When Rob Gleason took over as chair of the Pennsylvania Republican party in 2006, former Philly mayor and noted Democrat Ed Rendell won re-election to his second term as governor, Democrats claimed the majority of the state House and Pennsylvania hadn’t voted for a Republican president in nearly two decades.
Now, Gleason’s on his way out — he decided months ago that he wouldn’t seek re-election — having left Pennsylvania redder than it’s been in years. A Democrat is still governor, but the Keystone State elected its first Republican president since 1988, the GOP holds large majorities in both chambers in Harrisburg and Republicans make up 13 of the state’s 18 congressional seats.
Safe to say Gleason’s going out on top. We chatted with him last week for an exit interview of sorts, and he told us about what he’s learned over the years, what went right in 2016 and what might be next for him:
What’s changed in the last 10 years? What have you learned?
What has changed is Pennsylvania’s now a red state. That’s the major change. The conduct of elections has changed dramatically. There’s more technology involved. There’s different types of media. Social media has become a lot more important, where you guys are on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. Emails have changed. The way we conduct these elections has changed a lot and you have to keep up with the times. People get their information differently.
At the end of the day though, you have to contact the people and you have to ask them for their vote. Whether you do it in person — which is still the best way — you are still asking them to vote for you, and it’s still something you need to do. Winning elections is all about candidates. The best candidates usually win, 99 percent of the time. Having effective candidates who are committed to winning and committed to the Republican Party and its principles has allowed us to have a lot of success.
What’s your role been in that?
I consider myself like the conductor of an orchestra, and I have a lot of staff people. And I tried to direct them, to conduct the campaign, set the table for the candidates. At the end of the day, the candidates have to win.
At last year’s PA Society, the PA GOP invited Trump to speak. It was a big controversy. Now he’s the president-elect. Pennsylvania never faltered in its support. What did you see that others did not?
I saw Donald Trump as a winner. I also felt the ruling elite in Washington was not doing a good job, from either party. It’s the same people year after year that are in Washington. So I thought it was time for an outsider, and Donald Trump presented himself as an effective person, and I got to know him. Invited him over to our dinner, that was the first time I met him. I had talked to him on the phone before. And I knew he was a winner, and I was not at all put off by any of the problems that developed over the year.
Pennsylvania was pretty steadfast. Not all Republicans were. Even in Pennsylvania, there were many elected officials and Republicans that did not support Donald Trump. Even party regulars. But the state party did continue to support him the entire time. We played a significant role in him winning Pennsylvania by 49,000 votes. We pushed him over the top.
What do you mean by that?
Everybody talked about the Clinton ground game. They said Trump had no ground game in Pennsylvania. He didn’t have a chance. I knew we did. I called it ‘the Gleason ground game’ or the ‘Republican Party of Pennsylvania ground game.’ We were well organized. We’ve been working on this election for four years, recruiting people and paid staff. We made six and a half million voter contacts. More than the Clintons did.
Remember this, too: When we made our voter contacts, they weren’t for Donald Trump. They were for Pat Toomey. They were for congressmen. They were for the row officers. We contacted people about the entire ticket. That’s why we are now a red state.
You had to have been pretty happy by the end of that night.
I was disappointed not to win the row offices. But up and down the ticket — we increased our majorities in the House and the Senate. Winning Pat Toomey was a huge thing. It was a hell of year for the Pennsylvania Republican party.
Guess you’re going out on top.
It’s a great time to step out. It wasn’t planned that way. Win or lose, I was going to retire at the end of this year. And it worked out. The real credit goes to just a tremendous staff that I’ve had over 10 years. Continuity is very important, and I’ve been able to maintain a lot of the staff.
What’s next for you? Will you still be involved in the party here in Pennsylvania?
I’ve been Republican all my life, and I will be a contributor. I’ll do what people want me to do. I want to see Republicans continue to be elected. It’s important we work hard to win the governorship and another Senate seat. I’m going to continue to work with the Trump administration. It’s never too early to start thinking about re-election. I might become a part of that administration. I’m having some discussions with people. I have a lot of options.
Specific to Philadelphia, what advice do you have for your successor? There’s no real two-party system here in the city. What can be done to change that?
We have to figure out how to attract African Americans in our party. It’s not that we don’t want diversity. I’ve worked on this for 10 years. We want to have a diverse party. I think it’s very important that we do that. But it’s very difficult.
I had an African American paid staffer and I had an Hispanic paid staffer and we worked hard and we made some inroads. It’s very, very difficult for whatever the reason, is that African Americans do not feel comfortable voting for Republicans. We have to figure that out.
Looking forward, we need to have an effective two-party system. In Philadelphia, we have to hold the Democrats accountable. All these scandals, Chaka Fattah being indicted and convicted, state senators indicted. It’s because there’s not an effective two-party system. It’s a walk in the park to become the mayor of the city of Philadelphia. The perfect example is this soda tax, which is penalizing the people. [Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney] is penalizing his constituents. It’s the people who are middle and lower income, and it’s ridiculous that he is taxing them.
So how do you start?
What we need to do is have effective candidates for council and for mayor. It is very, very difficult. We have a fine chairman in Joe DeFelice. He did a great job this time. He allowed us to win for Trump. They did much better than they had four years ago. And John Taylor who was the chairman before him. We have Martina White, which is a great step in the right direction.
The other thing we have to do is reach out to millennials. We have to find them and get them interested in the Republican Party and the Trump movement. Remember: The Trump movement is part of the Republican Party. But there’s a lot of people who are part of the movement and not the party. We want to fold them into our party. I’m optimistic that we will do better in Philadelphia in the future.
It’s been a long time coming since you started hinting you wouldn’t seek re-election this year. Have any sense of relief now that it’s finally out there?
Not really. I mean I enjoyed the ten-and-a-half years that I did this. There’s always time for new leadership, and I kind of think that whether it’s in the government or private organizations or political parties, that there should be a fresh leadership every so often. I’ve probably stayed longer than most. I’m told I’m the longest serving chairman of the Republican Party in the history of Pennsylvania. So I’ve been fortunate to be able to serve that long, and I had the great support of the state committee and other Republicans that allowed me to do that.
I’m sure I’ll miss it. I’ve always enjoyed the hunt and being involved. I’ve been a volunteer chairperson. In many states the chairperson is paid, I don’t think a lot of people know that.
I think a lot of people probably didn’t know you were unpaid.
I feel fortunate that I was able to serve without pay at the end of the day. You can check the records, I contributed a lot of money to the party over the 10 years. But you know what? That’s volunteer. I did it because I really believe in the Republican Party.