EASTON — Excited was the word for Talbot Republicans Wednesday evening, Oct. 9, when Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary and White House director of communications under President Donald Trump, came to town.
Spicer headlined the annual fundraising dinner at the Tidewater Inn, given by the Talbot County Republican Central Committee. The spotlight was shared by U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md.-1st.
Now called the Panuzio Dinner, the event honors the late Nick Panuzio, who served as chairman of the Talbot County Republican Central Committee for more than 10 years, until he stepped down last February.
Panuzio had a history of politics after serving as mayor of Bridgeport, Conn., and he moved to the Maryland area because of a presidential appointment in the 1970s. His local public service record was extensive, both in and out of politics.
Under his Talbot central committee leadership, the number of races won by local Republicans increased several fold, and Gov. Larry Hogan received record numbers of votes in 2014 and 2018.
Central Committee member Ben Marchi praised Panuzio for his “activism that became the hallmark of Talbot County.” He said the central committee has created a Panuzio Award that will be given in the future.
“No one personified ‘all politics is local politics’ more than Nick,” Marchi said.
Wednesday’s event began with a VIP reception, where Spicer signed copies of his 2018 book, “The Briefing: Politics, the Press, and the President,” and got a chance to chat with attendees for about an hour. Then he sat down for dinner in the Tidewater’s Crystal Ballroom along with about 90 other guests.
Besides his role as press secretary for the president, Spicer has served in many capacities, including communications director and chief strategist for the Republican National Committee. He has continued to serve in the U.S. Naval Reserves as a public affairs officer since 1999.
His speech followed a rallying of constituents by Harris.
Spicer stood up to speak, got behind the podium, then unhooked the microphone and carried it with him.
“I gave up podiums,” he joked about his former role as press secretary.
Spicer said he grew up in a middle class Roman Catholic family and his dad sold boats for a living. He was one of three children.
“We weren’t political at all,” he said.
Spicer said they were a typical family who ate dinner together every night, and his parents came to all their sports games and school programs. He said growing up, he didn’t know the difference between a Republican and a Democrat.
His parents sent him to a Catholic boarding school close by, so he was one of the few who commuted to the school.
Realizing many of his classmates would not be spending their birthdays at home, as a secondary school student, Spicer sent a handwritten letter to each classmate’s parents, a total of 300 students. He proposed that, for a fee, he could provide cake and other birthday accouterments. He made a deal with a local baker to provide cakes at a cut rate price. Soon he was in business.
“I started learning what capitalism was all about,” Spicer said.
Later, he said, when the luxury tax laws of the late 1980s were passed, his father’s boat-selling career suffered and the family’s resources were stretched.
“It was a profound lesson for me, the difference between conservative policies and liberal policies,” he said.
Spicer said a teacher who knew he was trying to earn extra money advised him to study economics and learn Japanese in college, but when his college Japanese course seemed like it wasn’t working out, Spicer enrolled in a course about government. He has a degree from Connecticut College.
He said much of the discussion in his classes was left-leaning, and he found himself challenging many of the premises. He began to volunteer for local campaigns.
“And I got bitten by this bug. I loved it,” he said.
Spicer said he liked the solid finality of winning an election.
“There’s no second place in politics,” he said. “You either are Congressman Harris or you’re not.”
Spicer said he also enjoyed the nonstop excitement of the campaign trail.
“You’re staying in somebody’s van, but as you got more experience, you got recruited to go to the next campaign,” he said.
Spicer said he felt he made a breakthrough when he was sent to Florida to help a floundering campaign and was able to put it over the top to win at the last minute by getting out and meeting folks.
He did a stint at the U.S. Office of Trade for the Bush administration and later helped with the 2012 Mitt Romney presidential campaign.
Spicer said analyzing the Romney loss taught him and others a lot. As always, he said, they had spent a lot of money in advertising the last few weeks before the election.
“We realized that voters make their decision a lot earlier,” Spicer said. “And that commercials were not influencing them the way they had in the past.
“So instead of plowing all that money into ads, what if you invested that money into people and data.”
He said the data included voting influences, voting times, issues and other things.
Spicer indicated that in 2016 the data team realized there was a swath of voters, about 6% in all battleground states, that were “high-intensity voters.”
“So we we figured out if we made the election a binary choice between Trump and Hilary for policies that they offer, 85 to 15 they vote Trump,” he said.
“So we went out, knocked on those doors, brought those people out,” Spicer said.
Spicer’s role as press secretary began fairly early in the Trump administration’s first year.
“What was interesting is, what I thought was so funny was all the questions I would get — ‘Sean, the president’s pulling out the Iran agreement,’ ‘Sean, the president’s moving the embassy to Jerusalem,’” Spicer said. “Well, OK, that’s what he said he was going to do.”
“The biggest criticism of Trump is he did exactly what he said he was going to do,” he said. “It was amazing for me to see the meltdown over somebody who actually kept their word.”
Spicer said Trump has delivered and supported over 160 federal judges to the bench.
“If there is one legacy of Trump, I believe it is the federal judiciary,” Spicer said. “That is going to change the trajectory of the judiciary for at least a generation.”
He said he felt the 2018 mid-term losses for Republicans on Capitol Hill could be recouped.
“So for the next election, we’ve got to remind ourselves what’s at stake,” Spicer said. “The Democrats got fired up in 2018, and they delivered. They took over 31 seats that Trump carried. We can get those back. We need to get the 2016 energy back.”
“We know he will cut taxes, we know he will cut regulations, we know he will put America first overseas,” Spicer said. “All of that is proven. It is not hypothetical.”
“We go out and sell our message,” Spicer said. “Our policies are better. We can’t be afraid to engage and have those discussions.”
“And I’m so tired of hearing about tweets,” Spicer said as a final thought. “Tweets don’t make my life better or worse. Policies do. And this president’s policies make my life better.”
As a parting gift, the Talbot County Republican Central Committee presented Spicer with a valuable rare framed document — a first printing of the first proceedings of the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, dated 1856.