But she quickly turned to the positive when looking at 2014. “The midterms are an entirely different picture,” she said. Noting that the president’s party usually performs poorly in the second midterm election cycle, Dhillon said the CRP will have a clear job next year.
“We plan to contest all those seats,” Dhillon said, referencing the five California Democrats who are on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s ‘most vulnerable’ list. ”We’ll be making sure that the candidates who are running are the best candidates, are well-funded, and have better turnout operations,” she said.
The mention of turnout led to another field that Dhillon sees as an area the CRP needs to improve in. “Better turnout operations,” she said, “require better data.”
Dhillon said the CRP is looking at ways to ramp up its voter-information databases. One tool she expressed an interest in was online voter registration.
“We’re looking to get some apps to make (that process) more user friendly,” Dhillon said. The goal, she says, is to empower the volunteers who stand outside stores registering voters, and put more accurate information in the hands of those who are deployed in the final hours before an election.
Dhillon also emphasized the importance of candidate recruitment in 2014, and beyond. “We’ll be training and funding the perfect candidates,” she said, “from communities that we haven’t served very well over the years.” This, she says, will be a crucial strategy in the state party’s effort to bring minority voters into the tent.
“We need more candidates from the Latino, Asian, and African-American communities,” she said bluntly. The party, she said, needs to market itself better to grow its audience.
“You don’t have to be a female or a minority candidate to appeal to female or minority voters,” she said.”It’s not an absolute necessity. But in terms of marketing our party better,” looking for “candidates who come from those diverse communities” will be a high priority.
Dhillon outlined other characteristics she believes strong candidates need. A history of public service is one. Principled fiscal conservatism is another.
“The ‘No Tax Pledge’ is an important factor to consider,” Dhillon said. “Out of control government regulation, attitude towards the growth of government – these are the issues that transcend districts.”
Dhillon also stresses that individual candidates will have differing platforms depending on their districts.
Changing how the Republican Party markets itself, instead of changing its beliefs, is one of the core motivations of Dhillon’s ideas.
“We need to be smarter about marketing,” she said. “We don’t need to change who we are.” Republicans, she said, need to explain to minorities how the GOP’s ideas can lead to a better future for them and all Californians.
Dhillon has an ambitious agenda and a determined attitude to kick the CRP back into high-gear. She’s under no illusions, however, as to what is expected of her.
“Getting more Republicans elected,” Dhillon said when asked to name her most important goal. If she has higher political hopes, she doesn’t show it. “I’m motivated by public service. I’m not motivated to use this as a platform to run for office or sell books or do anything other than volunteer and to benefit the party, and all Californians, in the future. I’m really just here to serve.”
Dhillon concluded by circling back to her highest priority. “My job is not to determine the philosophy of the party. It’s not a philosophical society. It’s a political party. The goal is to elect Republicans.”
Dhillon knows the goal. Like most things in politics, time will tell if her ideas and her efforts deliver.