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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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