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Dan Lawlor: When Republicans Actually Wanted to Win

Monday, February 11, 2013


The past few elections haven't been kind of Republicans in Rhode Island.

Between 1980 and 1984, the Republican Party in Rhode Island was competitive with the local Democratic Party. Really. 

In 1980, "Maverick" Republican Claudine Schneider toppled Democratic Congressman Ed Beard and held the office through 1991. Former Republican Governor John Chafee was elected US Senator, a position he held until his death in 1999. In 1982, Susan Farmer won victory as the first female state office holder, and over 21 Republican State Senators were elected to office (out of a Senate that was than 50). In 1984, Arlene Violet began her career as "Attila the Nun" - and was elected the first female state Attorney General in the country. Also, and this very well might be one cause of the GOP bubble bursting, in 1984 Edward Diprete was elected Governor. As we all know, alongside whatever good Diprete did in setting up the College Crusade program, Diprete helped unleash a horrible financial disaster and oversaw organized racketeering that caused harm to hundreds of thousands of Rhode Islanders. The good government hue of the GOP brand was melting fast. Trudy Coxe, formerly of Save the Bay, lost her 1990 Congressional campaign, among other reasons, because of her husband's connections with Diprete.

It's important to understand the hubris and insider deals that often devour good people- a bizarre Rhode Island trait that seems to eat up reforms of all sorts. Yet, I think the time is worth it for the local GOP (along with Moderates, Greens, and Libertarians) to look back at the early 1980s as an example of successful political challenges to the local Democratic Party.

What were the economic conditions at the time? Rhode Island was in a funk—in fact, on paper, one less severe than today's ongoing mess.

Back in the Day

What was it like in the early 1980s? The Providence high school riots of the 1970s were a short memory away. It was considered revolutionary that an Italian-American was elected Mayor of the City. The mob was still pervasive, organized, and active—people were still being beaten and killed. Religious revivals were taking place on Smith Hill and the West End. The state was in a culture war over abortion. La Salle was discussing becoming co-ed. The gay pride parades were small. There was no Renaissance—there were echoes of arsons and assaults. The suburbs were a new idea. A large and active anti-nuclear movement was growing. Oh, yes, and Ronald Reagan was President.

In that tumultuous context, intelligent, bright, fed-up women began to take on leadership roles in the RI GOP. Challenging the patriarchy of the state Democratic Party, Schneider, Farmer, Leonard, and Violet were part of movement for change. When faced with a ridiculous and egregious level of corruption in the 1982 re-districting plan, a federal judge delayed elections until new district maps could be drawn.

Following that massive Democratic scandal, 22 State Senators - I'll clarify that - 22 Republican State Senators were elected. In living memory. Lack of community connections and the national GOP helped reduce their numbers in later years.

Who’s to Blame?

It is laziness on the part of GOP organizers to blame their defeat on "the people," or "takers," or the "70 years of absolute Democratic control."

In a recent op-ed in National Review, Avik Roy, speaking to a conservative audience, argues, "Think of all the people you know who have weighed in on the question of Republican outreach to Hispanics, and ask yourself: How many of us talk politics with our Hispanic friends? How many of us have Hispanic friends? Instead of reaching out in person, we do the equivalent of e-mailing Hispanics our LinkedIn profiles and then expecting them to vote for us."

In the early 1980s, hardworking, intelligent, community-connected Republican men and women like Barbara Leonard, John Chafee, Arlene Violet, Nancy Mayer, Susan Farmer, and Claudine Schneider caused Rhode Islanders to think twice about who they would vote for. Did Barry Hinckley or Brendan Doherty inspire the same double-take?

A GOP that doesn't empower and recruit female candidates, doesn't do consistent, door-knocking, issue-based outreach from within the community, doesn't shout from the rooftops about environmental justice and business opportunity, doesn't meet with regular people in West Warwick, Providence, and Woonsocket, will not, cannot, win in this state. Excepting Lincoln Almond, the aftertaste of recent GOP Governors like Edward Diprete and Don Carcieri have hardly been joyous experiences. Instead of ignoring mainstream Republicans like Allan Fung and Scott Avedesian, the local state party needs to learn from those grassroots, community connected leaders. Otherwise, moments like 1982 will be blips in a wave of failed tactics, organizing, and results.

More Than a Problem for One Party

Without an organized opposition party to hold the majority Democrats accountable, to ensure quality candidates and bring out the best in debates and proposals, the state is so much worse off. From Bevilacqua to Smith, from Harwood to Moreau, there have been a string of ridiculous scandals involving RI Democrats. Yet, just calling out misdeeds without building up alternatives will not change the state. To build real change, the state GOP needs to look at what worked in the past, learn from it, and move forward. Otherwise, the GOP will still be able to meet in a phone booth - and it will be the party's own fault.


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