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Profile

GOP director uses Web to liven the party

Rob Willington is trying to rebuild the state Republican Party. Rob Willington is trying to rebuild the state Republican Party. (Globe Staff Photo / Suzanne Kreiter)
Email|Print| Text size + By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / November 8, 2007

Before Rob Willington became executive director of the state Republican Party, activists and candidates who wanted to learn fund-raising, voter identification, and other tactics had to wait for a semiannual training session.

Now they can use the Internet to watch training videos, connect with Republicans across the state, and even access the "Voter Vault," a database of names, numbers, and addresses to use for mailing lists, phone calls, and door-to-door canvassing.

That's one of several changes made recently by Willington, a 29-year-old Reading resident who hopes technology can help rebuild the state Republican Party.

Willington, who began volunteering for Republicans in high school and became the state party's political director last year, has created a blog, worked the social-networking site Facebook to connect with young Republicans, and used his Mac laptop to create press releases for radio stations with ready-to-use audio clips, in addition to creating the online training site.

The Rockport native became acting executive director in August, after being promoted by the party's chairman, former US representative Peter Torkildsen. In September, the Republican State Committee unanimously confirmed the position. Party leaders appreciate Willington's experience as well as his youth, enthusiasm, and Web savvy.

Patrick Ruffini, webmaster for Bush-Cheney 2004 and the former eCampaign director for the Republican National Committee, touted Willington as one of the "New Communicators" in a blog post about "tech visionaries" who are assuming party leadership roles, instead of merely running Internet or new-media departments.

The decor in Willington's office at the party's Boston headquarters marks him as a conservative - a framed ticket to the 1920 Republican National Convention, a copy of National Review with Mitt Romney on the cover, a slew of Ronald Reagan portraits - but his reading list is bipartisan, with a technological bent. His copy of "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," Joe Trippi's account of the Howard Dean campaign's use of the Internet, is well-worn.

"He ran a phenomenal campaign," said Willington, marveling about how Trippi, as Dean's campaign manager, used the Internet to build a network of activists and raise millions of dollars in small donations. He thinks Trippi applied traditional conservative governing philosophies - a free-market system, the notion that local control is best - to Dean's Democratic campaign for president, to empower local activists.

"It was very exciting to watch a small campaign in Burlington, Vt., grow to something much, much bigger" through the Web, said Willington, who believes Republicans have a lot to learn from Democrats about using the Internet.

Willington recently revamped MassGOP.com, turning the party's website from a static page controlled by a third-party webmaster to an interactive, frequently changing site. He has designed most of the features himself, creating them on his laptop while riding the train to North Station. He uses the MassRoots blog to post live from Republican events, as he did from a recent barbecue in Woburn, and uploads photos taken with the camera on his Blackberry. Including more faces is one way to recognize activists and spread credit, he said.

On the Web, Willington favors splashy teasers with minimal text. One link, which says "A Buck?" and has a silhouette of a deer, leads to a page asking people to give $1 a day. Another link, "How do you take your coffee?" invites people to discuss their ideas over coffee with Willington or Torkildsen. For less Web-minded Republicans, he has set up a dedicated feedback line at party headquarters.

Some of Willington's ideas are deceptively simple, like the site's "GOP Mobile" link. On the surface, it's a way for people to sign up for text-message updates. But it's also a way to collect coveted cellphone numbers to mobilize voters on election day or encourage people to call talk shows to tout candidates or issues. "That's a very brilliant" idea, said Shari Worthington, a member of the Republican State Committee from Worcester. "It's like, 'Duh. Why didn't we think of that already?' "

Willington has helped city and town Republican committees create blogs to bolster their local presence. And his placement of the "Voter Vault" and other Republican materials on a password-protected website has made it easier for campaigns to get started and for local committees to work together.

But Willington is more than a Web guy, said Joe Sheehan, of Pembroke.

"If anyone's worked on any campaign in the past five years, they know Rob Willington," said Sheehan, a 22-year-old college student who has worked as a State House aide and has volunteered on campaigns since grade school. "He's one of the most committed Republicans we have in the state."

Willington grew up in an apolitical household but became active in high school after he tagged along to a reelection event for Torkildsen in 1996 and wound up volunteering. Torkildsen lost a close race - no Republican has won any of the state's US House seats since - but Willington was hooked.

At Salem State, his activism cost him the classroom (he needed six years to graduate) but led to a role as executive director of College Republicans statewide and a job afterward with state Representative Paul Loscocco at the State House.

In 2005, Willington signed on for six months as campaign manager for VoteOnMarriage.org, spearheading the collection of a state-record 170,000 raw signatures in an attempt to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. (The issue also needed approval from 25 percent of lawmakers twice to go to a statewide ballot; it failed with lawmakers after Willington led the signature drive.)

To Willington's supporters, that petition work was proof of his energy and mobilization skills. Same-sex marriage advocates remember him less kindly.

Tom Lang, director of KnowThyNeighbor.org, criticized Willington's GOP appointment in a blog entry, noting that Willington once sent an electronic "special alert" to same-sex marriage opponents asking them to "stand up to evil and win one for the good guys."

As GOP executive director, Willington serves as the No. 2 to Torkildsen. He recruits candidates, works with campaigns, manages day-to-day party operations, and tries to encourage activism. (The Democratic counterparts to Torkildsen and Willington are John Walsh and Stacey Monahan, respectively.)

Torkildsen said Willington was a clear choice, given his fluency with technology and his commitment. "He brings an unbridled enthusiasm for electing Republicans," said Torkildsen, who lives in Chelmsford. "You need a person in the position of executive director who looks at things objectively and says, 'Just because not every Republican has won recently, that doesn't mean it controls our future."'

Willington said he appreciates the challenge and wouldn't want to work in a Republican-dominant state.

"People always shake their head and say, 'Massachusetts Republican Party, boy, that must be difficult.' We don't have the governor's office, we don't have any of the statewide constitutional offices, the Legislature is 87 percent Democrat. I look at that and say, 'This is exciting.'

"This is where the most work needs to be done."

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

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