As many of you are aware, the Maryland Republican Party lost their Executive Director, David Ferguson in late August. The party has now filled the vacancy with Joe Cluster of Maryland. I appreciate Chairman Diana Waterman giving me the opportunity to interview Joe this weekend and I look forward to also having him on my radio show on Tuesday evening.
Jackie Wellfonder: Hi Joe! I’ll start by asking you some similar questions that I would typically ask a candidate. What led you to initially decide to pursue the position of Executive Director for the state party?
Joe Cluster: Well, it’s kind of funny, I went to a convention with my Dad this summer in Chicago and I ran into Ellen Sauerbrey. We knew each other pretty well, but we had never sat down and had a conversation about politics. While we were out there, we sat down and talked about things and we had a really good conversation, then when the ED position became available, she asked me if I was interested and I said yes. I had applied for the position a couple of times before, this was my third time applying for the job. I said yes, I think this is the best opportunity I’ve had in a while to put my name in and be the front runner for the job. I put my name in and started calling some people that I knew to let them know that I was applying for it. I told this to Diana also, but this has always been the job that I wanted. Being a Republican in Maryland and having worked with the party before, this was just a great opportunity for me.
JLW: What did you do for the party before?
JC: In 2002 I worked as the field coordinator for Paul Ellington and Chairman Michael Steele, Ellington was the ED. I got hired right out of college to do all the counties in the mid shore, to do whatever the party could to help out the central committees and the candidates.
JLW: That’s interesting, I love that, do they still have that position now?
JC: We haven’t had it filled in a while…
JLW: Because I think we should. Not to take away from your interview, but that seems like a really good idea.
JC: Yes, they got paid a menial amount, I think it was like $20,000 a year. I didn’t think I’d hit the gold mine but I was doing what I wanted to do. Then the Governor got elected, we knocked off the Speaker, we picked up 8 seats in the House, one in the Senate and we did really, really well that year. I went and worked over in the Governor’s appointment office because I had gone through and met everyone in the county and we were working to get people jobs that were very active and getting people on boards and commissions. So, they put me on in the appointments office for a year and then in 2004 I got a phone call from John Kane, saying we needed some extra help in the party, would you come back and be the Political Director. I said yes, because I like party politics more than I like working for the government.
So in 2004 I was the political director during the Presidential election, we worked on helping the national party out and getting volunteers to battleground states. I also was the delegation chair for the national convention so I worked with all the delegates to make sure their trips went as smoothly as possible and they had the best experience. New York was probably the best place to ever have a convention for a national political event.
I worked all of 2004 there, then in December I got a call from Michael Steele saying he “I needed a new body guy, I need someone to be with me all the time that I can trust.” I started working for him at the end of 2004 and I worked for him until he lost his election in 2006. So, I haven’t worked for the party for a while but have always looked for the opportunity to get back.
JLW: Awesome! Now to my knowledge, I don’t think the political director position is still active right?
JC: No, not at all. The party is not in the best shape. Diana is doing a good job with trying to get us back into a stable position where we can actually function like we have in the past, so I think this is the first step. There might be maybe one more addition, depending on how the fundraising goes. But right now, it’s just three people and a contracted employee are all the party has.
JLW: Being someone who grassroots is part of my heart and very important to me, it would be great to maybe see those positions come back. And I agree, Diana is doing a great job and really making efforts to reach out to people and figure out what we need to do differently. As you said, fundraising is a key component of that and I know that’s a primary function of this position, so what kind of fundraising background do you have?
JC: Well, my father, I’ve raised money for my father’s campaign, I’ve been his chairman since his first run. He’s raised probably over $150,000 since he started in office. I also helped create and found a non-profit called the Craig Willinger Fund. What we do is send kids who are affected by cancer to big time soccer games, in Europe or anywhere else they want to go. Our first person we sent to the World Cup and we’ve raised over $100,000 in the last two or three years for that. I’m more political than fundraising but I have helped raise money for candidates, for the party and for my non-profit.
JLW: Awesome, good to know. Well I know one of the issues people had, because David Ferguson leaving was fairly unexpected, and one of the response was that it was fairly typical for an executive director position. You’ve expressed that you really wanted to get back involved in party leadership. I take it that you don’t have any immediate plans, or that you’re not necessarily looking at this as a short term opportunity?
JC: No, not at all. And what I told Diana is that being a Marylander, my heart is Maryland and I want to do everything I can to make the party succeed. This is a great job for me and I’m not going to just use the job as a stepping stone. A lot of people do, a lot of people use it as a stepping stone because we’re so close to DC, they see it as an opportunity. I live in Maryland, I could’ve gone to DC many times. I’ve worked in DC, I don’t like DC politics, but I love Maryland politics. I want to be in my home state doing what I love best.
JLW: That is certainly good to hear!
JC: I’m not looking for another job, put it that way.
JLW: Well that’s encouraging. I just wanted to ask that, it certainly doesn’t sound like you are, but that’s been a concern for people in the past. So what are some of your key visions for moving the party forward and how we can really be successful in regaining seats in 2014?
JC: The first thing is, we have to get money in. We have to target how we go after money and be strategic about it. There are a lot of big companies in Maryland that give to the Democrats but do not give to the Republicans. My first goal is to make contact with a lot of those companies and try to explain to them why the Republicans are important. Yes, we’re not very powerful when it comes to state politics but when it comes to local county politics, we are very powerful, we control 15 of 24 jurisdictions and a lot of their business is done on the county level, their regulations, their franchise agreements. They are done through the county so they need to know that we’re just as powerful, maybe even more powerful than the Democrats when it comes to local politics and they need to help us as much as they help the Democrats.
Secondly, being from Maryland and being involved in Maryland politics since graduating from college, I know every district, I’ve been to every district in this state. I’ve helped all across the state and I know where we can win. There are great opportunities in this state especially on the House level. We have some opportunities on the Senate level but we have some good opportunities on the House to pick up maybe five or six seats and in the Senate we could possibly pick up four seats. I know exactly where they are and I want to drive participation into those areas. I know in the past we’ve tried to get volunteers to help out and it’s oh we’ll just do something on the shore or we’ll do something here, well no, I’m going to bus volunteers into the areas where I know we have a chance of picking up seats. All our efforts are going to be targeted into certain areas in Maryland.
I know Maryland Republicans get a little upset when they’re asked to go into Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania but I hope they don’t get upset about going into Dundalk or Southern Maryland or Western Maryland because these are opportunities where we can pick up seats. I don’t need them door knocking in areas where it’s not going to have an effect on us picking up seats. Howard County is a huge race for us, the county executive race there. It is our swing county. Ehrlich won it in 2002, he lost it on 2006 and 2010. We’re going to have to put a good effort into Howard County because we have a chance to win the county executive race there.
I know the areas, I know the people and my job is to target the right areas to get people elected. From a party level, it’s going to be to organize volunteers to do the right thing, not just something.
JLW: Well that sounds good to me, and I would certainly hope, well…I’m different than most, I kind of travel the state. But I would think that people wouldn’t be upset about traveling to other areas of the state, especially key areas where we have a chance, that’s what we need to do.
JC: Right, it’s key because the Democrats have such an advantage, we have to take our shots where we can take our shots. We can’t be all over the state and hope that we win in certain areas. We have to pick and choose our battles and it’s going to be very targeted and it might make some people upset. I hope to not make people upset because in the end us winning more seats makes their area more in play. You get to 50 seats in the House, you get to 16 seats in the Senate, you might be targeting one of their districts next because that would be the obvious next choice because we’ve already won the ones that we can, now we can move on to areas that are marginal. I hope they understand that, and even with 43 delegates, that’s probably the highest we’ve been at in 6 or 7 years. But I can remember a day when Ellen Sauerbrey had nine Republicans in the House of Delegates and there was maybe ten Senators.
We have to keep building up our numbers and taking small steps and when we take these small steps it will just lead to bigger and better things.
JLW: I’m going to ask you just one more question, and you’ve seen it, we’ve had several articles out over the past several weeks about the Republican party, on a state and a national level, but on the state level, the question that is put out there is, is the Republican party dead? We’ve had counter responses to that and I decided I wanted to do a series on my blog, and I posted the first one last week. But what I was asking people was to share their views on what they think about that, as far as the status of the party and basically how we can improve things as far as coming together. As you know, there are many ‘factions’ and there are people that consider themselves more libertarian and there others that people would put in what they call an “establishment” category. How do all of us…how do we do the “big tent” thing as conservatives? How do we reach the common goal, how do we unify and come together so we can get good conservatives in office?
JC: Right, well here is my take on it, you have to really want to be a Republican to register as a Republican in this state. There’s only 29% of us in this state, so you really have to care about being a Republican to register as one. I think that the unifying goal is that we all know who the enemy is and it’s not each other. It’s the Democrats, it’s the liberals from Montgomery County, from Prince Georges County and Baltimore City. They run everything and if we do not unify, they’ll continue to run everything.
Being a Marylander, I have relationships with a lot of these groups, I’ve dealt with Campaign for Liberty. I’ve dealt with established candidates. My father is a Delegate, I have a connection to all the elected officials. I think Diana hiring me is a good thing for the party in the fact that I can help to mend some of the broken ties that people have with the state party. I know a lot of people that have called me, who have started to find out about this and they’re excited and these are people that haven’t been involved with the party in a long time because they feel disenfranchised by it. I hope that, I mean I hate to sound like this, I don’t want it to come across as smart, I’m not trying to be smart but I feel that I can help bring some people back into the fold that haven’t been in there in a long time because I go back with the party.
Everybody knows me, I worked for Michael Steele, I worked for Bob Ehrlich, I also worked for the party before they even got elected. I have a lot of ties to a lot of people in Maryland and I feel that me being there and them being able to call me because they know me will help them feel like they’re participating in the party again.
JLW: Well thank you very much for your time Joe! I’m encouraged by all I’ve heard!
It was great talking to Joe. He has experience, yet a fresh energy that I hope he’ll be able to accomplish his goals and the goals of the state party as a whole.