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Q&A: Mayor Jon Nehring on building a Republican governing coalition

Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring is the new Chairman of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington (MRW) – an organization founded over 30 years ago to provide a voice for moderate Republicans within the GOP. The group endorses President Ronald Reagan’s idea for the party that both conservative and moderate Republicans should join forces.

An active political action committee, MRW has committed their resources to helping candidates interested in winning: “all statewide elected Republicans are Mainstream Republicans–a trend now spanning generations,” says MRW.

I called MRW’s new Chairman to hear what he thinks political moderation really means and how he thinks Washington Republicans can form a governing coalition with a majority more concerned with problem solving than fiery rhetoric.

Michael Goldberg: Chris Bayley & Bruce Chapman are quoted on the MRW website as saying “Responsible Republicans must articulate a vital moderate philosophy.” Can you articulate what a vital moderate philosophy is?

Mayor Jon Nehring: It would be a practical, problem-solving philosophy. I think so much of what frustrates voters in times like this is that rather than coming together to try and solve real problems – whether it’s crime, drug use, homelessness, transportation – politicians instead go to their corners to try and score political points and win debates. I think when you look at where the vast swath of the voters are in Washington State it’s in that moderate, middle area. I mean that not necessarily in terms of political philosophy but in terms of problem-solving.

For example, we’ve instituted here in Marysville a very aggressive policy around cleaning up drugs and homelessness. On one side we take an embedded social worker and put them in with our police to offer people drug treatment. Some people would say that’s a pretty moderate or liberalized view of crime fighting. On the other side, though, we say that if people don’t accept that help, we will prosecute you and we’ll have to throw you in jail for as long as we can. So it’s a carrot and stick approach. Most of our residents here in Marysville say that’s problem solving, they don’t care whether it’s the conservative end of being really aggressive and throwing people in jail or the moderate side of offering the help.

I think sometimes, “moderate” gets a bad name – it sounds like the squishy middle or not willing to take a strong stand. I look at it as the opposite. You have to take a real stand in today’s world to come up with a solution to a problem as opposed to just flouting talking points to score political points.”

MG: I think what you alluded to there is a fundamental tension we’re seeing in our politics that started at the national level and has trickled down, which is the conflation of temperament with ideology. I think people are mistakenly believed to be highly ideological when in reality what they’re signaling toward in their politics is a preference for a particular type of political style or temperament. Speaking specifically about the Republican Party, do you think divisions within the party have more to do temperament than policy or ideology?

MJN: I think there’s some truth to that. I think ideologically we can come together. If you look at MRW, our vision is Ronald Reagan’s vision: a big tent Republican Party which resulted in a 49 state landslide. Ronald Reagan managed to bring all sides – Bush Republicans, Goldwater Republicans – all together under some really core values that transformed the nation. 

So, I think there’s some truth to the fact that we’re not as far apart ideologically as some folks try to portray it. Temperament does matter. I think you can certainly respect and sympathize with the concerns of people who have a host of concerns that they’re willing to act out on in ways that others maybe wouldn’t. You can respect their concerns and still say, ‘hey look, I think there’s a better way to go about solving this.’ I think that’s a healthy debate to have.

In the Republican Party we sometimes allow ourselves to be defined in terms of the “good wing” of the party and the “bad wing” of the party. I think when that happens, we allow organizations like MRW to become a source of division. What we’re after is trying to bring everybody to the table in a sensible way to build a governing coalition in Washington that solves problems, that is practical, and that meets people in their neighborhoods and homes where their real needs are.”

MG: I want to turn to the recent Republican protests in Olympia for a moment. Every major Republican gubernatorial candidate was present at that event. When you see candidates, even some who may call themselves moderates at a protest featuring calls for a revolution, it seems hard to make the case that a moderate vision for the party is winning out at the moment. Do you think there is some truth to the idea that the moderate vision for the party is on the decline or do you think that is a misrepresentation of where the party is headed?

MJN: I think that’s been misrepresented in large part. A lot of times the Republican Party gets portrayed as just a bunch of squabbling Republicans in disorder – the conservatives beating up the moderates or vice versa. I think that’s a misnomer in many ways. We always talk about how healthy it is to have diversity, and that’s very true. We have diversity in the Republican Party, a lot of diversity of ideas and different things coming to the forefront. This party isn’t built on factionalism. 

I don’t think one side or the other is necessarily winning or taking over the party so much as it is in all of our politics, in both parties. It’s a highly emotional time where a lot of people with a lot of concerns are making those concerns public. You’ve got social media and all kinds of avenues to do that. I think politicians and political candidates need to use wise judgement in how they portray themselves and how their actions feed into that portrayal. At MRW, one of the things we want to do is show a calm and resolute method and desire to solve the problems of Washingtonians. We think there’s a way to do that with a temperament that reaches the vast majority of people.”

MG: Whatever your stance is on where the majority of Republicans are ideologically, it seems both parties have undergone a shift that was really catalyzed by the extent to which state and local politics have become increasingly cloaked in the patina of our national political language. What are your thoughts on building a local politics that is divorced from the issues that animate the national party and the debates that roil national politics?

MJN: At MRW, that’s actually what we’re focused on right now. While the national debate can be entertaining at times, it’s really a giant waste of time in a lot of ways. We’re trying to focus on local, countywide and statewide issues that are really the kitchen table type issues people talked about in the past. The vast majority of people in the middle say they want problems solved: ‘we want better education for our kids, the needles we see in the park not being cleaned up, the crime not being dealt with, fiscal irresponsibility, etc.’ That’s what people want solved. While people may be entertained by the national stuff, when they go to the voting both they’re thinking about those problems. 

I’ve had the opportunity to talk with folks on all sides of the republican debate and I’ll continue to do so because I want to live out that mission of a big tent Republican Party. What I tell everybody is that if we don’t even unite the Republican Party in Washington State we have no hope of winning statewide elections, and you’re not going to win many elections period. Even when we unite the Republican Party here in Washington State we’ve still got a lot of work to do, we’re still behind. If you’re not interested in even uniting the party you’re really not interested in winning and governing and actually making real change.”

MG: Can you name some Washington State Republicans – either in elected office or not – who you feel embody the values of MRW?

MJN: I worked on Rob Mckenna’s campaign here in Marysville. I think he made a tremendous Attorney General and I think he would have made a tremendous Governor. I think Rob put a governing coalition together as Attorney General and came really close to doing that as Governor and uniting the party behind that. I think he’s an example of the type of candidate that can appeal to a broad base in the Republican Party and also moderate Democrats. Secretary of State Kim Wyman is another one. She’s done a phenomenal job of doing that.”

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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