College Republicans Build Strong Base In Rhode Island

This story was written by Nandini Jayakrishna, Brown Daily Herald
As the 2008 presidential election ramps up, the College Republican Federation of Rhode Island has begun a push to organize young Republicans, raise funds and spread "the conservative message to campuses" across Rhode Island, said Ryan Bilodeau, the federation's chairman.

The federation currently has six active chapters and more than 1,000 registered student members at Brown, the University of Rhode Island, Providence and Bryant colleges and Johnson and Wales and Roger Williams universities. The federation wants to start chapters at Rhode Island College and Salve Regina University, said Bilodeau, a URI junior.

"We're unique because we're so organized in a state like Rhode Island, (where) Republicans are such a minority," he said. Though the organization has existed sporadically for the past 10 to 15 years, it has "come together in an organized and structured way" only recently, Bilodeau said.

On Oct. 13 the group organized a training event at the campaign headquarters of Scott Avedisian, the Republican mayor of Warwick. Chapter heads received manuals on how to conduct fundraising events and write press releases, Bilodeau said.

Sarah Highlander, chairwoman of the Providence College chapter, said the October seminar was a "good networking event."

"It was nice to hear how the GOP community supports the college Republicans," she said, adding that the college Republicans are the "grassroots arm" of the Rhode Island GOP.

Andrew Kurtzman '08, the federation's executive director and secretary of the Brown College Republicans, said he is working to introduce conservative magazines on other campuses and hold journalism training events for interested students. Kurtzman, a former Herald staff writer, spoke about the importance of college conservative publications at the October training event, Bilodeau said.

The organization has also started a fundraiser called "Drive for Five," which aims to collect $5,000 before the election next year to "pay (its) bills and reinvest in a direct mail program" to raise more money, Bilodeau said.

Bilodeau, who solicits most donations through e-mails and phone calls, said the group has already collected $1,000 from Republicans across the state and will easily reach its goal of $5,000. He added that the board is trying to run like a business.

"I think I have more executive experience than Hillary Clinton after running this group," he said.

Bilodeau said in an age when "leftist professors are indoctrinating students," the college Republicans federation seeks to provide "a balance" of ideas.

When "favorable ratings (for Republicans) are dropping," it is important for the federation to reassert "core beliefs" and "feed ideas" of Republicanism, said Justin Katz, who writes a conservative blog on Rhode Island politics called Anchor Rising.

The current board with elected and appointed members from various colleges came into existence this April. "They're a relatively young group," Katz told The Herald. "There's a need for them."

"We have a Web site, a P.O. box, debit cards, a bank account ... to ensure that there are no more lapses in existence," Bilodeau said.

In past years, the federation's executive board didn't provide enough support to individual chapters, Bilodeau said.

"(Ethan Wingfield '07) was a chairman missing-in-action," he said, referring to the federation's last chairman. "Ethan was an intelligent businessman ... but he spread himself too thin. I think we met twice throughout his term."

"Last year we had issues with people at the top," said Sean Quigley '10, second vice chairman of the federation and tresurer of the Brown College Republicans. "They were committed at the time and are still committed Republicans, but they had a lot of other things going on in their lives." The organization has "better vision" this year, said Quigley, a Herald opinions columnist.

Kurtzman said though he wouldn't "go into detail out of respect for older members," the organization now has "more transparency and has been able to accomplish more."

But Wingfield said the group was "just as active" last year under his leadership. The current executive board simply follows a "different strategy."

Wingfield said there are two schools of thought among Rhode Island college Republicans - one that believes in "generating noise about Republican ideas" and the other that tries to "build college Republicans as an asset to the Republican party." As chairman, Wingfield said he pursued the latter strategy by providing more manpower during election campaigns.

"(Currently) there's an increase in the noise the college Republicans are making in the state," he said. "I'm sure people (in the organization) were frustrated by the strategy I took."

Avedisian, mayor of Warwick and a Providence College alum, told The Herald that organizations like the federation are a "great volunteer support to candidates."

"Having anyone talking about Republicanism in a positive way is good for candidates," he said. "(The group is) a viable force."

But on campus, some said most Brown Republicans don't seem to be very active in the federation.

"Students from Brown are from all over the country. If you're from outside (the area), it's hard to take interest in Rhode Island politics," said Pratik Chougule '08, vice president of Brown's College Republicans and former chairman of the federation.

Though Brown's Republicans share a "good working relationship" with the federation, they have a "different agenda and purpose," Frank said.

Quigley said that since Brown's Republicans have a "good foundation" and "high-powered alumni," they don't need as much support from the federation as do other chapters.

"I don't mean to sound elitist, but we tend to be a bit more intellectual," he said. "That's not to mean others are less intellectual, but the environment we find ourselves in allows for more exchange of abstract ideas than mundane analysis of policy."

Katz said he hopes the college Republicans will engage in more intellectual discussion of conservative ideology in addition to focusing on activism and politics.

But Kurtzman said the state organization does allow for more "community-building" among young Republicans in Rhode Island. Members often attend events organized by chapters at other campuses. URI Republicans attended a recent event in the Salomon Center where local Republican Steve Laffey spoke about running against Chafee in a Republican primary in 2006.

Avedisian said he would encourage the organization's members to think about running for office someday. "I started out as a college Republican," he said. "I am now the mayor of Warwick."
© 2007 Brown Daily Herald via U-WIRE