The Saturday Sixpack interview: Fergus Cullen
New Hampshire is full of people who have compelling stories and thought-provoking views. I hope to provide weekly snapshots of these Granite Staters as well as periodic interviews with national figures who are worth getting to know a little better.
The Saturday Sixpack interview: Fergus Cullen
Fergus Cullen is best known in New Hampshire as the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. Few know that the Yale graduate once owned his own franchise paint contracting business and has coached high school track for 14 years. He has his own communications business, runs a free-market think tank in Connecticut, and is founder of a national non-profit group that promotes immigration reform. And you think your week is busy. I ask him about all of those things and, of course, baseball.
1. What was the most important thing you learned as state GOP chairman?
National tides matter a lot; formal party organizations are weak and getting weaker; and third party, independent organizations have eclipsed parties in terms of influence. New Hampshire has experienced successive wave elections (1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012) and there are very few examples of candidates in either party outside safe districts bucking national trends to get elected when the tide ran against their party. (John Lynch is one, but can you name another?) The weakness of the state parties is a bi-partisan, 50-state fact caused by our nonsensical campaign finance laws. Candidates are political entrepreneurs who have their own fundraising bases and their own political organizations separate from party apparatuses. A decent congressional candidate now raises more money and has a bigger staff than most state parties.
2. Explain what you do as executive director of the Yankee Institute and what insights you have gained there about the differences between Connecticut and New Hampshire.
The Yankee Institute is a free-market think tank that develops and advocates market-driven approaches to public policy issues. For those who are familiar with New Hampshire's Josiah Bartlett Center run by Charlie Arlinghaus, the Yankee Institute is a sister organization. It is part of the policy and ideas division of the conservative movement.
Connecticut offers plenty of examples for New Hampshire in terms of what not to do, and none greater than the perils of having a state income tax. Connecticut adopted an income tax in 1991 and remains the last state to have done so. It was sold as a means of lowering sales and property taxes (sound familiar?), but total taxation of Connecticut residents has gone up, and state government exploded in terms of size and scope. The state has not created a net new private sector job in two decades, in no small part because the state punishes affluent job creators through a steeply progressive income tax that has been expanded and raised several times. The top 6 percent of Connecticut taxpayers now pay as much in state income taxes as the bottom 94 percent combined. Connecticut also has a death tax which encourages talented, successful retirees to leave the state, taking with them not only their financial capital and future taxes but also their talents and social capital as well. New Hampshire should not let that happen here!
3. You have spent many years as a running coach. What is your impression of New Hampshire high school students today, and how does that compare to when you were a student?
I have been a high school coach for 14 years and currently coach the girls cross country running team at Oyster River High in Durham. It's a top-tier program with a tradition of excellence that started long before I got there. High school athletes in general, and distance runners in particular, tend to be well above average young people. I think every kid should play a sport, any sport. Distance runners tend to be very good students - the discipline and good habits necessary to do the sport are reflected in every other part of their lives. They do their homework, study for tests, are good about time management, have long-term goals they expect to work towards for months and years, etc. I've never had an athlete who was academically ineligible, and that goes with the sport.
The young women I work with see no limits, based on gender, to what they can achieve in life in any area. I've also met a lot of exceptional parents by coaching their children, and I try to learn as much as I can from them: What did you do that helped your kids turn out so well? I can only hope that my own kids turn out like most of the high schoolers I get to work with.
4. Why does Americans By Choice exist, and, how is it poised to achieve its goals?
In the summer of 2007, John McCain held a town hall meeting in the Gilford fire station. I was the newly elected state party chairman, and I'd grown up in Gilford, so I had a special reason to attend that event as an observer. This was just about the time McCain's campaign was starting to collapse, and he got absolutely hammered on immigration. I was appalled by the content and tone of the questions he got that day, and I started paying attention to the issue in a different way. I'd always viewed immigration favorably, through the lens of American exceptionalism, in part because my own parents emigrated from Ireland as adults. Even as a child, I'd noticed how much greater opportunities my brothers and I had by virtue of growing up in America that my Irish cousins did not have.
I watched Mitt Romney use immigration as a wedge issue to separate McCain from the conservative base that year, and I watch Romney use the same issue in the same way against Rick Perry in 2011. I get the politics, but in both cases it was short term gain in exchange for long term pain. It makes the Republican Party look hostile to immigrants of all kinds, and being on the wrong side of immigration reform is imperiling the entire conservative agenda by making it so difficult for conservative candidates to win elections.
I'm for immigration for policy reasons - I think expanding legal channels for people to live and work in America legally will grow our economy and create jobs - and am willing to let the political chips fall where they may. I started thinking about forming Americans By Choice in 2011 to make sure there was a pro-immigrant, pro-reform voice to combat the modern day nativists and know-nothings who were the most vocal voices on immigration issues on the right.
After last November's election, I was out for a run when I decided this was an area where I might be able to make a small difference. And I was pleased to find that many other voices on the right have emerged with similar thoughts. Now there is a two-sided discussion about immigration reform taking place within the Republican Party and the nation as a whole. I believe future Republican presidential candidates will take pains to talk about immigration as a positive thing.
5. Of the potential 2016 Republican presidential contenders, who has impressed you the most so far, and why?
I'm impressed by Marco Rubio. I appreciate that he's been right on an issue that's important to me, immigration reform, and he's also shown a great deal of leadership and political courage in how he's approached the issue as well. He could easily have side-stepped the issue or left the heavy lifting so someone else, especially when it was never clear - indeed, still isn't clear - whether it would be political advantageous to him to be out front on the issue. I think people forget that he rose like a rocket in the Florida legislature. He understands legislation, and what it takes to actually get things done and to pass bills.
I like Paul Ryan, who comes from the policy and ideas wing of the Republican Party. My party needs more people in that section. The Tea Party movement has been populist, but it's contributed precious little in terms of ideas and intellectual ammunition for the conservative movement. Anyone can criticize or just vote no and not actually accomplish things. I think the GOP is fundamentally out of position with respect to the electorate like Democrats were before Clinton and like the British Labour Party was before Tony Blair. I'm looking for a Republican candidate who will say, 'I'm here to modernize the Republican Party by adapting our timeless conservative principles to contemporary times.' I'm not interested in candidates who are stuck in the past and campaign on issues that were relevant a generation ago. Rick Santorum was vintage 1988.
6. If you could have played with any Red Sox player in history, who would it be and why?
Theo Epstein, the former General Manager. When I was a high school freshman baseball player at Gilford High, my primary contribution to the team was being able to break the other team's sign code so I could alert our catcher to when they were planning to steal or bunt or hit and run. My coach, Rusty Ross, came up to me one day and said, 'Fergus, you're a pretty good fielder and I know you're working on you hitting. But I've noticed that when we're running laps, you're pretty good at that. Have you thought about maybe going out for the track team next year?' I've always been grateful for him doing that. But it would have been even better advice if he'd said, 'Fergus, have you ever heard of sabermetrics?'