What Chafee's pullout leaves

Sep 8, 2013

Governor Lincoln Chafee’s departure from next year’s Rhode Island governor’s campaign has scrambled the field. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay takes on the new generation of leaders likely to vy for the Statehouse.

Whatever you think of his governorship or his policies, Chafee’s decision to drop out of the race passes the torch to a new generation of Rhode Island politicians. Unless you live in a yurt or have totally abandoned following state government, you’ve probably heard of Angel  Taveras, Gina Raimondo or Allan Fung.

Yet you may not know all that much about these three elected officials, all of whom are in their forties and relative newcomers to the bruising sport that is Rhode Island politics. Soon, enough though, you’ll be seeing a lot more of these three Statehouse aspirants.

It’s likely that Mayors Fung and Taveras and General Treasurer Raimondo will all announce their candidacies for governor before the turkey is pulled from the oven on Thanksgiving Day. They all need to become better known around the state. And Democrat Taveras and Republican Fung both have some serious catching up to do in the quest for campaign cash that Raimondo has so far dominated.

On the Democratic side, a primary between Raimondo and Taveras – two of the state’s most promising leaders – will be a demographic and gender donnybrook. While the voter pool favors Taveras, it doesn’t  give him much of a boost over the energetic Raimondo, who has proven in her short career to be one of the state’s most aggressive campaign  fund-raisers.

Horse-race polling a year before a primary measures very little except name recognition. Both Raimondo and Taveras carry strong job approval numbers into the gubernatorial cycle.  Whatever the pundits and pols assert, a Raimondo-Taveras race at this point is unpredictable.

There are similarities. Both candidates are bright, hard-working Harvard University grads, who attended elite law schools. They both are serving their first term in any elected office. Victory would shatter Rhode Island political precedent; Raimondo would be the first woman elected governor; Taveras would be the first governor of Hispanic ancestry. Both hail from modest families, in sharp relief to such well-born Yankees as Chafee and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.

Call this the Ocean State version of the Hedgehog, who knows one big thing, and the Fox, who knows many things. That’s because their jobs diverge. Raimondo rules a realm that historically has been a dozy backwater of state government. But in her first year in office, she championed a historic state pension overhaul that cut benefits for state employees and public school teachers, winning plaudits from many Rhode Island voters and a business community that had lobbied for such change without success for a generation.

Taveras arguably has a more time-consuming and more difficult job, presiding over the fractious politics of the New England’s second largest city. He inherited a budget awash in red ink and was able to win concessions and pension givebacks after tough negotiations with the unions representing city workers, teachers, cops and firefighters.

The makeup of a Democratic primary favors Taveras; most Democratic primaries are low turnout affairs dominated by Providence and a few inner suburbs. About 30 percent of the votes hail from Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls, where a new generation of Hispanic voters are gaining traction.

When Will Rogers said famously that he was a Democrat, meaning that he was a member of no organized political party, he could have been speaking about Rhode Island. Our state Democratic Party is a fragile amalgam of the white collar liberals on Providence’s East Side, the pink and blue collars of the Blackstone Valley and metro suburbs and interest- group voters, including union members, social liberals and environmentalists.

A candidate can win this primary with as few as 60,000 or 70,000 of the state’s more than 700,000 voters. Unaffiliated voters can vote in either primary, which could help Raimondo counter Taveras’s strength in the cities.

Then there is money, the mother’s milk of politics. Raimondo, sitting on more than $2 million in campaign money, has a huge advantage over Taveras, who has less than $1 million. As a woman candidate, she is likely to get even more support from such national groups as Emily’s List, which vacuums up money for female candidates who support abortion rights.

Money isn’t everything in politics, but it’s a lot of things. It is difficult to see a Taveras path to victory if he gets outspent by two or three to one.

No Providence mayor has been elected governor since Dennis Roberts in 1950. It’s not for lack of trying; Buddy Cianci lost a Statehouse campaign in 1980 to Joe Garrahy and Joe Paolino lost the 1990 primary to Bruce Sundlun.

Then there is Republican Fung, the popular Cranston mayor who faced many of the same challenges as Taveras in dealing with complicated budget problems and pension obligations. A lawyer, he has a similar background as Taveras, an up from the bootstraps son of immigrants. Rhode Island being Rhode Island, Taveras and Fung know each other well; they were classmates at Providence’s Classical High School.

In national politics, Rhode Island is cobalt blue; no Republican presidential hopeful has carried the state since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide. Yet no Democrat has won a state governor’s race since 1992.  Over the years, Democrats have had bitter primaries that split the party and have resulted in GOP victories..

Fung could be the next Republican to benefit from a Democratic rift. If he could  persuade his friend Scott Avedisian, the well-regarded Warwick mayor, to join his team with him and run for lieutenant governor, the vote-rich cities of Cranston and Warwick would give that ticket a solid foundation.

The other aspirant is Ken Block, founder of the Moderate Party and an unsuccessful 2010 candidate. He is mulling a run as a Republican. The question is: can he evolve from gadfly who got less than 7 percent last time out into a serious alternative?

Raimondo, Fung and Taveras will all offer new ideas for a state wallowing in a battered economy. Over the next year, Rhode Islanders will have the chance to get to know them and make their choices. Let’s  hope the campaign will focus on issues, rather than the nasty thrust and parry that too often limns politics from the White House to the Statehouse.

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 RIPR.org