For Rhode Island, Is It Still "It's the Economy, Stupid?"

Aug 19, 2013

State Republican chairman Mark Smiley issued a news release Monday, taking to task Rhode Island's Democratic legislative leaders for the moribund condition of the local economy. Smiley's message -- if we can borrow a phrase from Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential run -- is: It's (still) the economy, stupid.

The GOP chairman points to how "the Rhode Island economy is still on life support, as evidenced by the unemployment rate, which actually rose in July," to 8.9 percent, up from 8.8 percent in June. Smiley goes on to indict what he calls the tone-deafness of the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly:

"A written commentary by Teresa Paiva-Weed and Gordon Fox on July 12, 2013 stated, 'We have been proud to work together to create a vibrant economic environment in Rhode Island and to encourage job creation by business.'  It further stated, 'With the economy still stagnant and too many Rhode Islanders unemployed, we came into the 2013 session with a renewed sense of urgency to build upon these recent reforms and improve economic development in Rhode Island.' "

The Ocean State obviously remains a long way from being "a vibrant economic environment."

Yet that raises another question: If legislative Democrats bear part of the responsibility, why did voters respond last November by reducing the Republican presence in the General Assembly to near-historic lows (with just 11 GOPers among 113 lawmakers, down from 18 in the previous session)?

And why haven't Republicans been able to expand their presence during the two or three previous election cycles that coincided with the Great Recession?

A chunk of the answer resides with the GOP and its failure, through multiple election cycles, to present more appealing alternatives for voters.

In his release, Smiley goes on to say voters should be agitated about a lack of urgency in trying to improve the economy:

"The 2013 session was supposed to be all about jobs and the economy and aside from a few minor tweaks they focused on social issues and calamari. So much for their renewed sense of urgency! If they spent as much time working to create jobs and fix our economy as they did on back door deals to pay 38 Studios bondholders, our state would be much better off. Now our citizens have to once again pay the price for the partisanship of the Democrats."

(FWIW, House spokesman Larry Berman, asked for a response, defends the efforts of the Smith Hill leadership, pointing to "significant restructuring of the way the state approaches economic development.  The economy does not magically turn around in a short period of time as the Republican chairman might suggest. But with the proper planning, vision and strategies in place, a foundation is being built for sustainable long-term growth.")

Rhode Island's economic woes have developed over multiple generations, and there's plenty of blame to go around between the two parties.

Yet you'd have to suspect Rhode Islanders remain quite hungry for leadership on jobs and the economy. That's probably why Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and state Treasurer Gina Raimondo consistently rank as the state's best-liked elected officials; they're perceived as facing head-on some of the state most-pressing financial issues. Expected GOP gubernatorial candidate Allan Fung has proven popular in Cranston for similar reasons.

Republicans aren't without some glimmers of hope in the General Assembly. Senator Dawson Hodgson, who overcame a contorted gerrymander to his district to win re-election, has articulated the concerns of many voters on issues like the state's disastrous investment in 38 Studios. House Minority Leader Brian Newberry's outlook (libertarian on social issues and more conservative on the economy) could be something of a model for the local GOP. And Senator Nicholas Kettle shows how a Republican in his early 20s can win election in Rhode Island.

Yet until the state GOP can sustain a more compelling slate of legislative candidates though successive election cycles, state party complaints about Democratic shortcomings on the economy seem bound to fall mostly on deaf ears.