On Politics
3:24 pm
Fri October 25, 2013

Passing the torch to a new generation of RI pols

Out with old and in with the new. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay explains why that may be the theme of Rhode Island’s 2014 election cycle.

John F. Kennedy put it eloquently in his 1961 inaugural address: ``Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.’’

The Ocean State elections promise to turn friend into foe, but that happens every two years in our insular political culture. What is becoming notable as the parade forms for the 2014 is the changing of the generational guard.

While veteran U.S. Sen. Jack Reed is an overwhelming favorite to win his fourth senate election, the other statewide electoral slots feature a raft of newcomers that signal  change in Rhode Island.

It’s as if the Baby Boomers who grew up watching the World Series on sunny autumn afternoons are turning politics over to the generation brought up exclusively on night series games. The grizzled political veterans of the State House are handing off to fresh-faced novices, most with Ivy League educations, who have scant experience gathering petition signatures and planting lawn signs.

After more than 30 years in one office or another, Gov. Lincoln Chafee, 60 years old, is not running again. The three candidates seen as having the best chance to succeed him are politicians in their early 40s who are relative newcomers by our state’s standards. State General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras are two Harvard graduates who are already tossing salvos at each other in the run up to what is expected to be a very competitive Democratic primary. In the past week, Clay Pell, the 31-year old grandson of the late, respected U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, is making noises about joining the Democratic primary contest. The younger Pell is also a Harvard alum who has already served in the military, been a White House fellow and worked in the U.S. Department of Education.

In the waiting room for the winner of the Democratic primary: Republican Cranston Mayor Alan Fung, a Classical High School classmate of Taveras. Moderate Party founder Ken Block, a Dartmouth grad who has never held elective office, has also announced his candidacy.

Other new faces include candidates Nellie Gorbea, who was educated at Princeton and is  executive director of Housing WorksRI , who would like to become secretary of state. Opposing her in the Democratic primary is Guillaume de Ramel, who has a graduate degree from Columbia yet has never held elective office.

And the state treasurer’s campaign has so far attracted two candidates from outside the usual pool of aspirants:  Ernie Almonte, former state auditor general, and 30-year old Seth Magaziner, a Brown graduate with experience in the investment business, who happens to be the son of Bill Clinton’s health care guru Ira Magaziner. Former treasurer Frank Caprio, another Harvard alum, is also in the running to get his old job back.

Dawson Hodgson, in his mid-30s, taking a serious look at running for attorney general. A Republican state senator from North Kingstown, he has never run statewide.

What to make of this political churn? History tells us that predictions a year before an election are as precarious as forecasting a baseball team’s prospects based on spring training. (Red Sox fans will note that David Ortiz skipped spring training this year. It didn’t affect his home-run hitting).

President Kennedy famously said that his friend Claiborne Pell was ``the most unelectable man in America.’’  Yet in 1960, the same year JFK vaulted to the White House, newcomer Pell upset a former governor, Dennis Roberts, in a Democratic U.S. Senate primary. Pell became a beloved politician who never lost an election, serving in the Senate for 36 years.

Then in 2002, Rhode Island elected Donald Carcieri, an outsider with business experience but no political resume. He barely won election to a second term in 2006 and ran a lackluster administration that was capped by the 38 Studios-Curt Schilling disaster.

The upside of this new generation is that an economically beleaguered state is lucky that talented young people who could earn far more money in private business are willing to get involved in the messy swirl of politics.

The downside is that voters are forced to make a leap of faith at a time when our state is in serious need of strong and honest leadership. Nobody wants to be the new surgeon’s first patient or the first passenger on the maiden voyage of an airline pilot.

Outsider or insider? Fresh face or graybeard? That’s the question Rhode Islanders will decide at the ballot box, the one place left  in our state where Ivy League swell and callused quahogger are equal.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org

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