Jose Cunningham, a local gay Republican activist and prominent GOP fundraiser, won an upset victory in his race for chair of the D.C. Republican Committee Thursday night, beating incumbent chair Ron Phillips by a vote of 74 to 41.
Cunningham ran on a platform calling for the DCRC to take more aggressive steps to expand the membership of the D.C. Republican Party and recruit more qualified candidates for public office in a city with an overwhelmingly Democratic electorate.
Phillips said he and his team of party leaders in each of the city’s eight wards were working toward those goals. But Cunningham and his supporters argued that the party’s membership, visibility and recruitment of candidates declined during Phillips’ two-year tenure in office.
The DCRC, which serves as the D.C. Republican Party’s governing body, has been supportive of LGBT rights, including marriage equality, for a number of years, placing it at odds with the national Republican Party.
With Phillips expressing support for LGBT equality, appointing gay Republicans to leadership roles in the local party, and becoming a member of the D.C. Log Cabin Republicans, the contest between him and Cunningham centered more on other issues such as which of the two were better qualified to strengthen the D.C. GOP.
“I think that one of the reasons we’ve almost become irrelevant is that we don’t have a steady stream of advocacy and opinion out there,” Cunningham said during the campaign. “And as the voice of opposition in Washington, D.C., we should be talking about housing and the economy and corruption and the budget and those kinds of things. And we just haven’t been doing that for the last couple of years.”
Cunningham works as chief marketing and business development officer at the D.C.-based international law firm Crowell & Moring. He has hosted fundraisers for the D.C. and national Republican Party for many years.
He was credited with breaking new ground when he persuaded Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus in 2011 to be the guest of honor at his Dupont Circle home for a DCRC fundraiser, where participants paid $500 each to attend.
D.C. Log Cabin Republicans, a local gay GOP group, remained neutral in the Cunningham-Phillips race but the group’s president, Chris Allen, a voting member of the DCRC, said the group was “thrilled to welcome” Cunningham as the new chair.
“As a fellow member and as the first gay Latino to chair a local Republican Party, Jose will continue the inclusive policies that many of our members helped advance within the party, making it a model for other urban Republican parties across the country,” Allen said.
“I think Jose won because of the positive campaign he ran and the forward-looking agenda he presented in his 10-point plan for the party,” Allen said when asked why he thought Cunningham won. “I think Ron pursued many changes within the committee that he felt were in the best interest of the party during his tenure, but ultimately ruffled a few too many feathers in the process to maintain a majority of support.”
Cunningham told the Blade that he and Phillips have had a good working relationship as members of the DCRC and he expects that to continue.
“He could not have been more gracious,” said Cunningham. “We had a couple of conversations last night. He was the first to congratulate me and he approached me to make sure I knew that the transition will be smooth and amicable.”
Under DCRC rules, Cunningham assumed the role of chair immediately after the election results were announced.
He told the Blade that he expects to name a new executive director but has asked gay Republican activist Robert Turner, who served as DCRC executive director under Phillips, to stay on in an advisory role.
“He’s done a lot of good work for us. And we hope, regardless of what capacity, to have his skill sets and his smarts and his service,” Cunningham said.