Wanted: A Soul for the RI Democratic Party

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Wanted: A Soul for the RI Democratic Party

The introduction last week in Rhode Island of anti-immigrant legislation based on HB1070, the draconian law recently passed in Arizona, was troubling for many reasons. For those of us who consider ourselves true Democrats, one of the more disconcerting elements of the whole episode was that the bill was introduced by a Democrat – Cranston Representative Peter Palumbo.

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As someone who believes in democracy (with a “small d”), I do acknowledge that there is plenty of room for disagreement within the Democratic Party on some issues. But Rep. Palumbo has a long history of seeking to pass bills to restrict legal abortion, curtail gay rights, make life more difficult for those receiving social services (such as a bill this year requiring urine tests of anyone receiving public assistance), and of course, bills bashing immigrants in a variety of increasingly creative ways.

Someone from another state, or a newcomer to Rhode Island politics, might innocently ask just why it is that Rep. Palumbo calls himself a Democrat? The only plausible answer is the dominance of the party in most of Rhode Island’s cities as well as the assembly – not only is it extremely difficult in most of the state to win election to the General  Assembly as a Republican, Independent, Green or now Moderate—if you do win, you will likely not have any power whatsoever in such a Democrat-heavy body.

Rep. Palumbo is far from alone in putting a D after his name for reasons that have little or nothing to do with his political beliefs. Woonsocket Rep. Jon Brien admitted on talk radio that he is only a Democrat because he could not get elected in his city as a Republican. Warwick Rep. Al Gemma bragged on the House Floor about voting for John McCain in 2008, and recently said that an opponent who called himself a “progressive” Democrat was really just using a code word for “socialist.” And there are many more.

In the aggregate, these super-conservative Democrats give us some strange results – such as being the only state in the country where a majority-Democratic legislative body has passed a bill requiring all voters to show ID at the polls – a bill sponsored by, you guessed it, Rep. Jon Brien.

What is a true blue progressive to do? First, if we truly care about saving our party from its far-right wing, we need to run candidates for as many local and state offices as possible, including challenging in primaries all those Democrats who would be more at home in the Tea Party. This is not about ideological purity or “purging” dissidents – it’s about making our party stand for somethingreal democratic principles that can distinguish us in voters’ minds from the Republicans. The number of progressives in the state is a far larger number than people may think. If we come together to work for progressive candidates and progressive issues, we will find we have the power to change a lot of things in this state, including the make up of the legislature.

Second, progressives should not tolerate corruption from any Democratic public officials, be they conservative or liberal. If voters identify our party as the party of corruption (an understandable inference after recent scandals in Central Falls and North Providence), a tidal wave will eventually wash out Democratic dominance—and it may well take honest progressives away along with the bad guys.

Finally, progressive Democrats should expect more of our leaders in the state and hold them accountable. We have an opportunity here-- with a new Speaker, Gordon Fox, and party chair, Ed Pacheco, who come from the more progressive wing of the party – not to mention Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed.  We have seen , however, that even these leaders can allow the right to have too much sway – witness Speaker Fox’s decision to allow Rep. Palumbo to introduce the Arizona bill after the bill deadline or the most unfortunate decision to have Palumbo be a Deputy Majority Leader!

We can work collectively to make these changes, or we can watch progressives of all stripes, young voters, people of color, low income people, and the pro-choice, gay rights, labor, and environmental communities drift slowly and disdainfully away from the Democratic Party. The only result of that will be a weaker and even more conservative legislature – one that does not reflect true Democratic values.

 Pat Smith, a longtime member and leader in the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats of America, lives in Barrington.


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