Negative campaigning dirties race to lead R.I. College Republicans

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

The election to become the next chairman of the Rhode Island College Republican Federation, which will be held Saturday, has been plagued by negative campaigning, creating a rift in the year-old group and prompting the incumbent chairman to resign rather than seek re-election.

“The campaign just got too dirty, and at one point I realized it was not something I wanted to do anymore,” said Pratik Chougule ’08, who was chairman of the RICRF until last week, when he dropped his re-election bid and resigned his position. RICRF, a coalition of College Republicans chapters at six Rhode Island schools, became active last year.

“The campaign got to the point where it was just negative campaigning, and I wasn’t enjoying myself,” Chougule said.

Chougule said he was attacked verbally and in writing by Tom Merrigan, a junior at the University of Rhode Island who was running against Chougule.

Merrigan – who boasts a highly organized campaign, including a Web site, brochures and a four-point agenda – said he had simply responded to claims made by Chougule that he was running for personal gain.

“My motivation is strictly Rhode Island. It isn’t a personal thing for me, to pad my resume,” Merrigan said. “I don’t think (Chougule) was expecting anyone to run against him,” he added, noting he does not know why Chougule dropped out and resigned.

Just before the April 8 filing deadline, Merrigan got a new challenger – Ethan Wingfield ’07, treasurer of Brown’s College Republicans chapter and head of Reformed University Fellowship.

Wingfield said his goal is to change the “culture of attack” in the College Republicans.

“The College Republicans in Rhode Island has become very poisonous,” he said. “People attack each other, not for any substantive reason, but because they want to elevate themselves at the expense of others.”

That negativity, he said, is exemplified in the RICRF chairman campaign.

“I think it’s been a driving factor in this race. I’ve tried to steer clear of it,” he said.

Just days after Wingfield entered the race, Merrigan sent a mass e-mail – later posted on the Rhode Island’s Future blog – attacking him.

“While I believe that competition for state chairman is healthy, I am simultaneously left questioning the motive of a candidate whose last minute decision is counterproductive to the unification of our organization,” Merrigan wrote.

He criticized Wingfield for designing Web sites for Democratic candidates through his business, Elan Design and Development, and for his work as a leader of Students for Chafee, saying it is improper for the state chair to choose sides in the contested Republican Senate primary between incumbent Sen. Lincoln Chafee ’75 and Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey.

Chougule said Merrigan’s e-mail was inappropriate.

“It’s a great example of why I resigned,” Chougule said. “(Merrigan) definitely tried to attack (Wingfield) as a moderate. I think that’s ridiculous. We’re not an ideological organization. … Especially in Rhode Island, you can’t be that picky because there are so few Republicans,” he added.

Wingfield agreed, describing himself as a conservative Republican and evangelical Christian from the South.

“What more could you ask for? How much more stereotypical could you get? Do I need more of a Southern drawl and a glass of sweet tea?” he asked.

Merrigan said he did not send the e-mail to question Wingfield’s conservative credentials, but to point out possible conflicts of interest.

Wingfield was also criticized by Zack Drew ’07, vice president of Brown’s College Republicans chapter, in an e-mail first sent to Merrigan and later to the executive board of the RICRF.

“It is my PERSONAL belief that Ethan will preform (sic) his duties as State Chair in the way he performs his duties as Treasurer of the Brown University Chapter of the College Republicans: poorly,” he wrote in the e-mail, provided to The Herald by Merrigan.

Drew noted Wingfield’s frequent absences from executive board meetings, which he attributed to Wingfield being “spread … too thinly.” Wingfield said the College Republicans meetings have been scheduled this semester at the same time as the RUF leadership meeting, which he runs and must attend.

Noting his detailed platform, which he put together before kicking off his campaign, Merrigan said it is his opponents – first Chougule and then Wingfield – who have gone negative because they have no positive program.

“They have no arguments. If they have nothing else to campaign on, they’re going to attack me,” Merrigan said.

Merrigan added, “I don’t want to make enemies, but I’ll do what I need to do because I want to win.”

Chougule said he believes the contest will be a close one. Out of a total of 17 votes – two each from the six member chapters and one from each of the five executive board members – a candidate needs nine to win the chairmanship. The vote will follow speeches and a debate between the candidates on Saturday at the College Republicans state convention, held from 1 to 5 p.m. at the Providence College Smith Center for the Arts.

Merrigan said he has eight of the nine required votes sewn up, but both Merrigan and Wingfield claimed they would win the election.

The negative campaign has exacerbated tensions in the young group, Chougule said, even while the Senate primary fight between Laffey and Chafee has split the state party.

“There’s a lot of division in the Republican Party right now,” he said. “It’s too bad an organization this young has to have these internal problems.”

Chougule added that he hopes whoever wins will be able to re-unite the group in time for the fall elections.

“I’m not necessarily optimistic, but I hope it will cool down after the election,” Chougule said.

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