May Breakfast with Jack Reed and 1,000 of his friends

May 6, 2013

If ever there was a Rhode Island tradition that never wanes, it is `May Breakfast,’ that old fixture where church fellowship meets scrambled eggs, bacon and coffee. It has an old-timey feel, even when it resembles a political ``time’’ as any gathering of pols was once referred as, especially when the eats were accompanied by a campaign dollar or two.

In an age when the Internet, a pollster’s bloodless numbers and television attack ads dominate politics, a political May Breakfast, like the event U.S. Sen. Jack Reed held Sunday (May 5th) at Cranston’s Rhodes-on-the Pawtuxet, had the glow of one of yesteryear’s retail campaign events, a meet-and-greet from an era of torchlight parades and speeches delivered from the back of a flatbed truck.

For 24 consecutive years, Reed has held a May Breakfast at the cavernous Rhodes-on-the-Pawtuxet in his home town of Cranston. About 1,000 people show up. The event has become a de rigeur stop on the political circuit, especially for Democrats of all stripes. It is one event that Reps. Arthur `Doc’ Corvese, of North Providence, a strident anti-gay marriage House member, and Frank Ferri of Warwick, an openly gay representative and major supporter of same-sex marriage, both attend.

Reed isn’t the first R.I. politician to hold a May Breakfast, the ultimate in family-friendly gatherings; the late Gov. J. Joseph Garrahy celebrated the tradition with a big time at the old Rocky Point chowder hall. But Reed has carried on this tradition for almost a quarter of a century and made it a must stop.

Just about every major Democratic office holder and more than a few wannabees throng the Rhodes for every Reed May Breakfast, a good place to be seen and mingle and bask in the reflected glow of the Rhode Island Democratic Party’s most respected pol. The entire Washington, D.C. delegation showed up, as did Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent. Secretary of State Ralph Mollis was there, as well as Democrats who want his job, including outgoing party chairman Ed Pacheco of Burrillville and Guillaume de Ramel of Newport, whom the now term-limited Mollis defeated in a primary.

Reed is running for reelection next year and there is no Republican challenger in sight. Rhode Island’s senior senator has seniority and  is in line to become chairman of the Armed Services Committee if  his party holds the Senate. He won reelection in 2008 with better than 70 percent of the vote. He holds one of the very safest Democratic seats in the Senate and hails from a cobalt blue state. He is well-financed and influential within his party’s Senate caucus. And his committee assignments – Armed Services, Banking, Appropriations – make him a magnet for campaign contributions from the usual interest groups.

So Reed could have spent this sunny Sunday at home with his family in Jamestown. Or as a talking head on Meet the Press or Face the Nation or the other Sabbath television gabfests. (He reportedly turned down two national Sunday television shows because of the breakfast). But being  a Washington show horse isn’t how Reed got where he is. Paying attention to Rhode Islanders, having a responsive staff   and focusing relentlessly on the retail side of electioneering is what made Jack Reed.

A man with a conservative lifestyle, Reed married late in life to a congressional aide who is now  Julia Reed. The couple has a daughter, Emily Reed. All three were at the breakfast, as were friends Reed said he has known ``since I was in first grade.’’

Rhode Island was once known as the blue collar state that elected blue blood senators. The Roman Catholic factory workers of the Ocean State regularly sent to the senate such waspy Protestants as Green, Pell, Chafee and Whitehouse. Democrat John Pastore broke that mold when he became the nation’s first Italian-American elected to the senate.

Reed, son of a Cranston school janitor, is of Irish-American descent and is sometimes referred to as the `Irish Pastore.’ He and Pastore are the only two Catholics and the only two Rhode Islanders from modest backgrounds to win election to the senate in at least a half-century.

As was the case with Pastore, Reed is a staunch liberal when it comes to supporting government initiatives that create an opportunity society for those who weren’t born with a silver spoon but are willing to work hard, seek a good education and stay out of legal trouble.

Reed was raised at a time of stronger faith in the public sphere than exists nowadays. The Cold War consensus lent great support to public schools, parks, roads, and especially, colleges. Reed took advantage of this opportunity society, heading off to West Point, serving as an officer in the U.S. Army, and winning both a masters degree and law degree at Harvard.

In his remarks, Reed referred to the ``sensible’’ views of Rhode Island voters in an era when too many in Washington and across the nation seek to dismantle government programs and safety nets. ``What some folks, what they want to do is take apart programs that are essential to this country,’’ said Reed, to applause from the Democratic crowd.

He denounced the sequester cuts that Republicans in Washington have insisted on as the price for renewing the nation’s debt.

Republicans so far have no candidate, at least no serious candidate. It is no wonder why.