Rhode Islanders are getting busy while supporting their favorite democrats
On an overcast night in early June, nearly 100 of US Senator Barack Obama’s local supporters crowded into the Peerless Lofts in downtown Providence, watching campaign videos, writing checks, and signing up to volunteer. They listened intently as Obama’s brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, the basketball coach at Brown University, among other speakers, described why Obama is the best presidential candidate. The excitement — the sense that an important presidential election is just around the corner — was palpable.
POLITICAL ANIMALS: While Clinton claims support from the local Democratic establishment,
Obama has the backing of Fernandez [left] and other grassroots activists.
Even though the first contests to determine the presidential nominees are six months away, and the general election is more than 16 months away, Rhode Islanders are in the thick of an already heated battle. In the last year, we’ve had visits from the Democratic frontrunners — Obama and US Senator Hillary Clinton — as well as Bill Clinton and John Edwards. These visits have helped spur more than $360,000 in presidential campaign contributions from Rhode Islanders during the first quarter of 2007.
Rhode Island was poised to make itself even more politically relevant by joining several states moving their presidential primaries up to February 5, just weeks behind contests in Iowa (January 14); Nevada (January 19); New Hampshire (January 22); and Florida and South Carolina (January 29). To the surprise of many political observers, the bill to move up the date passed the Senate, but was never taken up in the House. According to one Democratic insider, the bill died since its sponsor, Senator Leonidas Raptakis (D-Coventry), rebelled against the Democratic leadership by voting against the state budget and the override of Governor Carcieri’s budget veto. As a result, Rhode Island’s primary remains slated for March 4, 2008.
“The best-case scenario for Rhode Island is that the nomination stays competitive prior to our March primary,” says Bill Lynch, chairman of the state Democratic Party, “and then we would play an important role in a close race. The question is whether this will happen. Most people don’t think so.”
Still, even though Rhode Island, with just four, is tied for the ninth-least amount of electoral votes, the state is hardly on the sidelines. On the contrary, local Democratic political activists in the bluest of blue states are busily working even now, trying to help engineer the kind of victory that will mark the end of the Bush presidency and set a new course for the nation.
Battle of the frontrunners
The Obama for Rhode Island group raised more than just enthusiasm at its June 13 Providence event: it gathered $25,000, which, joined with thousands of other grassroots fundraising events around the country, propelled Obama to the second quarter Democratic fundraising lead, with more than $32 million. The group has continued to build its steering committee, whose 25 members include Providence city solicitor Joe Fernandez; trial lawyer Jeff Padwa; Rhoades Alderson, communications director for Providence Mayor David N. Ciciline; Hillary Salmons; Kas DeCarvalho; Sara Agniel; Eli Zupnick; Providence Councilman Luis Aponte; state Representative Joe Almeida (D-Providence); Julian Dash; Sam Zurier; and Nelson Taylor.
Taylor, a real estate agent with Residential Properties, is energized about US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s win last November and how it helped sway the balance of power in the Senate. He calls Obama the most elect-able Democrat in 2008: “He’s well educated, well-spoken, and well-rounded, yet comes from a modest melting pot American background. And charisma? He’s the John F. Kennedy of a new generation.”
Taylor answers criticism of Obama’s lack of experience by asserting, “In a time of such distrust and downright international hatred of American political leaders, we need someone who has the capacity to unite. Mere foreign policy experience is not the answer . . . To achieve peace in Iraq and with other nations, or to curb global warming at home and abroad, we need an ambassador, not just a president.”
Fernandez, who was a classmate of Obama’s at Harvard Law School and chairs the local steering committee, agrees: “I want to change the petty, divide-and-conquer politics of Washington with an approach in which we stand up for our principles but come together to tackle America’s big problems, and Obama is the best candidate to lead that change.”
Julian Dash, president of the RI Black PAC, sees Obama as someone who can live up to George W. Bush’s rhetoric — “I’m a uniter, not a divider.” “Frankly, perhaps I am one of those people in this nation who have the ‘audacity of hope,’ ” he says, “but I just can’t think of another candidate in the race who can enter the White House without the baggage of the status quo and the establishment, and who looks to put the reality of the American Dream within reach for all Americans.”
Obama’s supporters also tend to cite Hillary Clinton’s ties to the establishment. “Hillary’s too experienced in the way politics works, rather than the way it should work,” asserts Taylor. “She’s also been in the crosshairs of Republican snipers for many years. Believe me, Republicans have much more ammo stored up for Clinton than they do [for] the squeaky clean Obama.”
Still, while Obama has awakened many in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, much like Howard Dean in 2004, and Bill Bradley in 2000, Clinton has won the overwhelming support of the Democratic Party establishment in Rhode Island. She has recently gained endorsements from such political heavyweights as Whitehouse, US Representative Jim Langevin, Secretary of State Ralph Mollis, Cicilline, state Democratic Party treasurer Jack McConnell, and Democratic fundraisers Gerry Harrington, Rick McAuliffe, Don Sweitzer, Mark Weiner, and Joseph R. Paolino Jr.
Cicilline believes that Clinton “has a strong vision for America that focuses on America's critical needs, like improving public education, investing in community and neighborhood revitalization, supporting and funding programs to make communities safer, protecting children’s health, ensuring national security, and growing the economy.” He cites her intelligence as her strongest quality and says he is working with her campaign to gather endorsements from other mayors around the country; to which Cicilline adds, “I'm happy to say it hasn’t been a tough sell.”
Prominent local lawyer Jack McConnell, a long-time Clinton supporter, believes that Rhode Island progressives should rally to her campaign.
“Progressive politics plus the ability to effectuate those politics is what we need in our next president, and Hillary provides both,” McConnell says, “and Hillary has a proven record of progressive politics — she championed legal services for the poor, worked for the Children’s Defense Fund, and made health-care a central issue in this country. Her standing internationally — respected and admired — along with her willingness to stand up for what she believes in (e.g. her speech to the Beijing’s women’s conference) is desperately needed.”
Clinton also has her share of grassroots supporters, like Andy Andujar, the vice president of the RI Young Democrats and the first Latino elected to the famed 13th Ward Federal Hill Democratic Committee in Providence. Andujar believes that Hillary has what it takes to win enough Democratic and independent votes to capture the presidency: “From when she was first lady to now as a US Senator, she has always fought for human rights, more funding for public education, and she is a true believer in world peace.”
Contrary to critics who portray Hillary as a divisive figure, state Representative Elizabeth Dennigan (D-East Providence), a lawyer and registered nurse, believes that coalition-building will be an important task for the next president, and, “Senator Clinton has the most impressive record of bipartisanship and productive compromise. Whether she inherits a Republican or Democratic Congress, she will get things done.”
Can Edwards spring out of Iowa?
While national polls increasingly show the Democratic nomination to be a dogfight between Obama and Clinton, with Clinton holding a consistent 10-point advantage, former vice presidential candidate John Edwards still leads most polls for the all-important Iowa Caucus. Many political observers believe that the winner of this caucus will pick up a big boost, carrying him or her to victory in the New Hampshire primary — as was the case with John Kerry in 2004. Not surprisingly, Edwards’ supporters see a victory in Iowa and the resulting momentum as their path to victory in ’08.
In Rhode Island, the Edwards’ campaign is chaired by Providence lawyer and Housing Court judge Angel Taveras. Taveras attended the Edwards’ campaign kickoff in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and recently introduced the candidate during a fundraiser at the prestigious Carnegie Abbey club, in our own Portsmouth, where Edwards garnered more than $65,000.
Taveras, who surprised many with his strong showing in the 2000 Democratic primary for the seat vacated by US Representative Robert Weygand, says that Edwards inspires him, both as a lawyer and as a public servant. “He has the courage to speak about issues like poverty that not many politicians talk about,” Taveras says. “Senator Edwards’s life story and professional life show his commitment to the American dream and his willingness to fight for those who have no voice.”
On the stump, Edwards is famous for his “Two Americas” speech, in which he talks about growing up as the son of a mill worker and how the US has become increasingly divided into the rich and the poor. He accentuated this point by kicking off his 2008 presidential bid from New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, where he assailed the federal government’s lack of commitment to ending poverty and its horrific response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
South County labor lawyer Marc Gursky, who attended the Edwards’ fundraiser at Carnegie Abbey, is impressed with Edwards’ support of working families: “He grew up in a working-class family and he understood the value of an education. He became one of the best trial lawyers in the country. And, he’s got a longtime demonstrated history of supporting labor.” Gursky adds, “It’s important that he’s been tested in a difficult campaign and he’s stuck to his principles.”
Asked whether Edwards has stuck to his principles on Iraq, since Edwards voted to give President George W. Bush authorization to invade that country, and then later recanted his vote, Gursky says, “When he made a mistake, he admitted it.”
Going further, Edwards challenged Clinton and other members of Congress, with an impassioned address at New York City’s historic Riverside Church — where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous speech denouncing the Vietnam War — to also concede that voting for the war was a mistake. Edwards’ political principles have impressed Gursky, who worries about Hillary Clinton’s connections to Wal-Mart, where she once served on its board of directors.
Bringing up the rear
While anti-war activists are sprinkled throughout the Obama and Edwards’ campaigns, some have lined up behind US Representative Dennis Kucinich’s presidential bid. The outspoken Ohio progressive has impressed many liberal and progressive activists with his bold statements against the war, his call to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney, and his support for a single-payer health-care system.
“Kucinich is the only Democrat I would vote for, as I believe all other Democrats are in the same bed as the Republicans,” asserts Joe Clifford, a former high school history teacher from Jamestown, who is active with the South Kingstown Justice and Peace Action group. “We have a corporatocracy, not a democracy, but Kucinich breaks that mold and represents the people, and not the corporations and big donors. He has principles and is willing to stand and fight for them, and I find that so refreshing. All others, as I see it, are mere political prostitutes. Kucinich represents the people — a concept on the verge of extinction in American politics.”
While Kucinich has strong and principled positions and steadfast supporters, he has been unable to translate these into real political strength, both in his 2004 campaign for president and in the current race. It is rare for him to break even five percent in most polls.
Also lingering near the bottom of the polls, although not without their share of Rhode Island supporters, are Democratic US Senators Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Joe Biden of Delaware. While the careers of this duo have been marked by proud Democratic boldness on many issues, they have been largely unable to distinguish themselves in the eight-person field.
Biden continues to trumpet his plan to decentralize Iraq into three states, but his poll numbers and his fundraising haven’t shown much momentum. In December, Biden visited Rhode Island for a fundraiser hosted by his two prime local supporters, lobbyist Frank McMahon and lawyer Gary St. Peter. Emphasizing his foreign policy experience, he said at the time that foreign policy issues are “big-ticket items looking for grown-ups.”
Dodd, meanwhile, has campaigned on an important, yet relatively obscure issue: restoring habeas corpus rights for detainees (which were stripped by the Republican Congress in 2006). He, too, remains in single digits in the polls and has struggled to raise his profile, although Dodd picked up US Representative Patrick J. Kennedy’s endorsement this year. In offering his support, Kennedy cited Dodd’s leadership on children’s education and health-care issues, his foreign policy expertise, and his service in the Peace Corps. Kennedy has also helped Dodd to raise money, including nearly $100,000 from Rhode Islanders in the first quarter.
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who seeks to become the first Latino president in the nation’s history, has surprisingly failed to pick up any steam in Rhode Island. While Latinos have gained significant political clout locally in the last decade, no Latino elected official or activist has come forward to endorse or raise money for Richardson.
Richardson has been consistently polling in fourth place, behind the Clinton-Edwards-Obama trio, although he has recently reached double digits in Iowa. However, his lack of a national organization to organize supporters in places like Rhode Island and his recent lackluster performance on Meet the Press might just turn this presidential aspirant into a well-credentialed vice presidential candidate.
Former one-term US Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska has seemingly also failed to pick up any Rhode Island supporters. He has delighted many in the Democratic debate audiences with his candid style, but these chuckles haven’t manifested into any campaign momentum.
Six months to Iowa
With only six months until the first contest in Iowa, there is still a large pool of undecided voters who will make or break the race and who will be targeted by the leading campaigns with television commercials and mail advertising.
Andrew Morse, of the conservative Rhode Island blog Anchor Rising, says, “The fact that the campaigns have begun so early has created this weird holding pattern for people who pay attention to politics — they already know the basics about the candidates, but since the candidates have to be more focused on fundraising than message at this stage, none of the frontrunners has really stepped forward with any broadly aimed theme to say, ‘This is how I’m different.’ ”
This sentiment is shared by one undecided Rhode Island voter: state Senator Josh Miller (D-Cranston), the owner of Trinity Brewhouse and Local 121, who responded to an e-mail inquiry by saying that he will support the candidate who is the “staunchest anti-war candidate and most aggressive on universal health-care.” Miller thinks that enough differences among the candidates will emerge by September, when he hopes to make an endorsement.
With clear dislike for the Republican presidential candidates in recent elections, Rhode Islanders have been bullish about our independence from the status quo. This independent streak can also be seen in how Bill Bradley received his highest percentage of votes here during his 2000 Democratic primary battle with Al Gore.
Now, though, with Clinton, Obama, and Edward offering the greatest promise of regaining the White House, the most important task locally is building a viable Rhode Island campaign organization that can raise the huge amount of money and build the pool of volunteers necessary to run a fast-paced national campaign.
: News Features
, Barack Obama, U.S. Government, Martin Luther King Jr., More