State House status

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  August 12, 2009

"It was a moment," said Handy, the caucus chair. "I don't know that they come up very often."

But the victory, which included partial restoration of the funds, was undoubtedly significant. Sullivan, the Coventry Democrat who negotiated on behalf of the progressives, recalls a certain amount of disbelief in that Labor Committee redoubt when it became clear that a deal was struck. "It was almost like being in the room with a bunch of Red Sox fans after they won the World Series," he said.

And the uprising, however unique, contained the seeds of something larger.

The progressives' ties to the majority leader proved vital in securing the deal. And the caucus managed to prod the leadership without threatening its authority: Fox, in a recent interview in his office, said he trusts the motives of House liberals in a chamber too often teeming with intrigue.

Keeping faith with the man who would be speaker could mean committee chairmanships and other leadership positions that would give liberals a power beyond their numbers.

And in the meantime, the budget coup has established the progressives as a force. "There is a need for the leadership, now, to consider the left," said Segal, a Providence Democrat.

But Messrs. Murphy and Fox are not the only figures who would be wise to look left. The budget coup, if a discrete event in some respects, could also be viewed as a sign of things to come.

Public opinion on abortion and same-sex marriage seem destined to catch up with the state's political class soon, particularly as a new generation of voters with live-and-let-live views comes to maturity at the ballot box.

And if the economy rebounds in the coming months, if President Obama can deliver a victory on health care, Rhode Island's power brokers may have to recalibrate more quickly than they imagined.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at


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