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Monday, April 8, 2013

More Important Than You Think

When the next gubernatorial inauguration takes place in January 2015, for preceding 30 years, a single Democratic governor will have reigned in Rhode Island for just 4 years and 2 days (barring any unforeseen circumstances leading to a Governor Elizabeth Roberts). Republicans will have ruled for 22 of those years. This is odd for a state that Gallup found to be “the most Democratic state” (tied with Hawaii).

There have been a number of things that could possibly have contributed to this. One is Rhode Island maintains a system of electing its Governor in the midterm election for U.S. President. The lower turnout means slightly fewer voters, and since the larger the turnout, the more the Democratic Party is favored, this pattern assists in electing more non-Democrats.

The Party has also been hampered by lackluster gubernatorial candidates, culminating in Frank Caprio’s “shove it” comment in 2010. Finally, The New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog suggested that Rhode Island is “the most most elastic state”, meaning it has a large percentage of swing voters.

That FiveThirtyEight post has RIPR’s Scott MacKay positing that voters select Republicans to check the power of the Democrats in the General Assembly. It also quotes URI professor Maureen Moakley suggesting that we may see more independent candidates in the future instead of Republicans, due to the tarnishing of their brand both locally and nationally.

I’m neither a distinguished political observer nor a professor of political science, and it has been a few months since those observations were made, but I’m not in agreement with this (note: I’m not mocking either MacKay or Moakley, just warning you to read my thoughts skeptically).

Considering that the Democrats have long held a veto-proof majority in the General Assembly, non-Democratic governors have been an ineffective check. And I do not think Rhode Islanders will be liable to select more independent governors after Lincoln Chafee’s administration ends.

My feeling is that the Democratic Party now has two strong candidates in the wings in Gina Raimondo and Angel Taveras. At any point over the next year, either could join Ernie Almonte in the running. They’d instantly be the favorite.

If both run, it becomes harder to parse, with Raimondo having the slight edge over Taveras at this moment in terms of polling and campaign cash reserves. In response to the threat of either of the state’s most popular politicians running as the Democratic nominee, the Republican Party is suggesting Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, or former U.S. Congressional District 1 candidate Brendan Doherty.

There’s a plausible path for a Republican candidate in a four-way race, assuming Chafee remains an independent (there’s been discussion of Chafee becoming a Democrat, but I don’t particularly think it’s likely, nor likely to help Chafee electorally) and assuming that the Moderate Party fields a candidate (which will probably be Ken Block).

If Rhode Island manages to vote in a Democratic governor, it may cause more changes than you’d think. The governor has been a relatively weak position for a long time. But it’s been a useful screen for unpopular policies, partly because our governors have been so good at being proponents of unpopular policies.

Thus we can talk about the “Carcieri tax cuts” but ignore the very real criticism that they were passed by an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. Government power is rooted in the General Assembly. That it’s so diffuse and obscured is a notable feature of Rhode Island’s democracy; even within the General Assembly, the obvious power players aren’t always the ones calling the shots.

That might very well change with a Democrat in the governor’s chair. It seems unlikely that either a Governor Raimondo or Taveras will be content to take a back seat to the whims of the General Assembly. If the governor exerts more executive authority, what may take shape in Rhode Island may be more similar to the early days of the American Republic; with a pro-administration faction backing the governor and an anti-administration faction backing legislative power.

These forces might very well meet in a constitutional convention (a possibility which shouldn’t be discounted) leading to a major fight over how the government should be structured (though it will likely be manifested in many small changes rather than large sweeping ones).

If the Democratic Party can come through this and figure out an accommodation for a Democratic governor, Democrats might finally secure presumptive control over the governor’s office. This will be boosted if economic conditions improve in Rhode Island during a Democratic administration. But if that happens, there may no longer be cover for the General Assembly.

Samuel G. Howard: A native-born Rhode Islander, educated in Providence Public Schools, went to college in North Carolina and a political junkie and pessimistic optimist.