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The Rhode Island Democratic Primary



Above: the Rhode Island Democratic Party

On Tuesday, I voted in the Rhode Island Democratic primary. It was a dispiriting experience. The Rhode Island Democratic Party is a complete disaster. There are some good Democrats. But in a state where Democrats have a 69-6 majority in the House and a 32-5 majority in the Senate, for the most part, if you want power, you need to be a Democrat. And thus, the term “Democrat” means nothing. What has this enormous majority given us? A voter ID law. And then, earlier this year, the legislature decided to borrow a tactic from the great progressive state of Oklahoma and ban municipalities from setting their own minimum wage. This latter move was a response to the Providence City Council voting to place the $15 minimum wage on the ballot this fall.

So yes, the Rhode Island Democratic Party is openly implementing the ideas of the Oklahoma Republican Party.

All this means that the Democratic primary in Rhode Island is hugely important. Now, we aren’t talking about Georgia circa 1930 here. Republicans can win statewide office. Despite our very progressive senators and enormous Democratic majorities, Rhode Island has not elected a Democrat to the governor’s office since 1991, although Lincoln Chafee eventually converted to a Democrat in a failed attempt to win reelection (and according to a rumor I heard because his wealthy wife wouldn’t fund him as an independent since she didn’t want to foot the whole bill). But still, the real ideological divides are really in the primary.

Or they should be anyway. In fact, this primary consisted of nothing but terrible candidates. The winner of the primary for governor was Gina Raimondo. She is so deep in the pocket of Wall Street that she’s been attacked from the left in the page of Forbes Magazine. Forbes. Who knew that was possible. The state workers hate her because of her attacks on pensions. I could not vote for her in this primary under any circumstances.

Unfortunately, the other two options were almost as bad. At first, it looked like Providence mayor Angel Taveras would be a good option. Then Taveras fired all his progressive advisers and embraced Rheeism as a central tenet. Moving right to challenge a right-wing candidate made no political sense. Raimondo already had those votes wrapped up. Taveras ran a terrible campaign and ran out of money at the end.

The third option was Clay Pell, grandson of the famous senator. By most accounts, Pell is a wealthy plutocrat from a famous political family who is, to be kind, not very smart and has the charisma of a rock. We already have that exact thing in the statehouse right now. Although he is married to Michelle Kwan so that separates him somehow. He was also a Republican until just a few years ago. Youthful mistake perhaps.

Despite all of this, I voted for Pell. Do you know what it takes for me to vote for a dim plutocrat ex-Republican? That’s how bad these candidates were. But I figured he would govern to the left of the horrible Raimondo and increasingly terrible Taveras.

Of course, Raimondo is still probably better than the Republican candidate Allan Fung. Voting for her is going to be gross in November.

But wait, there’s more!

The Providence mayoral primary was also a lot of fun. First, you have the fact that ex-mayor, convicted felon, and unconvicted rapist Buddy Cianci is running again. He has a very strong chance of winning and making my adopted city a national embarrassment. He would also like you to know that he did not urinate on that man.

Who gets to face the vaunted Cianci? There were two, utterly horrible but very different, choices.

First, there was Michael Solomon. At first glance, this guy seems like the most generic kind of old-school Democrat with all the warts that entails. First of all, he’s a long time local pol and there are a lot of rumors about corruption which I have no doubt are true. Corruption is crazy widespread in this state. He is also the least articulate guy in the world. He makes Mumbles Menino in Boston sound like Bill Clinton. There wasn’t much reason to have faith in him until he bucked his long-time business allies and pushed the $15 minimum wage law. That was pretty impressive. Still, his negatives are real.

Then there is Jorge Elorza. This is an interesting case. He is the son of Guatemalan immigrants. In fact, that was the entirety of his campaign. Because of his story and because progressives will so often place a good story and diversity above the substance of a politician, Elorza received a lot of progressive endorsements. But not from the unions. And there’s a good reason for this. There is absolutely no evidence is he progressive on almost any issue. This is a powerful indictment of this right-wing empty suit, cut from the Cory Booker and Angel Taveras cloth, although he’s almost certainly worse than the latter at least. Specifically, Elorza publicly opposes raising the minimum wage, is an advocate for charter schools that comes right out of the Michelle Rhee playbook, and opposes raising taxes on the wealthy.

And of course Elorza wins, making the Democratic candidate for mayor in a poor city someone who opposes a fair wage for workers. Have to be pro-business after all. I voted for Solomon, corruption rumors notwithstanding. At least he stands for something positive. But at least Elorza is not Buddy Cianci.

Finally, there was my state House rep. To me, this summed up the incoherentness of the Rhode Island Democratic Party more than anything. I am represented by a woman named Maria Cimini who is reasonably good progressive with particularly strong environmental and gun control credentials. Her opponent was a right-wing Democrat by the name of Daniel McKiernan, who was supported by the horrible Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello. How did Mattiello become Speaker? Earlier this year, the slightly less terrible Gordon Fox resigned after the FBI raided his home and Mattiello won the race to replace him as Speaker. Cimini didn’t support Mattiello and he went after her.

McKiernan is a Republican in just about every other state. His whole campaign was anti-crime. He had these disgusting 1980s-style flyers about how Cimini opposed locking up child abusers, wanted to put criminals back on the streets, and the like. Every picture of him except a very few (the necessary one per flyer or ad) were with other white people in a district filled with Dominicans, Guatemalans, and African-Americans.

And of course McKiernan won too. Now the Rhode Island state assembly is even more right wing than before. Awesome.

What a state.

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  • sibusisodan

    Slightly tangential thought – is there a US equivalent of the UK-based Private Eye magazine? Because exposing the sheer amount of ridiculousness involved in non-national governance is something they are particularly sharp on.

    Also – has Rob Ford ever met Cianci? Would the earth survive such a meeting?

    • I’m not aware of a US Private Eye-type magazine. The old Spy magazine pretended to be kind of like it, but went under about 15 years ago.

      • sparks

        They really only covered NY politics (more specifically NYC) with any interest, and there was a marked decline of satirical quality and subject (it should have been named National Lampoon For Yuppies by the mid ’90s) before they went under. It was funny for a few years, though I cringe at the thought of digging them up from my magazine collection.

  • pillsy

    Cianci has a second chance to go from prison to the mayor’s office. Fantastic.

    • efgoldman

      Cianci has a second chance to go from prison to the mayor’s office. Fantastic

      Probably thinks of himself as the Italian James Michal Curley.

    • GoDeep

      America loves a redemption story! If Marion Berry can do it, why can’t everyone?!!

  • joe from Lowell

    Careful with the “attacked from the left by Forbes magazine.” Forbes runs its web site like Daily Kos, where readers can open accounts and post diaries.

    IDK if this Ted Sielde guy is actually a Forbes writer, or what.

  • efgoldman

    I don’t live in Providence, so didn’t have the pleasure of voting against Buddy. On the other hand, our local state rep was one of the sponsors of voter ID. As soon as the leg is back in session, I’m going to email my rep and senate to file a bill for repeal. In MA(where I’m originally from) a state rep will usually file a bill on behalf of a constituent whether s/he believes in it or not.
    On the third hand, we’re rid of the mayor who never saw a developer he didn’t like, who’s now the lieutenant governor nominee. And Mollis and Caprio are gone from the lower statewide offices.
    We have no roots in RI – moved here when my job moved from MA and offered huge retention bonuses (those days are long gone.) After I retire next July, we’re probably moving to metro DC to be near the kids/grandchild. Then we’ll either be blessed with lovely MD county-level corruption, or the RWNJ TeaHadis being assholes in the VA assembly.

    • Kicking Caprio out was about the only good thing that happened in the primary.

  • Richard Hershberger

    This stuff goes both ways. I live in Maryland, but in a solidly Republican county. I re-registered as a Republican because I decided that having a vote in a county race was more important that having a vote in a state primary. The choice in the county races was between old school small town Republicans and barking mad Tea Partiers. I haven’t seen actual numbers, but anecdotally quite a few Democrats re-registered to vote in the Republican primary. The Tea Party crowd is pissing and moaning about this, so that is all to the good.

    And yes. This means that I really and truly am a RINO.

    • Hogan

      And God bless you for it.

    • DrDick

      Were it even possible to find a non-barking mad teabagger Republican candidate here in Montana, that would be much easier to do, since we have open primaries.

  • Cheerful

    Does the general terribleness of local Democrats in R.I. mean, that at least on the local level, the R’s are not so terrible, just out of sheer contrariness? Or does the terribleness of national Republicanism just slop in regardless?

    • There are so few Republican office holders that it’s hard to generalize in a meaningful way. A few of them are old-school moderates in the John Chafee tradition. A few are Tea Party types. But they are irrelevant.

      I would generally say that the Republicans who win statewide office are more like Lincoln Chafee, meaning moderate on social issues and as horrible as any Republican on economics.

    • djw

      Perhaps less corrupt, but that’s a more a function of lack of opportunities than anything else. (That seems to be how things go in Dayton/Montgomery county. Except for the County board of elections, where there seems to be some sort of deal in which half the well paid no-show jobs for the felonious and incompetent associates of Important People go to each party.)

      • Hogan

        Except for the County board of elections, where there seems to be some sort of deal in which half the well paid no-show jobs for the felonious and incompetent associates of Important People go to each party.

        This is, of course, how a machine should be run: compensate the losers enough that they don’t make a stink.

  • Manny Kant

    How on earth did Claiborne Pell’s grandson end up being a Republican for a while?

    • I don’t think that’s totally clear. My guess is rich college frat boy hanging out with other rich college frat boys.

    • Phil Perspective

      One could ask why Andrew Cuomo or Evan Bayh became Republicans, too.

      • efgoldman

        I hold no brief for Evan Bayh, but he might have been just a tad preferable to the RWNJ TeaHadi, doncha’ think?

        • joe from Lowell

          And “preferable” or not, neither of them ever became a Republican.

      • Manny Kant

        But, no, one couldn’t. I wouldn’t be at all incredulous about Clay Pell being a center-right “New Democrat” in love with Michelle Rhee and wanting to cater to business interests. I’d go so far as to say that that’s exactly what I’d expect. But Cuomo and Bayh are both lifelong Democrats. They suck, but they were never Republicans.

        When you’re a scion of a political dynasty, you generally stay in the same party as the rest of your family. The only big exception I can think of is Jay Rockefeller.

  • AR

    It seems like this would be one of the few times that an organized liberal-oriented third party might not be such a bad idea. With that kind of breakdown of party ID, there are going to be more than a few districts where Republicans would struggle to still place second in a three way D-L-R race. The master plan would realistically be to have that third party step into the national shoes of the state Democrats (similar to the DFL replacing the old Minnesota Democratic Party), but until then, it might be able to have some kingmaker power in the legislature (particularly if it inspires de facto Republicans to become de jure).

    • If there’s a case where a 3rd party makes sense on the state level, it is Rhode Island. However, the problem would be that third parties attract a certain kind of voter–wealthier, whiter, more educated. That is not a good demographic for Rhode Island. The core of the Democratic Party is the Italian, Portuguese, Guatemalan, Dominican, and African-Americans that make up Providence, Pawtucket, Cranston, Warwick, et al.

      A third party might get a solid 10-15% of the vote here and elect some people in Newport or the East Side of Providence, but machine politics are a big deal here and a whole lot of people are not going to give up their Democratic Party identity.

      • efgoldman

        The core of the Democratic Party is the Italian, Portuguese, Guatemalan, Dominican, and African-Americans that make up Providence, Pawtucket, Cranston, Warwick, et al.

        Still plenty of Irish, too, especially the institutional church.

        • Yes, I always forget about them when I think about RI politics for whatever reason. Given that I married into an old, old, old-school Irish family, maybe this is escapism.

    • efgoldman

      The master plan would realistically be to have that third party step into the national shoes of the state Democrats

      Actually, our four national politicians (two senators, two congressmen) are reliable Democratic Democrats.

      • Which is super weird, right? We send really good people to Washington but state politics are a total disaster. How does this happen?

        • efgoldman

          Which is super weird, right? We send really good people to Washington but state politics are a total disaster. How does this happen?

          Hey, we’re a very small, teeny-weeny state. The four really good people all got elected statewide. There aren’t any more.
          (Hell, I couldn’t believe that Cicciline got elected mayor of Providence, shortly after we moved here, being as he’s openly gay, and was then.)

  • MikeyR

    I have been assured that our nightmare is nearly over……..the cause of all of our troubles is the “Master Lever” which has caused only the worst candidates to be elected. Soon (well in 2016) it will be gone and only the bestest candidates will be elected. Can’t wait.

    • efgoldman

      the cause of all of our troubles is the “Master Lever” which has caused only the worst candidates to be elected.

      Isn’t that what used to be called “straight ticket?”

  • GoDeep

    Dispiriting experience? Sounds like the understatement of the year. I’m not sure that’s so different than most local elections though. Most local offices I tend to expect to be over run with corruption and special interests. The smaller the stage the pettier the politics.

  • TapirBoy1

    That is terrifying. Almost terrifying enough to make me wish American courts were more historically jealous of the right of political parties to exercise their associational rights and deny ballot access to candidates whose views don’t conform to those of the party.

    This assumes, of course, the Republicrats don’t indeed control the state party, which I believe they do in at least one house of the state Legislature.

  • NobodySpecial

    Well, I guess from the editorial board’s standpoint, it’s either this or hippies.

  • MPAVictoria

    The most embarrassing thing I could tell you about myself is that I PAID for an Alberta Conservative party membership in 2006 just to finally have some influence over who was going to rule my province. I still feel dirty.

  • Origami Isopod
    • Jeff R.

      I’m so old I remember one of the Providence radio stations making a parody song of “Billie Jean” after he resigned:

      “Buddy C is not my mayor…”

      I don’t remember the rest of the words, but I’m pretty sure there was a log mentioned.

  • Simple Mind

    Macchè porcheria.

  • j_kay

    You think YOU’RE corrupt? Wimp.

    Aren’t you forgetting about the South, especially ol’ Texas and Louisiana? Is your state the US champion of unjust execution, just because we can? Is your Senator McCarthy returned from the grave? Is your Congressman the worst RIAA-slave in Congress? Has every President from your state been totally corrupt? Did you have the Shrub, in the top ten for Presidential evilest corruption?

  • Unemployed_Northeastern

    Should I bother mentioning that Providence is within bicycling distance of Massachusetts, which has a more functional state government, and within commuting distance of Connecticut, which also has a more functional state government? I’m just saying…

  • bottyguy

    Sell at least this make me happy about the great sort that’s happened here in North Carolina. 30 years ago we still had the same issue with state and local level politics, everyone was a Democrat because that was where the power structure was. But Jesse Helms started the project that turned all the right wing out and they’ve all moved over to the Republican side.

    At least in urban areas the Democratic candidates are very liberal compared to the Republican opponents. I suppose there might be a few Blue Dogs, but I think taking on the Democrat label means liberal to most voters here and it seems silly to try to take on a conservative mask.

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