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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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There is even more then just the two wings of the Democratic party. I don't think you can lump the social progressives with the union progressives (though they can certainly overlap). Look at Dickinson and Fogarty.

Comment #1 by John T on 2012 09 13

I think John is right, however, at the end of the day Rhode Island is in a complete fiscal mess and as such, there's really not alot of room for a grey area between defunct/bankrupt and solvent versus the wide range of positions and outcomes on social issues. As such, there are two directions that the State's all too powerful party can go in. In 2012, leadership showed signs that suggest that they are moving to do what's right for the majority of constituents vs. beckoning to the labor crowd - not that they had much choice on the pension issue. As such, the fractional divide will only grow as the more entrenched leaders of labor continue to loose their footing in the General Assembly. This primary was proof. Public labor simply didn't pull off what they attempted to do, and did so well in the primary of 2010. The decline of public labor's gripe on this state has slowly begun. As such, thank you to the many Senators and Representatives who have seen the l(r)ight.

Comment #2 by Jeffrey Brown on 2012 09 13

I completely agree that there are two wings of the Democratic party in Rhode Island, but I think the divide lies simply between progressives and conservatives. While conservatives like Donna Perry and her organization may view unions as their primary enemy, it is both insulting and wrong to describe the progressives as beholden to the unions. Prominent progressives like Chris Blazejewski, Teresa Tanzi, and Larry Valencia voted for pensions cuts. The NEA opposed Laura Pisaturo. Angel Taveras, who is probably the most prominent progressive in the state, has broken with NEA on numerous issues. Progressives have refused to join in the Scott Walker-esque union bashing so popular in Rhode Island, but that is very different from being stooges of Bob Walsh.

Nor is it fair to describe Ed Pacheco as the leader of the conservatives. When he was a state legislator, he was endorsed by the Progressive Democrats. Once in office, he has been careful not to overtly support either wing of the party.

If there is a leader of the conservative wing of the party, it is Teresa Paiva-Weed. There is no equivalent leader for the progressives, which is a serious problem for achieving progressive goals.

The most important misconception of the progressive wing of the party is that the movement is driven by issues like union rights and marriage equality. While many progressives support these issues, the driving force behind the progressive movement is the desire for economic growth. Conservative economic policies have been a disaster for Rhode Island, and what progressives care most about is fixing the state economy. What separated Gayle Goldin and Maryellen Butke was not views on union rights. Both endorsed the pension cuts. What distinguished Butke is that she was an economic conservative who opposed, for instance, lowering the property tax burden on small businesses and working families by making the wealthy pay their far share through federally subsidized income taxes. Goldin, on the other hand, was liberal on both social and economic issues.

Comment #3 by Samuel Bell on 2012 09 14


You say, "Conservative economic policies have been a disaster for Rhode Island, and what progressives care most about is fixing the state economy."

I was not aware that liberal Rhode Island had enacted any conservative economic policies. What policies are you referring to?

Comment #4 by Art West on 2012 09 14

Under Carcieri and a very conservative General Assembly, Rhode Island has recently enacted several very conservative economic polices, including:

1. Large income tax cuts for the wealthy.

2. Mass layoffs of public sector employees.

3. Sharp increases in property taxes.

4. Putting tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge.

5. Enormous pension cuts.

Predictably, these policies have been an economic disaster.

Comment #5 by Samuel Bell on 2012 09 14

"1. Large income tax cuts for the wealthy."

Not sure about that adjective. Even racheted down to 5.99%, Rhode Island's top income tax rate is still the third highest in the country.

"2. Mass layoffs of public sector employees."

When and where did those take place?

"4. Putting tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge."

Wrong administration. The current governor signed that into law.

Comment #6 by Monique Chartier on 2012 09 14

Progressives and the unions seem to get along, however, I can't see it being a permanent alliance.

The progressives are starbuck drinking intellectuals who in the end will favor education reform and budget reforms. Something the unions will never forgive.

The unions in Rhode Island are D&D lovers and are pretty rough and tumble characters.

Namely for anyone who went to the Channel 12 debate between Cicilline and Gemma. The union guys were pretty loud and down right nasty. It was interesting watching the pro-cicilline union members do that and watch the pro-cicilline progressives cringe at their behavior.

Where will progressives go in the end?

Comment #7 by John Locke on 2012 09 15

“‘1. Large income tax cuts for the wealthy.’

Not sure about that adjective. Even racheted (sic) down to 5.99%, Rhode Island's top income tax rate is still the third highest in the country.”

That’s just blatantly untrue. The following states have top marginal income tax rates higher than Rhode Island: Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. See here:


"'2. Mass layoffs of public sector employees.’

When and where did those take place?”

Rhode Island had the second highest per capita public sector job losses of any state during the economic crisis, with state and local government employment plummeting by 7.75% between January 2008 and April 2012. See here:


"'4. Putting tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge.’

Wrong administration. The current governor signed that into law.”

That’s true, the state government is still quite conservative even with Carcieri out of office.

Comment #8 by Samuel Bell on 2012 09 15

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