Scott MacKay Commentary: In The Governor's Race, Can Taveras Raise The Money He Needs?

Dec 16, 2013

Money isn’t everything in political campaigns. Yet, it is a lot of things, explains RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay who ponders the role of campaign cash in the 2014 RI Democratic gubernatorial primary.

How much does the governor's race in Rhode Island rely on hefty campaign finance?

Jesse Unruh, speaker of the California Assembly, coined the term back in 1966. ``Money,’’ said Unruh. ``is the mother’s milk of politics.’’

It may be cliché, but it is as true in the 21st Century as it was back in Unruh’s day.  Political campaigns cost more now than ever, as politicians spend gobs of campaign cash on television commercials, pollsters, targeting voters and coaxing them to the polls.

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras is seen by voters as having done a good job running the state’s largest city. Several public opinion surveys show Taveras with the highest approval rating of any elected official in our tiny state.

While the mayor’s poll numbers look great, his campaign bank account does not. At the end of September, the last public reporting period, Taveras had about $760,000 in cash on hand in his war chest. Raimondo’s account was at $2.3 million.

Given the way Rhode Island’s campaign finance laws work, the gap between Taveras and Raimondo is even bigger. The state’s limits campaign contributions from  individuals to $1,000 per person per year, which means that Raimondo can go back to her same donor list for another $1,000 beginning in two weeks.

Unlike Raimondo, who worked in the venture capital industry and has cultivated deep-pocketed donors around the country, Taveras has no such connections. A quietly intellectual man, the mayor doesn’t drink alcohol and isn’t a typical back-slapping Rhode Island pol who revels in the relentless schmoozing required to raise money.

Taveras story is a great campaign asset. The son of Latino immigrants who rose through the city’s public schools to get to Harvard is a wonderful biography that fits perfectly with the ethnic and immigrant ballet that has forged Rhode Island’s culture and politics since the state’s founding as a haven for people from around the world seeking a better life.

But without the money to tell that story and to spotlight his record of bailing out the capital city’s red-ink filled budget,  via television, social media and at the doorsteps, Taveras faces an uphill campaign.

Peter Baptista, a fund-raising consultant who was working with the mayor, has left the campaign in the aftermath of the mayor’s purge of lawyer Matthew Jeryzk and strategist Arianne Lynch, two young politicos who are well-regarded in the state’s labor and progressive circles. The Taveras inner circle is now dominated by older men, including former House Majority Leader George Caruolo, fomer Cranston state representative and city council member Joseph DeLorenzo, City Hall chief of staff Michael D’Amico and Mark Ryan a lawyer and former top executive at the Providence Journal.

None of those men are much liked by the liberal and labor union –member base of the state’s Democratic Party. Caruolo, for example, is a smart; he too is a Harvard grad. But when he left the House in the 1990s after a falling-out with his one-time ally, House Speaker John Harwood, State House lobbyists joked that you could count the number of friends Caruolo , known for his my-way-or-the-highway-style, had at the capitol on the fingers of one hand. ``Mayor Taveras is proud to run a grassroots campaign financed by people who want a governor willing to stand up for working families,’’ said Danny Kedem, the mayor’s campaign manager. ``He doesn’t have deep Wall Street ties nor is he independently wealthy. But thousands of Rhode Islanders have contributed to him—to many of whom $10 is a lot of money.’’

That’s campaign spin and it well may resonate with voters who are sick of big money campaigns and pols who forget where they are from the day they win election. But sentiment isn’t going to get Taveras anywhere with Rhode Island’s television stations when he needs to buy commercials next September.

There is only so much love money in politics. And if Clay Pell does decide to run, his family connections could make it even harder for Taveras to raise money.

Taveras doesn’t need to be the top spender to win; he won an easy Democratic primary victory for mayor in 2010 without gobs of money. And Rhode Island political history is littered with candidates who had the most money and still lost. But it is difficult to see how Taveras defeats a tough candidate such as Raimondo if he gets outspent three to one.

Back in 2000, Taveras ran a respectable but woefully underfunded campaign for U.S. House. He lost to Jim Langevin, who holds the seat still. After the election, Taveras vowed that he wouldn’t run for office again until he had enough money to have a path to victory.

Has the mayor forgotten his own words?

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