Gillespie Focuses on Growth of GOP; While Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie Wants to Energize the Traditional GOP Base, He Sees a Unique Opportunity to Reach out to Other Groups

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Byline: Jennifer G. Hickey, INSIGHT

Ed Gillespie, 41, became chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) in July. Two decades earlier this son of Irish immigrants in Browns Mills, N.J., started his Washington career by parking cars in a Senate parking lot similar to the one directly across the street from his office in the RNC headquarters at the foot of Capitol Hill. "I parked cars from 7 in the morning to 11 a.m., four days a week," Gillespie tells Insight, recalling his unconventional entry into the world of Washington politics. "One day one of the guys I was working with on the lot knew of an internship with a congressman who had a good staff and a good softball team."

While still attending the Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, and at the time still a Democrat, Gillespie took the internship with Rep. Andy Ireland of Florida, also a Democrat. Both men became Republicans in 1984 during the Reagan years. Gillespie labored tirelessly to increase the number of Republicans in Congress, worked on the Contract With America and, after the Republican victories of 1994, helped to move his boss, Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas), into the job of House majority leader.

The eight-man, one-woman field of Democratic presidential candidates is aiming heavy criticism at President George W. Bush, but Gillespie knows there's more to his job than exchanging jibes with them or his Democratic counterpart (and fellow CUA alum) Terry McAuliffe. Winning means not only energizing the traditional Republican Party base but also engaging voters who have not traditionally voted Republican. "I think we have an opportunity in this election cycle to increase our share, and we are doing a lot on the ground," Gillespie says. He notes that "the third trip I made as chairman was to Pittsburgh to speak to the National Urban League's annual convention and visit with them and hear their views."

That's the sort of outreach to minorities, in this case African-Americans, that Gillespie sees as an important part of his job as RNC chairman. "I do believe we now have this unique opportunity" to appeal to a great many more people, he says.

Insight: A lot has changed since your initial entry into politics nearly two decades ago. In what ways do you think Washington and the Republican Party are different from your car-parking days?

Ed Gillespie: It is a much more polarized town. One of the reasons [Rep.] Andy Ireland changed parties was that it became unacceptable for a Democrat to cross party lines and support a Republican president. Like Reagan, Andy said, "I didn't leave my party, my party left me." As the conservative Southern Democrats have switched from Democrat to Republican, or their states and districts have become more Republican, politics have become more partisan.

I like to give the benefit of the doubt to the Democrat members in Congress, that they are here for the right reasons, that they just are wrong in their policies and the outcome of those policies would not be good for America. I don't think anybody comes here to do harm. I think they come here thinking that the votes they are casting are good for our country. I just think that they are wrong.

I try to carry the banner for my party in a vigorous manner but not by personally attacking people. I think that our party has been better at avoiding that sort of politics than the other party. The way the Democrats talk about President [George W.] Bush is a new low in politics. It has gone beyond political discourse. It is political hate speech. When Ronald Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter, or when Bob Dole ran against Bill Clinton, or even when Bill Clinton ran against former president [George H.W.] Bush, they didn't talk about the sitting president the way these candidates do. I think it is unfortunate and marks a change that is clearly for the worse.

Q: Yet in 1991, when some Republican Party officials used the term "lie" in reference to candidate Bill Clinton, his adviser George Stephanopoulos decried use of such language and called for President George H. …