A Rough Election Night for Rhode Island Democrats Played Out At The Biltmore

Nov 9, 2016

All you needed to know about yesterday’s  election in Rhode Island  was on display last night at the Garden Room at Biltmore Hotel in downtown Providence, the ancestral home of Democratic Party election  bashes for generations.

By 10:30, the room was a morgue. Gov. Gina Raimondo was gone and U.S. Reps. Jim Langevin and David Cicilline were nowhere to be found. Seth Magaziner, the state treasurer whose family  is close to Hillary Clinton, was MIA or in witness protection. Looking for state Democratic chairman Joe McNamara? Or Democratic Sens. Jack Reed or Sheldon Whitehouse? Good luck.

I bumped into old friend Bill Rappleye from Channel 10, a veteran of many of these confabs. We looked at the hapless crowd of 25 or 30 Democrats listlessly watching CNN’s national feed, which had only depressing news for Democrats.

There were no legislative leaders or labor bigwigs around.  Not even the archaic remains of the Democratic Party organization that has held sway in the state for so many years. It was a gathering that had the smell of death about it. Even the bartenders were bored, which didn’t happen in Democratic election night parties of yore.

What little oxygen was in the room was sucked out before 11 p.m., when former state Rep. David Segal of Providence and another Democratic operative with connections to Hillary Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters sent word that it was over for her because the inside campaign computer modeling showed that Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan were out of reach.

The gallows humor aspect of all this leaked into this morning, when the ProJo ran a story, obviously written early in the evening and allowed to run in the morning paper, that had Raimondo pictured with her daughter, saying that she wouldn’t be taking a cabinet job in a Clinton administration. ``I’ve spent a lot of time with Hillary,’’ RaImondo said. ``She knows Rhode Island. She knows our people….’’

The governor went on to say that she was confident that Clinton would return her telephone calls. She’ll have plenty of time to speak with Hillary now. (Some of us remember the days when the ProJo editors would have ensured that such a story never saw print.)

The strange thing about Rhode Island’s Democratic party is that all the leaders, including Raimondo, paid lip service to Clinton. But they didn’t do anything much to help her; Bernie Sanders beat Clinton  comfortably in the state primary. And Clinton’s campaign largely took the state for granted; they didn’t spend money on television or bring big-name surrogates to the Ocean State.

What ought to concern all of the Democratic Party’s leaders is that Donald Trump did very well among working-class white voters. He captured Coventry,  Richmond, Exeter, Foster, Glocester, Lincoln, Hopkinton, Scituate, West Greenwich, Smithfield, North Smithfield and Westerly. And Trump won or did very well against Clinton in such Democratic base communities as West Warwick, Woonsocket, North Providence and in Johnston, which he carried.

It was a night when House Speaker Nick Mattiello, D-Cranston, lost on the voting machine totals to Republican Party activist Steve Frias, a young, hard-working lawyer who had never been elected to any public office.( He ran against Myrth York for State Senate on the East Side of Providence in 1992 and  was swamped.) Mattiello came out and said he was confident of eventual victory because he has enough mail ballots to prevail. So much for having a speaker with a safe district.

Maybe  Cicilline and Langevin wanted to duck the obvious questions about heading back to Washington, D.C., as members of the minority Democratic caucus for another two years.  

Another challenge for the Democrats who run the Statehouse is how to deal with the ballot question Massachusetts voters approved that will legalize recreational marijuana in the Bay State. Because most of Rhode Island’s population hugs the Massachusetts border, there is no practical way to keep legal weed out of our state.

Republican Mayor Alan Fung of Cranston won an easy reelection, as did Warwick’s Republican Mayor Scott Avedisian.  Fung was the Republican candidate for governor in 2014, losing to Raimondo. But his big victory yesterday may augur well for his political future in the state.