Dan Lawlor: Are there Any Real Democrats in Rhode Island?
Monday, June 11, 2012
The NEA’s Pat Crowley offered a joke that encapsulated his view of the RI Progressive community's frustrations.
"The Rhode Island Democratic Party is a big tent. In fact, it's so big its a circus tent. Why a circus tent? That way they can let the elephants in."
This past week, Netroots Nation, a national, progressive bloggers conference, was held in Rhode island. Netroots was the context for attending a panel on "When Democrats Aren't Democrats: The Story of RI." The panel was moderated by Pat Crowley of the NEA, and featured well-known activists- Steven Brown of the ACLU, Paula Hodges of Planned Parenthood, Kate Brock from Ocean State Action (OSA), and Ray Sullivan of Marriage Equality (MERI). There were no panelists from progressive youth, immigrant, urban, rural, minority, environmental, arts, small business, or religious groups.
Crowley stated one purpose of the panel was for political observers, local and beyond, to focus more on the ideology of Assembly members, not on party labels. OSA Executive Director Kate Brock, echoed a similar sentiment, saying that Progressives need to see what works and what doesn't, and begin to think beyond party labels. "There are allies and non-allies in all parties", she said, citing local pro-choice Republican Dawson Hodgson, and pro-marriage equality Republican turned Independent John Savage.
Several panelists felt that the RI Progressive Community was "losing forward" - failing to pass legislation through the Assembly, but succeeding in implementing Executive Orders through the Governor's Office and in reaching out to more voters and convincing them of the importance of marriage equality or tax justice. In other words, RI progressives were losing at the legislature, but using the Executive Branch and attempts at cultural change to try to enact their agenda.
The panel was organized around four anecdotes related to disappointments that pro-choice, pro-marriage equality, pro-tax justice, and pro-civil rights groups have felt with the General Assembly over the last few years. From my perspective, underlining the specific complaints and frustrations of each group (Voter ID, Mandatory Ultrasound Bill, the Assembly's income tax cuts and resulting decline in revenue for cities and towns, and Rhode Island's hold-out against same-sex marriage), there was a thread of frustration with "dark of night" process and procedures in the General Assembly, which panelists admitted they tried to "circumvent" through the Executive Branch.
Hodges, originally from Missouri, said that "inside the Dome," "there is an unusual amount of order." Hodges went on to say there are three P's for how the Assembly leadership operates: "Pre-Ordained, Private, and Paternalistic." She explained, floor votes are pre-ordained by the leadership, decision-making takes place in private, and the attitude of leaders is very paternalistic when citizens try to become involved or lobby. This culture, she said, "is very difficult to break... and can be a stifling environment."
Teresa Tanzi, a RI Progressive Democrat (not a speaker on the panel), gave a keynote address later in the conference, where she implored audience members, "Join me - take the next step, run for office. You, with the fuller than full plate, yes you... I need you sitting beside me when the doors close." When the doors close.
An attendee at the event afterward said, "Things would not be so opaque (shrouded) unless someone benefited from it."
Crowley argued that, in Rhode Island, we are ruled by "Ted Green's Party" - Theodore Francis Green's Party. Going back to the beginning of the big-tent Democratic Party's ascendancy in the state, Crowley took us to the Depression. In 1934, a national Textile Worker's Strike was organized in an attempt to equalize wages in Northern and Southern textile factories. According to Crowley, Green, the elected Governor as a Democrat just prior to the strike, called out the National Guard to resist the strikers, with Green declaring "this is not a strike- this is a Communist insurrection." Four factory workers were killed by machine guns in Saylesville, RI, during rioting. TF Green was "lionized" for his decisiveness, and, building off Green's popularity, the struggling economy, and following some selective recounting, the Democrats seized both houses in the Assembly in a "Bloodless Revolution" in the subsequent election. Crowley remarked. "Only in Rhode Island could four workers die, but it was bloodless."
Brown said in Rhode Island "local connections are more important than national ones. Rhode Island is a nation unto itself - we go our own way, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad." Brown also said it is "not helpful to analyze civil liberties by party label." Brown pointed out that he was particularly frustrated with the passage of Voter ID, where legislator after legislator voiced support for the law not on data but because they had "seen, heard, or knew somebody" who had committed voter fraud. He exclaimed, "What other felony have so many people seen but not reported?"
Brown, like Hodges, expressed frustration with the "secretive legislative process," with decisions "voted on in the waning hours of the legislative session."
Brock argued that alongside this closed decision-making, there has been "an expansion of a regressive tax structure." She argued,"For the last 16 years, we have eroded the tax base, cut taxes for the wealthy, cut cities and towns, and the result has been increasing our property taxes and our car tax." Brock stated, according to the Institute for Tax and Economic Policy, "the Lowest 20% of Rhode Island income earners (those who make 18,000 or less a year) pay 11.9% of income in all local taxes, while the top 1% (those making $390,000 or more) pay a total of 5.6% in taxes.... this is incredibly broken."
Sullivan, Executive Director of Marriage Equality, argued, in most states, "when people become a [legislative] leader, they bring their agenda with them. In Rhode Island, leaders put their fingers in the wind, versus saying, 'Damn it, this is what I believe in.'"
Sullivan announced that at least 1,000 same-sex, married couples live in Rhode Island today - with many couples already having certificates from either Connecticut or Massachusetts. Sullivan was a bit erratic, but visibly angry about what happened with the failure to pass Marriage Equality in 2010 and 2011. "Last year was supposed to be "the year" ... we were 2-3...with an openly gay speaker, and a Governor who highlighted marriage equality in his inaugural... instead, we passed the worst, most discriminatory civil unions bill in the history of the Republic."
Sullivan described the State House as an "ivory castle" where the leadership has acted with a mentality of "don't get off the bus, don't embarrass the Speaker."
Sullivan declared that the Governor's Executive Order to recognize out of state marriages is a precursor to passing same-sex marriage. Sullivan declared, "We will pass this next year. I swear to God we will. We can't do this without a coalition."
To the group, during Q and A, one attendee raised the question, "Part of the problem is everybody knows everybody... how can we address that? How do you find the candidates to support?
Brock mentioned, "When we fight together, we win." She argued that Labor, Gay and Women's groups must work together to win elections and OSA will provide a list of endorsed candidates for the fall.
One attendee asked about the size of a Rhode Island legislator's staff. The room erupted into chuckles. Representative Theresa Tanzi stood up and announced that she is a sitting legislator, and she has "no staff, no desk, and, until three months ago, no internet."
Had this panel been organized by conservative RI groups - Tea Party, Chamber of Commerce, Right to Life, National Organization for Marriage - the content of the criticisms would have been substantially different. However, something would have remained the same - the "secretive legislative process," the attitude that is "pre-ordained, private, and paternalistic," "don't embarrass the speaker," "increasing our property taxes and our car tax," "an unusual amount of order," "only in Rhode Island."
For yours truly, even more than the issue-specific critiques, the image of an "ivory castle," isolated from the concerns of working Rhode Islanders was a strong take-away. In Rhode Island, from a certain view, Democrat means that you belong to "The Party of Current and Aspiring Mister Speakers."
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