The American public, he argued, is ahead of the politicians on this. And the polling data bears him out. Last June, a survey conducted by the Democratic Mellman Group and the Republican Ayres McHenry firm found voters favoring government assistance for manufacturers by a 5-to-1 ratio. There is a "wave" building, Cicilline argues, that Washington cannot long resist.

But in a hyper-partisan Congress, where GOP Speaker of the House John Boehner must constantly mind his right flank, it is unclear that the wave will have much effect.

And Cicilline himself, by the end of our conversation, was saying that Democratic control of Congress is a prerequisite for passage of the party's "Make it in America" agenda.


Talk to a few economists and businessmen in Rhode Island, and you'll get a quick diagnosis of our state's economic woes — a poorly educated workforce and a flawed tax code for starters.

But in a state of limited means, these problems have proven remarkably stubborn. And manufacturing, it seems, has not been immune to their effects.

Consider this: even as gross domestic product in the manufacturing sector, adjusted for inflation, jumped 10 percent in New England in the last decade, it declined by almost the same amount in Rhode Island — the recession destroying the gains of the early aughts and then, cruelly, taking much more.

And for all the advanced machinery powering Astro-Med or Technical Materials, the state seems to be lagging its neighbors when it comes to the high-tech manufacturing best suited to the moment.

A December 2009 report commissioned by the New England Council found that Rhode Island was last in the region when it came to advanced manufacturing as a percentage of gross domestic product.

There are, in short, plenty of reasons to be bearish on manufacturing here; plenty of reasons to doubt that Rhode Island's factories are the answer to the state's economic woes.

But there are plenty of reasons to root for the industry, too. If the days of billowing smokestacks up and down the Pawtuxet River are no more, manufacturing is still a pillar of the Rhode Island economy.

In 2010, the sector was the fourth-largest private sector employer in the state. And the workers making data recorders at Astro-Med in West Warwick are making far better livings than the orderlies, retail clerks, and waitresses who might have toiled alongside them a generation or two ago.

The odds on manufacturing are long. But the factory — its heyday but a distant memory, at this point — may be Rhode Island's only bet.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at

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