Aaron Regunberg: A Tale of Two Foxes

Friday, November 02, 2012


The general election race between Speaker of the House Gordon Fox and his spirited independent opponent Mark Binder has been getting a lot of attention lately, and for good reason—it’s not every day that the most powerful politician in Rhode Island faces a real electoral challenge.

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At this point, I expect Fox to win by a significant margin. He has an overwhelming financial advantage. He has an overwhelming “favor” advantage (being the most powerful man in the state, he’s been able to help a lot of individual projects at the State House, and folks do not want to get on the wrong side of that). And, to his credit, he is an excellent campaigner who gives a hell of a stump speech. He has done a very effective job of asking his progressive critics, “If not me as Speaker, then who?”—a compelling argument considering the House leadership’s conservative makeup.

Having said this, the amount of money, time, and energy the Speaker has been forced to throw into this race makes it clear to me that at some point in the fall, before his campaign began turning up the heat, Fox felt he had a very real shot of getting beaten in the district in which he was born and raised and which he has represented for decades.

I believe that the voters of District 4 have become confused and frustrated by the disconnect they continued to see between the Gordon Fox they knew and supported—the one who entered politics as a progressive reformer eager to fight for Rhode Island’s working families, for its vulnerable citizens whose struggles he understood from his own experiences growing up in the Mount Hope neighborhood—and the Gordon Fox they had seen as Speaker of the House, who seemed to have tossed in his progressive towel and instead was using his power to double down on the trickle-down tax policies of George W. Bush and the Tea Party; to join with conservatives in the war against voting rights; to side with the big banks and the wealthy over middle-class families; and, of course, to engage in the kind of unaccountable, backroom deals that allowed 38 Studios to happen.

While there have been some progressive victories since Fox has taken the Speaker’s rostrum, these victories have been hard-fought and modest in scale. Even what many consider to be the most significant progressive accomplishment, the school-funding formula, has faced criticism for leaving low-income communities severely underfunded (and I’m far from convinced that this and other achievements could not have been won under a different Speaker). The conservative victories, on the other hand—such as Fox’s historic, revenue-draining tax cuts for the wealthy—have been momentous.

Of course, most progressive critics of Gordon Fox understand that Speaker of the House is a hard job. It’s not possible to represent a diverse Democratic caucus without making compromises, particularly in a state like Rhode Island where some of the most conservative politicians are Democrats and a ‘D’ next to your name is an electoral tool more than a statement of shared values. But I don’t think it’s naïve or simplistic to say that on many issues, Fox could have fought harder for what he once touted as his own progressive values, and on many other issues he seemed to have genuinely given up on those values and allowed his hob-knobbing with the rich and powerful to shape the agenda he pursued.

Thanks to Mark Binder, however, the 4th District has seen a return of the first Fox in recent months. Voters are getting their doors knocked by a humble Speaker who talks about the role government can play to help the needy and equalize the playing field. It’s a Speaker who, if he is to be believed, could really help make Rhode Island a fairer and more just place in the next two years.

The question, of course, is which Fox will actually be returning to the State House if the election goes as I think it will on Tuesday? I can’t possibly say. My hope is that the reality of this contested election has proven to Fox that he must return to his core values and spend what is likely to be his last term fighting to leave behind a progressive legacy of which he can be proud.

I’m sure Speaker Fox knows that despite his big business- and wealthy-friendly credentials, conservatives will always revile him because he’s a Democrat (not to mention an out gay man of color). And the 38 Studios hole is a deep one to climb out of. But in two years, I think he could redeem himself. If he were to spend his last legislative sessions clearly fighting for working families—by increasing state aid to cities and towns to relieve the regressive property taxes that are killing middle-class Rhode Islanders and small business owners; by ensuring sustainable funding for public transit so that the thousands of Rhode Islanders who rely on this transportation can get to and from work; by going all in for equality, as he has promised to do, then I believe that Gordon Fox could retire from political life with grace, dignity, and widespread respect. If not, I think it will be another story.

It’s up to the Speaker. But it’s also up to us. Gordon Fox showed us what unaccountable leadership can look like. And Mark Binder’s candidacy is proving to us that leadership that is held accountable looks very different. As Ian Donnis reported in his recent feature on the campaign, a voter asked Fox, “Do you deserve a good, swift kick in the ass?” And Fox gave, in my opinion, a perfect response: “To keep me focused, we all do. We all do from time to time.” Let’s hope that Speaker Fox learns some lessons from this race, but let us also commit to helping him remember those lessons. If both these things happen, who knows? Maybe something really good could come of this.


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