The battle of the smallest state

By IAN DONNIS  |  February 29, 2008
Hillaryinside
DIFFERENT LANDSCAPE: Although Clinton played to an adoring audience at Rhode Island
College, she’s facing a stiff challenge in what was once considered devout Clinton Country.

The politics of the personal

The personal permutations of the presidential race in Rhode Island can be seen in people like local Obama staffer Eli Zupnick, 24, who is on leave from his job as a policy analyst for Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts.
 
Zupnick’s boss is a Clinton supporter, as is his girlfriend, Allison Kerbel, who works for the Clarendon Group, whose founder and president, Christine Heenan, is working as the communications director for Clinton’s RI campaign.
 
Kerbel’s father, Richard, is the recently hired director of administration for Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline, who after initially chairing Clinton’s local campaign, briefly reconsidered his support for her after her campaign told him, because of his ongoing tensions with Providence firefighters, not to attend a fundraiser last Sunday at Whitehouse’s home.
 
In similar ways, the Democratic battle has divided families and the staffs of some local officeholders — with the most high-profile split being Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch’s decision to support Obama, thereby differentiating himself from most of the state’s Democratic establishment, including his brother, Bill, a Clinton supporter and chairman of the Rhode Island Democratic Party.
 
Some Clinton backers, such as Whitehouse, who is chairing her Rhode Island campaign with US Representative James R. Langevin, have longstanding ties to the former first lady and her husband.
 
While Obama came to Rhode Island to campaign for Whitehouse during his successful 2006 campaign to oust Republican Lincoln Chafee, it was Bill Clinton who had appointed Whitehouse to his former post as the Ocean State’s US attorney. Even before that, when Whitehouse was a high-level aide to Bruce Sundlun during his governorship, the senator says, Sundlun was the first governor to endorse Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.
 
Whitehouse points to Hillary Clinton’s base in Rhode Island, which is particularly strong among older residents and working class voters (the state’s politically important Latino community is harder to predict). Still, it seems telling when the senator downplays the theoretical possibility that the state’s popular vote could, in effect, be wiped out if voters support Obama, and the Ocean State’s superdelegates back Clinton. Rather than giving “the Republican smear machine” seven months to gear up against a yet-to-be-determined Democratic candidate, Whitehouse says, “I think we will rally around a candidate far sooner than that.”
 
Chafee, meanwhile, who has since left the GOP, endorsed Obama in February, pointing to his anti-war stance as a telling mark of leadership, even though John McCain had stumped for Chafee here in 2006. (Another quirk, as Mark Arsenault recently noted in the Providence Journal, is how Mike Dorsey, the leader of Obama’s Rhode Island effort, steered Whitehouse’s get-out-the-vote effort here two years ago.)
 
In a reflection of the public split in the staff of some elected officials, at least three of Cicilline’s highly placed staffers, city solicitor Joseph M. Fernandez, communications director Rhoades Alderson, and director of community relations Gonzalo Cuervo, have sided with Obama.
 
Fernandez, and his wife, Emily Maranjian, a prosecutor in Patrick Lynch’s office, went to Harvard Law School with Obama, and they followed his rise from afar, including his stirring address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, as they went on with their lives.
  
“Everyone in the class thought that he was going places,” Fernandez says. When he announced his campaign last year, the couple took it upon themselves to become leaders of Obama’s Rhode Island campaign, helping to raise money and organize support when his campaign still seemed like a long shot. (Fernandez said he did not face any pressure from Cicilline to back Clinton’s campaign.)
 
The same kind of longstanding appreciation for her candidate animates Heenan, who served as a senior policy analyst on the White House Domestic Policy Council during Bill Clinton’s first term, working on health and women’s issues. The Rumford native landed the job after having worked for Clinton pal Ira Magaziner.
 
Heenan praises Hillary Clinton’s intelligence, ferocity, and commitment to the issues. Working on the Clintons’ health-care push in the early ’90s, she says, “connected me very strongly to how I feel about what an excellent president she would be.”

The final countdown
The Republican contest in Rhode Island on March 4 has been more of a sideshow, thanks to its more settled nature, although both McCain and Mike Huckabee have campaigned here, the latter on Monday, to the delight of his small, but energetic band of supporters.
 
McCain’s ascent could be political gold for House Minority Leader Robert Watson (R-East Greenwich), who has been an active part of the Arizona senator’s campaign through several election cycles, and who could conceivably wind up in Washington if the Republican wins in November.
 
Yet it’s Democratic political junkies who have more savored the rare chance to be part of a potentially important presidential vote in Rhode Island.
 
On March 20, it was Michelle Obama who connected with a crowd of more than 2000 at the Community College of Rhode Island’s Warwick campus, hitting a similar line as the one taken by Hillary Clinton four days later (excoriating the Bush administration, talking up the economic anxiety of the middle class) before making the case for her husband, citing his background as barrier-breaker at Harvard, a community activist, a state legislator, and a US senator.
 
The throng included Chafee, Lynch, former lieutenant governor Charles Fogarty, an early Obama, supporter, and union activist Patrick Crowley, but also more recent converts, such as Vin Marzullo, a one-time aide to former governors Frank Licht, Philip W. Noel, and J. Joseph Garrahy, who says that Obama’s campaign led to him change his political affiliation of 25 years, from Republican to independent.
 
“His message of unity and togetherness is critical for our country right now,” Marzullo said. “I think we need to bring people together, and Senator Obama communicates a very hopeful, inspiring, and uniting message. I think it’s more about people and community than political parties, and I think that’s what has energized young people to get involved in the political process — is his message. It’s not an empty message. It’s a message of hope and promise that we should all respect and rally around.”
 
On Sunday, it was Clinton’s turn as she extolled her experience, attacked Obama’s health-care plan, and without naming her rival, mockingly suggesting that he thinks a magic wand will be sufficient to dispose of the nation’s most powerful special interests. While the Hillary faithful loved this, it’s open to question whether it will bolster her support among Rhode Island’s undecided voters.
 
Clinton was flanked by an assortment of elected officials, including state Representative Grace Diaz, state Senator Juan Pichardo, Treasurer Frank Caprio, Secretary of State Ralph Mollis, and Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts.
 
“She’s going to pull it off,” predicted Betty Brown of Providence’s East Side, one of the faces in the crowd. “I think she’s the most electable candidate,” said J. Michael Downey, president of Council 94 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSME), the largest public-employee union in Rhode Island. “I think she’s big about the middle class and I think she will do well with labor.” He pointed to her experience, and his belief that Clinton is strongest on economic issues, adding, “I always liked her.”
 
Both sides are aggressively pursuing the typical detail work of campaigns: identifying supporters, encouraging them to spread the word, making sure that they cast a vote on March 4, and courting potential swing voters.
 
A combination of decisive results in Texas and Ohio could render what happens in Rhode Island (with 33 delegates on the line) much less important. Texas, in particular, because of its primary-caucus hybrid, is seen as offering an advantage in accruing delegates to Obama, unless he fares very poorly.
 
Yet in this watershed election season — when public interest is ramped up after the tumultuous two terms of George W. Bush, and when the Democratic nominee will either be a black man or a white woman — it seems fitting that even the smallest state will figure in the mix. 

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@phx.com. Read his politics + media blog at the phoenix.com/notfornothing.

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