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Donna Perry: The Two Democratic Parties of RI

Thursday, September 13, 2012


If there was any theme which emerged out of this week’s statewide Primary in races for the General Assembly, it was that Rhode Island now has two separate and distinct Democratic parties operating in plain sight and duking it out to a degree not seen before.

Though the results are certainly a mixed bag in terms of beleaguered incumbents who held on and (mostly) union propelled new faces who managed to upset certain incumbents or claimed open seats, there’s an undeniable reality of a not seen before significant divide within the Party itself that is basically producing two mini parties within the larger one.

The dividing line issues for the Primary in most Democrat races revolved around votes on the landmark pension reform bill (core issue for the unions) and the push for gay marriage legislation (core issue for the progressives). Clusters of more traditional Democrat party incumbents from Woonsocket to South County were facing strong challenges from the other Democrat party, and it produced a mixed scorecard. The first Democrat party has Ed Pacheco as Chairman and operates out of the traditional state Democrat party apparatus.

But the secondary Democrat party, whose Chairman may as well be NEA-RI’s Bob Walsh, is composed of a coalition that is one part advocate for the public employee unions (the biggest part); one part champion of liberal social issue causes for the Progressives; and now one part marriage equality forces.

It was this second Democrat party that worked to defeat several reformer styled incumbent Democrats like Rep. Jon Brien of Woonsocket and Senator Michael Pinga of West Warwick for example, but fell short, although by a very close margin, in their bid to unseat powerful Senate Finance Chairman Dan DaPonte who played a pivotal role in steering through the historic pension reform legislation last year. Tuesday’s results brought mixed outcomes however, and shed light on the clear potential for confused goals for the splinter second Democrat party.

A clear case in point is the forces that worked to hold back challenger Maryellen Butke in her bid to claim the open seat of retiring liberal East Side district 3 fixture Rhoda Perry. Despite the fact that Butke is an openly gay advocate for gay rights issues and marriage equality, because she has also been a powerhouse advocate for education reform, specifically charter schools, she came up short in a hard fought spirited attempt against the union’s preferred non reformer candidate, Gayle Goldin.

Another gay marriage battleground race unfolded in Warwick’s Senate district 29 between incumbent and Senate Judiciary Chairman Mike McCaffrey against newcomer Laura Pisaturo. McCaffrey is a hybrid kind of legislator who could belong to both Democrat parties it seems and that is what brought him onto tricky terrain until he pulled through Tuesday night. He is a union backing Democrat who advanced a controversial Binding Arbitration bill maneuver in the Senate late in the session last year, but is also a more conservative social views Democrat whose pro-traditional marriage views brought on the challenge from Ms. Pisaturo.

Perhaps one of the most notable outcomes of Tuesday was the defeat of Lincoln’s Rene Menard, who was among the 15 votes that went against the pension overhaul bill, by Cumberland Councilwoman Mia Ackerman. What does it say about the tug of war between the two faces of the Democrat party in the state, when the woman who overtook the long serving Menard reportedly had the backing of the most powerful Democrat in the Statehouse, Speaker Gordon Fox? A tug of war indeed.

Though it may be true that there wasn’t a definitive mandate by the voters based on the mixed outcome of Tuesday’s primary vote, there’s no denying there’s now a three party system operating within the state Legislature. Confused races and splintered outcomes are realities that are here to stay.

Donna Perry is Executive Director of RISC, www.statewidecoalition.com


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