State House status

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  August 12, 2009

The majority leader and many of his progressive supporters in the legislature say he has little choice but to be a leader for the whole party — center and right included. But his big-tent approach suggests something less than a liberal breakthrough should he beat back challenges from Stephen R. Ucci, of Johnston, Gregory R. Schadone, of North Providence and any others who would vie for the speakership.


STRATEGIC PATIENCE

The majority leader is hardly the only figure on the left who treads lightly in a centrist legislature. The Progressive Caucus, if more willing to poke and prod, has engaged in its own brand of cautious politics at critical junctures.

With Governor Carcieri sure to veto any gay marriage bill that would land on his desk, for instance, liberals have been reluctant to push hard for the measure. They say moderate legislators, nervous about voting on a controversial bill, will have little incentive to go out on a limb if the same-sex marriage legislation seems destined to fail. Better to wait for the election of a new governor amenable to the cause.

Progressives have taken a similar approach to electoral politics. The caucus, unwilling to alienate moderate and conservative colleagues, has made it clear it will not back challenges to sitting legislators — preferring, instead, to protect its own and recruit candidates for vacant seats.

The strategy makes some sense for a small faction hoping to build coalitions with colleagues issue by issue. "I would not appreciate one of the Neanderthals backing someone else in my district," said State Senator Charles Levesque, a liberal Portsmouth Democrat, making affectionate reference to his more conservative colleagues.

But the approach means a slow build for a progressive contingent that may have reached its pinnacle some 16 years ago, when liberals cobbled together 39 votes in what was then a 100-member House for the left-leaning leadership team of Russell Bramley for Speaker and Nancy Benoit for Majority Leader.

Representative John Harwood, forging an alliance with Republicans, wound up winning the speakership that winter. And progressive influence waned in the years that followed.

Liberals drifted out of the legislature. Candidate recruitment lagged. "A lot of progressives ended up in the dissident category," said State Representative Edith Ajello, a long-serving liberal Providence Democrat.


REVIVAL

But if the progressives have remained outsiders, the last few years have amounted to a comeback of sorts.

In the state Senate, the arrival of Cranston Democrat Joshua Miller has buttressed a veteran, liberal cohort. The House has seen an infusion of progressive talent: Arthur Handy, David A. Segal, Christopher M. Fierro, Raymond J. Sullivan, Jr., and Edwin R. Pacheco, among others. And the new left, whatever its limitations, has managed to flex its muscle on occasion.

The signature moment came this spring when about a dozen progressives holed up in the House Labor Committee room, amid powder blue curtains and bound volumes of state law, and negotiated changes to the sort of major spending bill the chamber's top brass normally controls with an iron fist.

Some liberal legislators caution against reading too much into the mini-coup: it was built, after all, around plans for a sudden, mid-year elimination of $55 million in aid to cities and towns that provoked an unusually broad rebellion among rank-and-file legislators — and gave the progressives an unusual bit of leverage.

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