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Russell Moore: Jeff Britt vs. The Establishment

Monday, March 31, 2014


You won't find many Jeff Britts in Rhode Island—a place with a big reputation for going along to get along, believes Russell Moore.

Some folks believe that Rhode Island is really more of a parliamentary system of government than a traditional executive and legislature, thanks to the sizable power the Rhode Island General Assembly.

So much so, in fact, that the Speaker of the House is referred to the King of Rhode Island. I've always found that to be a bit extreme of a notion. The Governor, after all, does hire scores of people and has dominion over roughly 3,000 state employees--not to mention that he has the bully pulpit, that when used effectively, can be more useful as a change agent than a statehouse vote.

The King of Rhode Island

That being said, that the Speaker of The House is undoubtedly one of the most influential and powerful people in Rhode Island goes without saying. The budget is always crafted in the House of Representative and passed after negotiations with the Senate. While the Governor proposes a budget, what’s passed often looks very different from what’s enacted by the legislature.

In the last decade, there are only two instances I can recall in which a House Speaker lost a vote. One was in 2005 when then House Speaker Bill Murphy's budget was busted due to resistance between an alliance between dissident Democrats and Republicans. Guess who engineered the revolt in the House—none other than Britt. (The other was on a budget article last year that was quickly corrected the next day.)

Given the power of the House Speaker, it's no wonder that most people prefer to stay in his good graces—so much so that there's this notion out there, that no matter what, you can never do anything that would irk the Speaker of the House in any way, shape, or form. Given the prevalence of that sentiment, it's understandable why so many view the Speaker's powers as king-like.

Changing the status quo

Storied political operative Jeff Britt is not most people. Britt's political existence has seemingly been oriented around turning that paradigm upside down. Britt, a 45-year-old Cranston native, URI grad, and former investment banker certainly isn't afraid to offend even the most powerful people, speak his mind whenever he sees fit, or mix up the proverbial apple cart if he believes it's the right thing to do. Britt has the political instincts of a Karl Rove, or for folks more inclined to sit on the other side of the church, a David Axelrod.

Britt's greatest strengths are that he's direct, plain spoken, and assertive—as he never has any trouble getting his message across loud and clear. His greatest weakness is that he's direct, plain spoken, and assertive—as some people get offended by his loud and clear tone.

Making a name for himself

He burst on to the political scene back in 2002 when former House Speaker John Harwood ran into a scandal with reference to some (never proven) allegations regarding his female staffers, Britt decided to manage a campaign against the Pawtucket Democrat. The candidate Bruce Bayuk, Britt's stepfather, decided to run his campaign after the filing deadline, and therefore couldn't get his name on the ballot.

No matter. They pressed forward. They ran a no holds barred campaign and took their reform message to the streets of Pawtucket. And when election day came along, despite Bayuk's name not making the ballot and running as an independent, the result was simply too close to call. It wasn't until more than a week later that Harwood was actually declared the victor in the race.

But the damage was long done. Given the closeness of a race that, in all other circumstances, should have been a slam dunk for Harwood, but he emerged a wounded, sitting duck. Fellow legislators decided the time had come for a new House Speaker, and Bill Murphy, instead of Harwood as elected.

Britt may have lost the battle, but he won the war.

Losing the battle, but winning the war

This seems to have become a recurring theme for Britt. A decade later, in 2012, Britt, for some reason that has never been made clear, was feuding with House Speaker Gordon Fox—whom he once worked for. Most politically minded people, once again, would never have considered jumping into the fray once again and taking on another Speaker. Not many would have that type of courage. But most people aren't Jeff Britt.

Britt then managed East Sider Mark Binder's campaign for State Representative. Britt and Binder made 38 studios the premier issue of the campaign—focusing on how Fox shepherded the legislation through the House of Representatives. They also brought attention to other issues such as campaign finance into question.

They came close to winning, but ultimately lost in the end. Fox won the election by a roughly 7 percent margin. Yet a year and a half later, Fox is out as Speaker of the House. Regardless of any law enforcement investigations that may or may not be taking place, Fox had already privately told his former Chief of Staff Frank Anzeveno and some prominent lawmakers that he didn't intend on seeking reelection this year again in any event.

In any event, Britt believes that the massive amount of money that Fox spent in the election, well over six figures, is what made him decide against seeking reelection.

Just for the record, and to put it mildly, I certainly don't always agreed with Britt on the issues. I think Speaker Fox's accomplishments—pension reform, gay marriage, and a fair and equitable school funding formula—easily outweighed his foibles.

The courage to speak up

In any event, Britt seems to disprove the notion that you can't take on powerful politicians in Rhode Island. Anyone can have a voice if they only have the courage to speak up. You won't find many Jeff Britts in Rhode Island—a place with a big reputation for going along to get along.

Today, Britt is helping manage Ken Block's Republican bid for Governor, which by all indications, seems to be growing stronger by the day as they roll out more endorsements and gain momentum. It remains to be seen what will happen in the end, but I, for one, wouldn't want to have to take on Britt in an election—call it the Britt curse. He's not a good enemy to have.


A native Rhode Islander, Russell J. Moore is a graduate of Providence College and St. Raphael Academy. He worked as a news reporter for 7 years (2004-2010), 5 of which with The Warwick Beacon, focusing on government. He continues to keep a close eye on the inner workings of Rhode Islands state and local governments.


Related Slideshow: 10 Questions Block Has to Answer When Running for Gov of RI

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10. Can Block convince voters he is more than a third party player?


To win in the GOP primary, Block is going to need to convince GOP primary voters that his ideals align with the fundamental beliefs of the Republican Party. 


He did get a political gift.  As GoLocalProv reported - Blocks opponent in the GOP primary, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung has been a consistent donor for a decade to many of the top Democrats in the Party.


Both Block and Fung will be challenged to explain their GOP credentials.

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9. Is Block too much of a techno-candidate?


Block, the founder of a software company, love to talk about technology solutions to public policy problems. He is going to have to define his solutions to problems in a tangible way.  Often, voters connect to simple themes, "Hope and Change" or from "Head Start to Harvard." 


Block is going to need to be able to show he can connect to all Rhode Islanders - we are a retail political state.

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8. Can Block raise money?


Block has demonstrated he is serious about running - he has already invested $500,000 of his own money to win the GOP primary, but he will need an estimated $3 million to win the primary and General Election next November.


To date, his fundraising base has been small and while Fung is no Gina Raimondo in fundraising, he does have a modest Republican fundraising base.

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7. Will Block defend the behavior of National Republicans?


If 15 months from now Ted Cruz works tirelessly to close the federal government over the implementation of Obamacare, will GOP Governor Ken Block speak out on the issue? 


Will Block praise or criticize Cruz? In the primary, conservative voters may want him to praise Cruz and in the General election, the majority of voters may want him to condemn Cruz.

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6. Can Block attract RI GOP leaders?


A few weeks ago Fung announced an advisory group of prominent Republicans.  The announcement gave Fung's efforts some momentum. Block would pick up a lot of credibility if he were to peel some Fung supporters over to his team.


In addition, a number of leading Republicans have yet to make an announcement - if they break to Block it may create momentum.

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5. Can Block connect with voters in the General Election?


Assuming Block beat Fung in a GOP primary and went on to face a progressive Democrat like Providence Mayor Angel Taveras or rising star Clay Pell, can Block work the Greek Festival in Cranston or the Scituate Art Festival as well as these Democrats?


Will undecided voters connect to Block?

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4. Will Block's lack of previous elected office help or hinder?


It can be argued that never having been elected before could be perceived as a negative.


Sure, Governor Don Carcieri was never previously elected to office and Governor Bruce Sundlun had only been elected to the state's Constitutional Congress, but voters may want to be sure that Block will know a federal emergency declaration from a new software version - or will each new storm be deemed Sandy 2.0 and so on.

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3. Is Block the smartest guy in the room?


Make no mistake about it, Block is smart. Business smart, policy smart, but could he be too smart and then not be able to connect to voters.


Bill Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar (so was Gina Raimondo), but one thing about Bill Clinton was that he could play the role of a good ol' boy as good as anyone. He could make any voter feel right at home.


Block will need to channel his intelligence into a language and approach that connects to the CEO he is asking to support his effort as equally as asking a unemployed mom in Pawtucket.

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2. How will he handle the plethora of special interests?


This time Block will have to answer the questionnaire from the FOP, the Right-to-Life groups, the Environment Council, MADD, the Teamsters, The Northern RI Chamber of Commerce, NEA-RI, arts advocacy groups, the NAACP, and you get the picture.


Consistency will matter. One group's endorsement will spark another groups condemnation. Mr. Block, welcome to the 2014 governor's race.

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1. Can he handle the hot lights?


The one thing about being the third or fourth candidate in a race is people remember the smart things you said, but don't pay much attention to the dumb things you said. Heck, you really didn't have a real chance to win so the assessment is not very stringent.


This time will be different. He needs to run not one but two nearly flawless races to be the next Governor of Rhode Island. His effort in 2010 will help him, but this time he has a real chance to win and the stakes are much higher


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