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Dan Lawlor: Rhode Island Needs More than 2 Parties

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


In the last fifty years, rare but unexpected political events occur. Namely, third party candidates are elected. In New York, in 1968, Jonathan Buckley of the Conservative Party won election to serve as US Senator. In Minnesota, in 1998, Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura won election as Governor. In Vermont, in the last few years, members of the Progressive Party have won election as state legislators and the Mayor of Burlington, and Bernie Sanders (former Liberal Union, now Independent Socialist) has won election to the US Senate.

Rhode Island's recent past has a small number of opposition parties and alternative candidates - David Segal's stint as a Green Party City Councilor in Providence, Robert Healey's recent campaign to abolish the office of Lt. Governor as a Cool Moose, independent Ed O'Neill's run against disgraced former Senate President Joseph Montalbono, and Lincoln Chafee's successful election as an independent for Governor.

The political future of this state would be much improved with more political parties, and more women in positions of power. We need a regeneration - the current political leadership is failing us. Instead of conforming to the Democratic or Republican Party as is, we should push for more alternatives, and for more coalitions in the General Assembly.

Much has been said about the dangers of 70 years of domination by one political party. I agree. The Democratic leadership tolerates individuals who have made very bad choices and are poor role models. However, the flip side is that for 70 years the Republican Party (and, for the last 10 or so, the Greens) have been so dysfunctional and uninspired that they have not been able to elect town councilors, state representatives and the like. For that matter, at times when the Republicans have elected anti-corruption candidates to office - consider former Mayor Michael Traficante in Cranston, Edward Diprete in the Governor's office, Representative Dan Gordon in Portsmouth, and, for goodness sake, even Buddy Cianci's first term - scandals have continued. Many Democratic leaders have failed this state time and again - and have often gone to jail for it (and, depressingly, others are still in power, with little holding them back).

Yet, here's the thing. Democrats are elected (and re-elected) because they offer programs, values, and connections that relate to the needs of voters. Not all Democratic representatives are domestic abusers and loan sharks (depressingly some are). However, some are deeply committed, hardworking individuals. I recall former legislator Betsy Dennigan, the late Representative Tom Slater, the hardworking Eddie Ajello, and others. It's too easy to say that Democrats are elected because they have "absolute control." They have control because people vote for them.

The flip side of 70 years of Democratic dominance in the legislature is 70 years of Republicans failing to put forward legislative ideas and candidates attractive and responsive to voters across the state! Remember, the Republican-dominated legislature, decades ago, delayed women's suffrage, blocked child labor laws, stalled the 8 hour work day, and refused unemployment benefits - not to mention denied urban areas fair representation in the legislature. There is a good deal of historical skepticism of the Republicans, based on very real injuries done to working people.

That said, it would be lunacy to argue that one party hyper dominance is healthy for this state, or any other one. There have been plenty of foolish, counterproductive activities done by Democratic leaders over the years. The current wheeling and dealing has granted millions of dollars in property tax exemptions to wealthy businesses while small business owners suffer with higher property taxes and uneven services. The current wheeling and dealing has left Rhode Island the only New England state to not have marriage equality. The current wheeling and dealing has ignored the needs of tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders out of work, and the thousands of Rhode Island children who attend school in subpar buildings. Some people don't speak out against the leadership because they want a job, or a favor, or a promotion at one point down the line. The fact that one party is dominant allows politics in this state to be warped.

From Socialists to Libertarians, there should be more variety in the Rhode Island Assembly. However, the truth is we have a dominant Democratic Party that is really three - conservative (Corvese), establishment (Paiva-Weed), and progressive (Cimini). Instead of closed door party caucuses to decide things, we should have open debates. The local Republican Party can win statewide elections (from the 1980s heyday of Arlene Violet, Susan Farmer, and Claudine Schneider to Lincoln Almond and Donald Carcieri as Governor), yet fails to convince the public to support the party locally. The Greens and Moderates are making valiant efforts at opening up the process, but still need to convince more voters to support them. The state would be better off if we had Socialists, Greens, Libertarians, Democrats, Moderates, Republicans, Reform and Johnston Secessionists arguing and passing laws over how to best end homelessness, create jobs, support arts and industry, educate children, and ensure a clean environment. At the end of the day, change will only happen if voters want it to, and if candidates can convince voters that it is a good idea.

Guido de Ruggiero, historian of liberalism, has argued, "the state which feeds upon mighty conflicts, which reconciles violent passions, any one of which in isolation would be destructive and disastrous, is an element of life and progress. Take the single Italian parties of the Risorgimento (resurgence): their outlook is so narrow that each believes not only that it alone can save Italy, but also that the opposite party is working for certain destruction. Yet above this conflict there is a co-operation in which all are equally, though in different ways, serving the common cause."

Through argument, organizing and debate - among an ever growing circle of people - Rhode Island will improve. We don't need more rich people. We don't need outsiders to save us. We don't need court-appointed receivers to bring order to chaos. We have what we need here. By organizing with each other, finding common concerns, and working to change things, this state will improve. Candidates who speak, connect, and work with large numbers of voters will get elected. More diversity in the legislature will make us stronger.


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I don't disagree with the author's thesis, but it's funny how when you read this carefully it sounds suspiciously like an article that simply says "Vote for Left-Wingers! We're dandy!"

Comment #1 by Common Sense RI on 2012 04 24

And the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy should exist too. People in RI have what they want. If they wanted these other parties they would start them and support them.

No one is preventing these groups from appearing. This is an odd article.

Comment #2 by Jeffrey deckman on 2012 04 24

Too many parties = Linc Chafee

Comment #3 by David Beagle on 2012 04 24

This article carries an agenda bias which is far too obvious. First of all you make the assumption that Republicans don’t get elected anywhere. Perhaps you should do your homework and look at several of Rhode Island’s towns where Republicans get elected and keep their communities in good fiscal health.

I also find it interesting that you go out of your way to name Republicans that have been in scandals, but never bother to list the Democrats that have. The number is exponentially higher.
The following statement which is in your own words proves your bias: “Yet, here's the thing. Democrats are elected (and re-elected) because they offer programs, values, and connections that relate to the needs of voters.” You are assuming that Republicans do not. The real issue is that the Democrat party in Rhode Island rules with absolute power. Republican ideas rise to the top and are successful in local communities where they get a chance to breathe. In our State Legislature however, Republican ideas are squashed, held for further study, or high-jacked and later proposed by Democrats. We are a state that has received a D- for transparency; as the outcome of many bills is fully known in advance in worked out in back room deals. Yes, absolute power does corrupt absolutely. There is no balance in our legislature.

Another major issue is the master lever. Here many voters who don’t study the issues or the candidates simply check the “Democrat” box because they have been informed that if they vote for Republicans programs will be cut. The Democrats use their scare tactic every election cycle which is pure fiction.

In addition, a majority of Democrats are supported by public sector union leaders who then endorse them and financially support them. The issue here is not the public sector employee who is trying to scratch out a living, but the union leadership that has let its own members down by supporting Democrats who were not financially minding their pension dollars and more concerned with lining their own pockets and getting re-elected. Just go and look at the campaign accounts of many of our elected Democrat leaders and see where the money comes from.

You also make a statement that we don’t need more rich people. I counter your point by stating that if we had more rich people, we would have more revenue that the state badly needs. Many individuals at the lower end of the income spectrum pay little to no payroll taxes and our state badly needs the revenue. We are driving out our upper income earners.

Third parties have not had success in Rhode Island. There are many reasons for this, and the recent slate of Moderate Party candidates only took from Republican candidates. Most would argue that without Ken Block, we would have gotten John Robitaille, instead of Lincoln Chafee as Governor. But given your liberal viewpoint, Chafee was probably your candidate of choice.

Comment #4 by Michael Napolitano on 2012 04 24

Its the culture of RI, its inbread, its in the blood or whatever, Democrates are here to stay. People will NOT change, they are too complacent and have no will to make change. RI is going to fail and the people will accept that, it is to bad but it is what it is.

Comment #5 by Gary Arnold on 2012 04 24

This article is typical RI logic. I thought the water here got cleaned up.

Comment #6 by CYNTHIA OCONNELL on 2012 04 24

I don't get the logic here. RI has been the poster child for democrat liberalism for years and it is now on the verge of distinction. The reason why the republicans have not had a great deal of success on capitol hill is because of all the democrat cronyism and corruption. Do you even study history? Their party is controlled by union thugs. In fact the union thugs are elected officials in our Statehouse. No 3rd party would even get off the ground. Case and point the Moderate Party has been a complete dud. Dan Lawlor, you have blinders on. Most comments made by readers above all have merit, except your story. Keep it up and there will be no businesses left to advertise and pay your salary. CLUELESS!

Comment #7 by Scott Dickerson on 2012 04 24

the party system thrives on patronage...that is the only reason why the democrats run ri...

Comment #8 by john paycheck on 2012 04 24

The vast majority of Rhode Islanders vote Democrat because they've been conditioned since birth to vote Democrat.

"Bobby, see dis levah for the all da Democrats? Ya pull it, and you ah done votin'. Got it?"

For the modern approach to Rhode Island voting, simply replace "levah" with "arrow."

Comment #9 by Art West on 2012 04 24

No Dan,
Having more than two parties, gave us Chaffee as our governor.
We realistically only have ONE party, and look what the dems have done for us. There IS a republican party out there, it's just that nobody really notices.

Comment #10 by pearl fanch on 2012 04 26

There's literally no chance for more than 2 or 3 parties in RI. It'd be nice though - because then legislators would have to build coalitions to get anything done.

Comment #11 by Tony Pelliccio on 2012 04 30

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.