The pension bill, if a stinging defeat for labor, got the support of several progressive legislators who worried that mounting retirement costs would eat away at the government's ability to deliver on education and services for the poor.
And the left's disappointment with Chafee must be tempered by an appreciation for what he has delivered. When a fight over antiabortion language, for instance, blocked General Assembly approval of a health care insurance exchange — a critical feature of President Obama's health care reform — Chafee set one up by executive order.
Looking ahead, progressives see some hope for an improving climate. There is talk, on Smith Hill, of revisiting the cuts to the developmentally disabled. And while more prominent issues — like gay marriage — have little chance of going to a vote in an election year, the election presents some opportunities of its own.
Same-sex marriage advocates, more organized now, are working with national gay rights organizations to build a sophisticated candidate recruitment and get-out-the-vote effort. And if they follow the lead of marriage equality organizers in New York and elsewhere, they will target opponents with messages on an array of issues — not just same-sex nuptials.
The unions flexed some electoral muscle of their own in 2010, taking out several unfriendly legislators in Democratic primaries. And they will surely be back on the campaign trail. "This is the season for making lists and checking them twice," says Walsh, the labor leader.
In the long run, he hopes the easing of the recession — whenever that comes — will nudge the state left again. But Walsh worries, aloud, that there may be a more permanent shift in Rhode Island's Democratic politics afoot — a reordering of priorities in an age of austerity.
"It was a disappointing year, no doubt about it," he says, sounding a bit resigned. "It's got a lot of people thinking big-picture thoughts."
David Scharfenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.