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Dan Lawlor: Political Diversity Can Save Rhode Island

Friday, May 11, 2012


Four Parties: Republican, Cool Moose, Green, and Moderate

For the last 30 years or so, the frustrations produced by recessions have brought new political parties into Rhode Island.

In the 1980s, corruption and economic challenges lead to Republican congressional and state office victories- the dynamic trio of Claudine Schneider, Arlene Violet, and Susan Farmer. In the 1990s, we saw the rise of the Cool Moose Party, lead by Robert Healey, which generated a lot of energy and excitement, and successfully saw two town council members elected in Hopkinton. In the early 2000s, the RI Green Party seemed poised for growth, coming off the 2000 Presidential election with over 6% of voters in RI supporting Nader. David Segal won election to the Providence City Council, and Jeff Toste had a good showing in two State Senate runs. In the early 2010s, the Moderate Party was formed by Ken Block, fielding a range of candidates but scoring no victories, and Lincoln Chafee was elected as an Independent for Governor, with backing from Mayor Bloomberg in New York.

One pattern is that all of these parties had a strong initial showing, often connected to an economic crisis, and then a decline in members and elected officials. This pattern is not necessarily unique to Rhode Island. Connecticut in the 1990s saw the rise and fall of the "Connecticut Party" - headed up by a former liberal Republican. That said, Northern New England states have had thriving alternative parties with elected officials for years - notably the Vermont Progressive Party, the New Hampshire Libertarian Party, and the Independent Green Party of Maine.

Here's the depressing truth: Cool Moose, Republicans, Greens, and Moderates do not appear to be poised to take advantage of the disgust with the current crisis in Rhode Island.

In Healey's own words from a Phoenix interview, despite some serious efforts in the early 1990s, the Cool Moose Party never seemed to expand much beyond a "cult of Healey." The Republican field today is a far cry from when Violet, Schneider, and Farmer were running for office. The Greens lost their elected candidate when Segal turned Democrat, and have significantly declined in their profile and organization. Most Progressive political campaigning seems to be taking place inside the local Democratic Party, not outside it. The Moderates did not win any elections last cycle, and it will be curious to see their presence this time around.

All the above mentioned parties seem to fail for one key reason - lack of infrastructure. Without blogs, fundraisers, volunteers, networking, precinct captains, door knockers, phone callers, letter writers, committee meeting attenders, and community activists, these parties wither. Without people invested in these parties, they cease to exist.

The local progressive community is committed to the Democratic Party - which might make a lot of sense nationally, but is curious locally. Similarly, the Tea Party field candidates through the Republican Party - again, making sense nationally, but perhaps a different tactic on the state level? Alternative parties create an environment for better ideas to come to the front through open debate and compromise. We need more of that here.

Rhode Island will be better off with more political diversity. As mentioned, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire (even Connecticut) have had successful third party candidates on town councils, the governor's office, or in the legislature. The recessions are shocks to complacency, and have spurred protest movements. The key for the future of the state is this: Will these alternative parties build the infrastructure necessary to win, to spread their ideas, and to connect with people? The last thirty years show that many Rhode Islanders are up for the fight to change this state- the big challenge is convincing neighbors that the fight is worth time and treasure.


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