Of course, even accounting for Chafee's quiet quirkiness, it is hard to explain his signature on the voter ID bill, which attacks a phantom menace — voter fraud — and threatens to disenfranchise some of his supporters.
But the measure had to clear the General Assembly before it could land on his desk. And that meant winning the speaker's assent. Here, again, the left suffered from outsize expectations.
Fox may be a progressive at heart. But his rise in a big-tent Democratic Party speaks to his pragmatic politics. And sources say the voter ID bill was a reward for the conservative wing of the speaker's leadership team, particularly Representative Jon Brien of Woonsocket.
If progressives had counted too much on Chafee's adherence to the laws of politics, then, they had put too much faith in Fox's ability — and willingness — to break them.
Indeed, Fox insists it was the rigid reality of the House and Senate vote count — the most basic of political calculations — that led him to the painful decision to drop the gay marriage bill in favor of a civil unions compromise.
If the left was counting on champions constrained by personality or politics, centrists and conservatives had the ablest politician of all in their corner: rookie Treasurer Gina Raimondo, architect of the pension overhaul.
Raimondo's master stroke, as one long-time observer of state politics told me, was in being the "un-Scott Walker" — that is, studiously avoiding the tactics of the Wisconsin governor who waged a scorched-earth attack on public sector unions.
She refused to demonize labor — frequently voicing sympathy for state workers who stood to lose long-anticipated benefits — and insisted the pension problem was, above all else, a math problem.
The straightforward approach deprived labor of an easy target and helped turn Raimondo into a media darling. But even the savviest of pols may have fallen short if not for our historical moment.
The Great Recession and the public sector's fiscal trauma — Exhibit A: bankrupt Central Falls — created the environment not only for pension reform, but for some of the cuts in services for the homeless and developmentally disabled that made their way through the General Assembly.
Indeed, Rhode Island — with its persistently high unemployment rate — proved particularly fertile ground for the sort of truth-telling, take-your-medicine message proffered by Raimondo and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, the two most popular politicians in the state, according to a recent Brown University poll.
But if there were structural impediments to a progressive surge, it seems clear that the left had its share of problems. Gay marriage advocates, riven by internal division, were adrift for too long and outmaneuvered at the State House by the Catholic Church.
The General Assembly's Progressive Caucus, always a loose assemblage, experienced significant turnover in 2011. And as one long-serving liberal legislator laments, lefty legislators failed to leverage the gay marriage defeat into concessions on other bills. That is, they failed to exact adequate changes to, say, the voter ID bill as the price for marriage equality's death.
ON THE TRAIL
But failure is, in some ways, in the eye of the beholder. Civil unions, if disappointing, are still progress. Indeed, no state legislature has ever jumped straight to same-sex nuptials.