But no one seemed fully awake to the possibilities. Certainly not the outside groups. "There was a lot of concern," Brock remembers, "but there was also a sense of 'this isn't actually going to move.' "
Rhode Island politics has long been a cipher for national observers. The state may look as blue as neighboring Massachusetts, but the Ocean State's deep conservative streak sets it apart.
And the Democrats' stranglehold on power insulates the party from traditional partisan concerns: voter ID may help Republicans, but in Rhode Island, that's all but irrelevant.
There is, too, something intensely parochial about the state's politics. And that was in full view here. Several of the legislators I spoke with seemed puzzled by the national attention the bill has attracted. And they argued that it should be evaluated in a local frame alone.
"What other states do is what other states do," says O'Neill, the whip. "It's a Rhode Island story."
It is, in a way, a noble approach. Why let national politics dictate what is best for Rhode Island? But for opponents, the General Assembly's parochialism had descended into myopia: legislators were relying too heavily on gut and personal experience, and not enough on data.
There are no documented cases in Rhode Island of the voter impersonation fraud the bill aims to stamp out, critics noted. And a small collection of shaky anecdotes, they said, didn't justify the kind of sweeping voter ID bill that could disenfranchise thousands.
Those arguments didn't seem to be making much of a dent with rank-and-file legislators. But there was still hope. At the State House, the big decisions are made by a handful of people — legislative leaders and a governor who, by dint of position, are more in touch with the national political scene.
Perhaps a few well-placed calls from a few well-placed people could make the difference.
Congressman David Cicilline may have had public policy concerns about the voter ID bill. But he had some political interests at stake, too.
He was serving as mayor of Providence when he ran for Congress in 2010. And he declared the city in "excellent" fiscal condition during the campaign. So when his City Hall successor, Mayor Angel Taveras, reported a "category 5 hurricane" on the city's books, Cicilline's approval ratings plummeted.
He would need every vote he could get, it seemed, to win re-election.
But Cicilline's entreaties to his old ally Speaker Fox, however framed, were not enough. And by the end of the legislative session, with the bill poised for a vote, anxiety had spread to the highest reaches of the Democratic party.
Several sources, including Brien, say Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat who serves as chair of the Democratic National Committee, called Fox the night before the vote in a bid to squash the bill.
Voter ID, by then, was peaking as a national issue. In recent weeks, a half dozen Republican governors around the country — including conservative stars Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Rick Perry of Texas, and Nikki Haley of South Carolina — had signed bills into law.
And Wasserman Schultz was in a war of words with the GOP; in mid-June, she was forced to apologize after arguing in a television interview that Republicans "want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws."