Conservatives energized for 2010 election

Providence, RI – "When we came in here it was very rough, so I've redone the kitchen and bathroom," says William Felkner, founder of the Ocean State Policy Research Institute, during a tour of his office. "I feel like I'm on a home network show. But that's pretty much the office."

Felkner founded OSPRI in 2007. Because of its improbable location, it quickly became associated with the name John Galt, a symbol of capitalist power in conservative icon Ayn Rand's novel, Atlas Shrugged.

"When we first started, people would call us Galt's gulch,'" he says. "Because we're invisible, we're in the middle of a liberal enclave, if you will, but we're good with that."

Felkner established OSPRI to challenge what he calls an abundance of groups that promote liberal, free-spending policies - like The Poverty Institute at Rhode Island College.

"Overall, we just try to help any group that's in the same battle that we are," Felkner says.

And Rhode Island's deep recession, high unemployment rate, and the state's fiscal woes are energizing conservatives, who say it's time for real political change. In the same way Scott Brown stunned Massachusetts Democrats last winter, a small but growing number of critics of the status quo are plotting to challenge Rhode Island's ruling Democratic majority, and transform the state's political landscape.

As a nonprofit organization, Felkner's institute can't engage in explicit political activity. But OSPRI produces research and op-ed pieces, and it hosts meetings by groups with the same mission, like the Rhode Island Tea Party.

Last January, at the "O" Club in North Kingstown, Tea Party President Colleen Conley described how Colorado Democrats quietly developed a coordinated strategy about 10 years ago to grab control from Republicans.

"If we all work together, we can change the face of this state just like they did in Colorado, from changing it from a red to a blue state," Conley said. "We can change Rhode Island to a more conservative, fiscally responsible state to serve the people."

Rhode Island Democrats have dominated the state legislature for 75 years. Seizing control from them remains a tall order for opponents -- and Republican Gov. Don Carcieri's 34 percent approval rating certainly doesn't help.

But as the local Tea Party prepares for its latest tax day protest at the State House this Thursday, Colleen Conley is undaunted. She's encouraged that two national conservative organizations, American Majority and the John Hancock Committee for the States, have pledged financial help for the Tea Party.

"All we're concerned about is getting this financial house in order, making Rhode Island an economically vibrant state in which businesses want to start, and families want to come, and people have jobs," she says. "All that starts at the General Assembly level."

A similar message comes from the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition, or RISC, a taxpayers' group. The RISC Business Network is a legislative campaign to encourage businesses to get involved in Rhode Island politics - and counter the influence of organized labor and other liberal activists. Campaign coordinator, Jeff Deckman, says the aim is to get the attention of state lawmakers.

"Until you can become politically relevant, impact elections, those people aren't going to listen to you," Deckman says. "That's the really unique thing about the RISC business model that we've developed."

Deckman says the RISC Business Network isn't recruiting candidates. Instead, it's waiting to see which candidates emerge for different legislative races and then it will invest in those with the strongest pro-business positions.

"We are taking a multi-partisan approach," he says. "We don't care what banner you're running under. What we do care about is whether you're pro-small business, and feel as though your way to work through the problem is to think your way out, not tax your way out. So we're going to vet the candidates. We're going to make sure they're what we call investment-grade.'"

The RISC Business Network hopes to get 1,000 small businesses to pledge up to 500 dollars each. Fifteen percent of that will cover RISC overhead. The rest will go to preferred candidates.

"Sometime in June, July, the various people who have made the pledges will be able to assess the candidates, look at what they're doing, and then decide on their own how much of their 85 percent that they have left they're going to give to which candidates," Deckman says. "It's a little bit like betting the horses."

"You know what? Welcome to the fight," says George Nee, president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO and a longtime Democratic activist. Nee says critics of the status quo shouldn't blame Democratic constituencies like unions for being politically active.

"This is democracy," Nee says. "If they believe things are not going in the right direction, that's the beauty of our country; go out and recruit candidates, go out and raise money, put together organization, and if the people decide that's the view they want to go with, that's democracy. What I get sick and tired of, quite frankly, is everybody speaking for the people.' Who are the people' they're speaking for? You're not the people until you get elected by the people and that you represent somebody."

Robert Walsh is executive director of the National Education Association in Rhode Island and another prominent Democratic activist. He says unions and liberal Democrats don't deserve the blame for Rhode Island's woes.

"You want to give us the keys to the kingdom for a while, we'll show you what good progressive taxation and business development policies can do to turn the state around," Walsh says. "We're, I suppose, a useful target for the people on the other side of the political spectrum, but the gravity in the legislature's clearly in the center."

But Rhode Island Republican Chairman Giovanni Cicione believes the local GOP will benefit from an apparent shift in the national mood. And he says energy from groups like the Tea Party and the RISC Business Network will help fuel GOP efforts.

"These are grassroots movements that create transformational change," Cicione says. "We saw that a bit with Obama's campaign, and I think we see it dramatically this year with regular folks that are showing up. These are not, you know, 100 year Republican loyalists. They are people that may not even care for the party label one way or another, but really just want to see some change. We're presenting our self as a vehicle for that change."

State Republicans actually lost ground at the State House in 2008. They now hold just 10 of 113 legislative seats. But Cicione expects the GOP to field more than the 71 candidates it ran in 2008. And this year, he says he won't be satisfied with minor gains.

Brown University surveys show that most state residents believe Rhode Island is headed in the wrong direction. That's a sentiment that conservative opposition groups are hoping they can exploit - and transform into real political change in November.