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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Weaknesses of Rhode Island gun lobby and Tea Party exposed

Lessons from Exeter for 2014
By Will Collette
When Exeter voters went to the polls on December 14 in a special recall election against the four Democrats (the “Exeter Four”) who compose Exeter’s Town Council majority, most outsiders thought they would lose. I certainly did, even though I had done volunteer work to support the Council majority against the recall.

After all, the recall was instigated and led by the Rhode Island gun lobby with help from the Tea Party, radical Tea Party state Rep. Doreen Costa and the Republican Party. Former Republican state Senator Frank Maher led the front group for the recall. And Exeter is a rural, conservative, Republican-leaning town where gun ownership is high. 

But minutes after the polls closed, the results were announced – the Democratic Town Council members beat the recall against them by a margin of 2 to 1 on a record turn-out of 40% of the Exeter electorate who came out on a Saturday during a snow storm.

Reaction to this electoral miracle has so far been muted. But the more I think about it, the more important I think this election is. The results are certainly significant to towns in South County and rural Rhode Island in general, especially Charlestown.

Costa at the March 11 Exeter meeting
The statewide implications are clear, too. The gun lobby is not as powerful as they’ve been credited, at least in Rhode Island. The Tea Party in Rhode Island has lost its once formidable clout – while they were a key part of Gina Raimondo’s political coalition to cut public employee pensions, they’re not likely to be much of a help to her in her bid to become the next Rhode Island Governor.

Rep. Doreen Costa (R-No. Kingstown) spent and lost a lot of her political capital. Though she tried to keep a low profile during the recall campaign, the Exeter Four called her out for her significant role in launching the recall (see video, starting at the nine minute mark). Costa has been widely considered a likely candidate for higher office, perhaps even running for Congress. But that now seems unlikely. Costa will have to fight to hold on to her General Assembly seat if she faces a decent Democratic opponent.

Ex Senator Frank Maher
If ex-Senator Frank Maher was looking at this recall fight as a warm-up for a rematch against Sen. Cathie Cool Rumsey to win back the seat she took from him in 2012, I have one word for Frank – faggedabaddit! He got a lot of applause at the March 11 meeting from the largely non-resident audience, but he too spent a lot of political capital.

The Rhode Island Gun Blog, which had been red-hot on the recall, went dark on the subject even before the election. In their last posting on the subject, the Gun Blog quotes the gun lobby’s attempt to blame the Exeter Four for bring the recall on themselves by “failing to listen to the citizens of Exeter.”

Then, of course, the voters spoke, rejecting the recall and silencing the gun lobby.

This “listen to the people” line was a recurring refrain coming from the gun lobby. It harks back to an Exeter Town Council meeting held last March (click here for video) on the Council majority’s effort to get the General Assembly to pass legislation that transferred concealed carry gun permitting to the Attorney General.

Exeter is the only one of 39 RI cities and towns that does not have its own police force. The State Police cover the town instead. Without a police force, the permit responsibility, which includes conducting a proper background check, devolves to the Town Clerk who does not have access to the important databases used by police to conduct the background checks. The only “law enforcement” official in Exeter is the honorary Town Sergeant, who is elderly and not computer savvy at all. He doesn’t have database access either.

The "Exeter Four" stood on principle, beat back recall
The effort by the Exeter Four to responsibly delegate gun permitting to an agency actually equipped to do it enraged the gun lobby, and they turned out around 300 people, nearly all of them from outside Exeter, to scream at the Town Council at their March 11 meeting.

Now, we’ve seen this before – indeed, we’ve often seen it in Charlestown – where an issue inflames passions and draws a fired-up crowd. Everyone wants to speak. Everyone wants answers. But state law, court decisions and town charters set rules for how meetings are to be conducted and public comments taken. Towns can, indeed must, set reasonable rules.

And they did. They set out the ground rules at the beginning of the comment period and attempted to apply those ground rules fairly and consistently. Each person who signed up to speak, spoke without interruption, despite more than a few personal attacks of the type that would make Charlestown Town Council Boss Tom Gentz swing his gavel and stop the speaker from speaking.

More than half the speakers were from out of town and included Rep. Doreen Costa and state Republican Chair Mark Zaccaria (who supported Tina Jackson’s effort to pull off a takeover of the Charlestown Town Republican Committee).

Wingnut Martha Stamp compares the Exeter Four to Nazis
Republican Tea Party matriarch Martha Stamp of South Kingstown spoke, comparing the efforts of the Exeter Four to gun confiscation and the Nazis. She was allowed to make this despicable remark without interruption.

Discussion on the Council motion continued off and on beyond the public comment period, for about an hour. Only one person who supported the Council was allowed to speak – almost – before he was hooted down by the crowd. Exeter Council President Arlene Hicks tried to maintain order as the Council worked through the rest of their agenda, despite the hooting and catcalls from the crowd. The Town Solicitor tried to explain the Council was following the requirements of state law and the town charter.

Finally the meeting was adjourned and the last words you can hear on the YouTube video posted by the gun lobby group itself to illustrate why it mounted the recall was a remark from an audience member, “Hang a rope.”

Yep, and then this group, organized by the Firearm Owners League of Warwick, registered “We the People of Exeter,” comprised almost entirely of people not from Exeter, with the Secretary of State, got people to sign the recall petition by telling them the Town Council wanted to seize their guns or, when talking to older people, that they planned to repeal the property elderly tax credit. They waged a campaign of dirty tricks (click here) but got waxed at the polls.

According to the last financial disclosure report filed before the recall election, most of the cash “We the People of Exeter” collected came from outside of Exeter, including a major gift from Charlestown gun dealer Raymond Bradley

Only one $100+ donation came from an actual Exeter resident - $100 from Joe St. Lawrence. The group’s final campaign finance report is due to be filed on January 31st. All the other high rollers were non-residents.

Over the past several years, Charlestown has seen more than its share of events that bear some resemblance to Exeter’s recent flap. We also have a large and vocal cadre of non-residents who try to sway town policy. Charlestown’s non-residents are actually treated with deference by the controlling CCA Party town officials. Generally, Charlestown’s non-residents get what they want from the CCA-controlled Town Council, the prime example being the 3-2 defeat of the proposal from Charlestown Democrats to grant permanent residents a $1000 property tax credit.

In Exeter, to many people’s surprise, non-residents were totally rebuffed by the voters, as I expect, sooner or later, we’ll see in Charlestown.

The gun lobby’s rallying cry in Exeter was “listen to the citizens of Exeter,” as if filling an auditorium with non-residents including some who threaten Council members with lynching, is somehow a sacrosanct exercise of constitutionally protected speech.

In Charlestown, we’ve seen many occasions when large numbers turn out to try to be heard. We saw that a lot of times during the long-running Whalerock dispute, where the problem was that no effective effort was made to maintain decorum and afford all the parties with due process, especially during the Zoning Board of Appeals hearings that were supposed to be quasi-judicial in nature. We also saw it during the Y-Gate Scandal, the Battle for Ninigret Park and the “Kill Bill” campaign.

When the CCA Party first took office in 2008, they pledged open government and that all citizens would be heard. The Council set out rules to make this happen, but over time, those rules have eroded to the point where they are enforced at the whim of Council Boss Tom Gentz. 

He enforces time limits on his opponents and not on his allies (or campaign contributors). He enforces the decorum rule against personal comments when his opponents say things he doesn’t like to hear but allows his supporters to slander members of the public without restriction.

But it’s a stretch to generalize too much on the Exeter experience or make overly specific comparisons between the Gun Lobby and Tea Party actions in Exeter and the Charlestown Citizens Alliance.

The Exeter recall does teach us that there is a limit to what voters will endure from special interest groups, especially those driven by non-residents. Even a conservative, gun-friendly town like Exeter will take a stand when provoked.

Two events in 2013 points to a weakened Rhode Island gun lobby. One, of course, is the Exeter recall election outcome. The other is the decision by the NRA to close down its Rhode Island chapter after charges by RI Progressive Democrats filed with the Board of Elections that charges the NRA with breaking RI campaign finance law. The NRA’s decision to dissolve their RI PAC on September 26 meant they were out of action in Exeter, leaving the job to the Warwick gun group. It also means the NRA will not be able to dole out hundreds of thousands of dollars to Rhode Island legislators.

The Exeter Four won their fight not just because they were right to take a common sense approach to gun control, but because they also ran a hell of a campaign. They mobilized dozens of volunteers, raised the campaign money they needed, stayed focused on their message, ran a great get-out-the-vote (GOTV) effort and had good opposition research proving that their opponents were not anywhere close to being “We the People of Exeter.”

It will take a similar effort to end the CCA Party’s six-year reign in Charlestown. Despite the CCA Party’s seemingly bottomless pool of non-resident campaign cash, I think the Exeter Four’s victory offers the hope that it can be done.