Scott MacKay Commentary: Connecticut vs. Rhode Island, Less Than Meets the Eye?

Mar 23, 2018

Rhode Island and Connecticut are two bordering New England states whose residents have usually gotten along. But RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay wonders has noticed that relations have gotten chippy lately.

On a map, Connecticut and Rhode Island are joined at the hip. Two tiny  New England states whose residents have long kept their resentments and rivalries muted.

The peaceful coexistence ended with the dawn of 2018, when the editorial scribblers at the Providence Journal, fired a salvo at Connecticut. The editorial described Connecticut as a debt-ridden mess, an economy that has driven away the middle class and pushed corporations to flee. The editorial urged Gov. Gina Raimondo to see if she could poach some jobs from Connecticut to Rhode Island.

The editorial writers at the Hartford Courant, shot back with an “Et tu Rhody” piece slamming the Ocean State as a sea of economic doldrums with a “legacy of corruption that not even Connecticut can match.”

Perhaps it’s time for some bi-state therapy, since both get their inferiority complexes from living in the shadows of real cities –Boston for Rhody and New York for the Nutmeg State. In a nation that worships big, both are small.

Their histories are similar. Hartford and Providence were both founded in 1636 and led by preachers – Connecticut’s Thomas Hooker was a Congregationalist Calvinist; Rhode Island’s Roger Williams, a Baptist who promoted the separation of church and state.

Both states were early  industrial powerhouses fueled by Yankee tinkerers .  Sam Slater famously started the American Industrial Revolution in the Blackstone Valley. Connecticut had Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin.

Rhode Island has Brown University;  Connecticut  Yale. Both states have minor league Kennedys;   Ted Kennedy Jr., is a Connecticut state senator, his brother Patrick served as a Rhode Island Congressman.

Hartford and Providence were both hollowed out after World War II, when the manufacturing base of both cities fled in search of cheaper and more malleable workers. The wealth of both moved to the suburbs, with Connecticut’s Gold Coast wealthy earning their yachts commuting to Manhattan. Rhode Island’s upper classes fill the morning trains to Boston. Gina Raimondo worked at a Boston venture capital firm before she got into politics.

The 20th Century politics of both states developed during the Depression when Ivy League Yankee professors led Democrats to the governorship; Wilbur Cross in Connecticut and Theodore Francis Green in Rhode Island. The first woman governor of the Nutmeg State was Ella Grasso, an Italian-American; the first Ocean State female governor is Raimondo, an Italian-American.  Connecticut and Rhode Island were the only two states that never ratified Prohibition; the swells of Greenwich and Newport and the Catholic workers of Waterbury and Woonsocket liked their drinks.

Raimondo recently ramped up the rivalry. She described Rhode Island as an “island of rationality” and skewered Connecticut as a place of “blossoming debt as far as you can see.”

This prompted the Courant to write another editorial comparing the two states.  “Forbes recently ranked (Rhode Island) the 43rd worse state to do business. Connecticut ranked number 42. The states switched places from last year. How about that?”

Hartford is a basket case, on the precipice of bankruptcy. Providence is doing a bit better, but its employee pension system is a river of red ink.

The best blue-collar jobs in both states are making weapons of war at Electric Boat in Groton and Quonset Point. The economies of both are increasingly devoted to separating tourists from their money at Connecticut casinos or Newport mansions.

Political Corruption? Take your pick.  Gov. John Rowland or Providence mayor Buddy Cianci? It’s not for nuttin that one is known as Rogues Island, the other as Corrupticut.

Neither state has a major league sports team; loyalties are split between the Yankees and Red Sox, Patriots and Giants. Connecticut usually has better college basketball, yet the University of Connecticut just hired its new basketball coach away from the University of Rhode Island.

A while back, General Electric announced it was moving its headquarters out of Connecticut. Gov. Dan Molloy tried to keep them in his state; Raimondo tried to lure them to Rhode Island. The company moved to Massachusetts.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:45. You can also follow his political reporting at our “On Politics” blog at RIPR.org