Scott MacKay Commentary: Democratic Gubernatorial Candidates Start Taking Off The Gloves

Jul 25, 2014

The televised air wars have started in the Democratic primary for governor. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay wonders if voters are paying attention yet.

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and State Treasurer Gina Raimondo have begun trading jabs as the fight for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination heats up.
Credit Elisabeth Harrison / RIPR

As the weeks dwindle towards the September primary, the advertising rhetoric among the major Democratic candidates has heated up. This is especially true of the campaigns of Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo.

After months of elliptical jabs and measured messages, Taveras and Raimondo have engaged each other over the economy, the overarching issue of this campaign. In a tough spot featuring an unemployed ironworker, Raimondo used a surrogate to blame Taveras for unemployment in the capital city.

``I’ve hardly worked in the last three years,’’ grouses the ironworker, Frank Scialzo. He says that things were going well in Providence until ``mayor Taveras  got elected.’’ The spot states that Taveras raised commercial tax rates, driving jobs and business from the city.

Taveras shot back with his own ad. His first comeback was to accuse Raimondo of negative campaigning. ``My opponent wants to throw stones from on high,’’ the mayor says, speaking directly to the camera. Taveras then jumps back to his message of bailing out the sinking ship that was the city’s budget red ink when he took over from former Mayor David Cicilline in 2011.

It’s ludicrous to blame Taveras for Providence’s or the state’s economic malaise; he hasn’t been in office long enough to do much of anything good or bad for the business climate in our small corner of southeastern New England.

Yet this we know: all’s fair in love, war and Rhode Island politics. Raimondo’s launch of a negative ad may be little more than trying to get Taveras enmeshed in a television ad spending contest during the doldrums of July. She has much more campaign cash than he does. Any attack ad that creates a t.v. thrust-and-parry between the mayor and general treasurer is sure to drain Taveras’ campaign fund faster than Raimondo’s. The other typical rationale for negative television spots is an attempt to dirty up and opponent who sports high job favorability ratings.

Campaigns never divulge their strategies or subplots. So far, most of the television messages spun by Taveras and Raimondo have been positive. A constant trope of Rhode Island governor campaigns is for a candidate to give the impression that they are just like ordinary citizens who care about people like you.

Neither Raimondo nor Taveras are like us. For one thing, they are both Harvard graduates who also graduated from prestigious law schools. Very few voters between Napatree Point and Woonsocket’s North End have such credentials.

So Raimondo’s advertising highlights her family and her Rhode Island roots. Taveras does the same, touting his Head Start to Harvard life story, which has become a cliché. He is also shown in an ad strolling past the Coffee Depot in downtown Warren, boasting that he’ll ``take Main Street over Wall Street any day.’’

Raimondo also attempted to blame Taveras for shootings in the city. She said cuts in the police department  have led to more crime. Well, given what he inherited, Taveras had to trim personnel costs. The only other option would have been to raise taxes even higher. Running the state’s largest city on a day-to-day basis is a much  tougher job than presiding over the dozy backwater of state government that is the general treasurer’s office. There aren’t any gangs armed with weapons at  the well-protected Statehouse.

Even though things are beginning to get chippy in the Democratic contest, we are nowhere near the nastiness of campaigns of yore, such as the Anthony Solomon-Joe Walsh donnybrook of 1984, the 2006 Republican U.S. Senate primary between Steve Laffey and L:incoln Chafee or the Myrth York- Don Carcieri gubernatorial gang fight of 2002.

The third serious candidate is Clay Pell, the grandson of the revered Sen. Claiborne Pell. Pell has stayed upbeat, using television to play up his assets, such as reminding voters that he is the lone major candidate to serve in the U.S. military and in the Obama White House.

Pell’s camp  is clearly hoping that the  Taveras-Raimondo air war escalates. This could only help Pell, who seems to have nearly unlimited access to campaign money. He has had to spend a lot to erase the rocky start of his quest and the infamous media reports about his missing car.

``It has cost Clay Pell $1 million to get voters to forget about that Prius,’’ says Joseph Fleming, pollster and political analyst for WPRI-Channel 12.

Pell has a narrow path to victory, but if he wants to dump $4 million or so into the campaign, he’ll be a force. What isn’t known yet is whether his candidacy acts as a spoiler, cutting into Taveras support among younger, liberal voters, or whether he has a legitimate shot at victory if the mayor and general treasurer cover each other in mud between now and Labor Day.

There hasn’t been a Democratic gubernatorial primary with three major aspirants since 2002, when then-Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse, State Rep. Antonio Pires of Pawtucket and former Providence state Sen. Myrth York battled for the nomination. Pires was underfunded but still drew enough votes from Whitehouse that the election was won in a squeaker by York.

The strange aspect of this campaign so far has been the lack of intensity. Organized labor, a foundation of the Democratic Party, is split among the three serious candidates. Liberals are divided.  The race is not on the tip of every political tongue; if anything the Buddy Cianci return to the Providence mayoral campaign has overshadowed the governors’ campaign in the media over the last month.

It is the high season of summer, a time in these parts for backyard cookouts, beach trips under sunny skies and voter tune-out of the grittier side of campaigns. Is the apathy a temporary summer condition, like humidity?

Recent Democratic developments all point one way: to a furious campaign in late summer as voters are courted for the September 9 election.

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 Scott is on vacation next week.