Sun May 23, 2010
Fighting Bob Quinn and the Bloodless Revolution
By Scott MacKay
West Warwick, R.I. – Robert Quinn, a son of West Warwick, was an architect of the most momentous Rhode Island political upheaval of the 20th century.
As the Great Depression cast its grim shadow in the 1930's, Rhode Island was a state divided. There was no state in America where class, religious and ethnic antagonism ran as deep. In the words of writer John Gunther, the state's ``glacially aristocratic'' old families and a corporate elite ran Rhode Island as their fiefdom. They were Protestant, Yankee and Republican and they held fiercely to their political power long after they were a minority of the population.
Robert Quinn came of age in this era in his hometown of West Warwick, which was one of the leading textile factory centers in the nation. As a young lawyer, Quinn cut his teeth defending mill workers who had been prosecuted on trumped up charges during strikes.
Generations of immigrants from Ireland, French Canada, Italy and Portugal had worked long hours for low pay in the Pawtuxet Valley factories. But by the 1920s, their sons and daughters were tired of turning the other cheek to ethnic slights and dollar-a-day wages. They formed unions and jumped into politics.
Republicans controlled the state through a malapportioned state Senate and laws that made it difficult for the poor and immigrant Rhode Islanders to vote. In the state Senate, each community had one vote, which gave Jamestown, with a population of just 1,600, the same clout as Providence, which had close to 250,000 residents.
Quinn grew up in a family of Irish Catholic Democrats. In an oral history recorded in 1972 at Providence College, He recalled that his father ``considered it a crime for any Irishman to vote for the Republican ticket.''
The Democratic Party, too, was riven by ethnic rivalry. Irish, Italian and French Canadian immigrants eyed each other warily over boundaries of mistrust.
But as the Depression deepened, Democratic Party leaders such as Quinn and Theodore Francis Green, a liberal Yankee Democrat, worked to tear down the ethnic barriers.
In the election of 1934, Green won election as governor and Quinn as lieutenant governor.
That's when the plotting began. Control of the Senate hung on two close and disputed elections in South Kingstown and Portsmouth. The Republican controlled state election authorities declared the Republican candidates winners.
On New Year's Day, 1935, the first day of a new General Assembly session, the Democrats pounced. Jack Quinn and Theodore Green moved quickly to overturn the results of the Senate elections, giving Democrats narrow control of the Senate.
Then in 14 minutes, the Democrats executed a coup d'etat reminiscent of a Banana Republic - but without the guns -- and ended a century of Republican control of the state. After wresting control of the General Assembly, Democrats replaced the entire state Supeme Court, swept away more than 80 state boards and commissions and fired the Republican appointees who had run state government.
Quinn, who acquired the name ``fighting bob'' for his political exploits on behalf of the working class, would go on to serve as governor and as a federal military appeals judge. Green won election to many terms in the U.S. Senate.
At the outset of the Bloodless Revolution, the Democrats enacted reform legislation long neglected by the Republicans. They passed laws that set a minimum wage, capped working hours for women and children at 48 hours a week; and approved State worker's compensation and unemployment insurance.
But the Bloodless Revolution failed to make long-term reforms.
According to Brown University historian William McLoughlin, "It replaced one-party rule and party patronage by the Republicans for the same kind of single-party system by the Democrats." McLoughlin went on to say, ``None could deny, however, that at least the state was run by its majority.''
The seeds of that Bloodless Revolution were sown by Fighting Bob Quinn of West Warwick.