Quick to blame Democrats, the local GOP can’t seem to find candidates or a long-term plan of its own
As a leading critic of the status quo at the General Assembly, Providence Journal op-ed columnist Edward Achorn has made repeated reference to the apparent “learned helplessness” of Rhode Islanders. In a 2005 piece, he defined this as “a depressive state brought on by repeated blows to the psyche. When people (or, in laboratory experiments, animals) start believing that nothing they do matters, they stop even trying to have their way.”
Yet when Achorn used a November 6 column to ask whether Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s improbable rise as a Republican in a Democrat-dominated state offers a lesson for Rhode Island, the columnist succumbed in part to his own diagnosis.
“It is notoriously difficult, of course, to change any state’s political culture,” he wrote, offering a sense of defeat about the local prospects for reform. “Old habits and voting patterns are almost impossible to break. Special interests amass power and send out tentacles to control every nook and cranny of the political process.”
Granted, the advent of a competitive GOP presence in the General Assembly is unlikely to happen overnight. Yet Rhode Island Republicans, who — like their counterparts elsewhere — tout their enthusiastic belief in personal responsibility, often remain their own worst enemy when it comes to establishing a greater profile in the legislature.
We have to go back almost 25 years — to 1983 — for the last instance of significant GOP gains on Smith Hill. During a special election that year, voters, infuriated by a badly botched Senate redistricting plan that caused $1.5 million in taxpayer costs, tripled the number of Republican senators, from seven to 21.
In the time since, Republicans have failed at the most basic tasks of political organizing. As Brown University political science professor Darrell West recently noted on WJAR-TV’s 10 News Conference, “You can’t beat somebody with nobody,” and the Rhode Island GOP has failed to run candidates in a large percentage of legislative races in recent years.
After making a more aggressive push that yielded modest gains in 2004, the party took the proverbial two steps back when Governor Donald L. Carcieri, who barely gained reelection last year, focused more narrowly on his own race. To make things worse, in a big Democratic election season, Republicans majorities were undone on town councils in Foster, North Kingstown, Richmond, and Narragansett, and the councils in Foster and Warwick went entirely Democratic.
While incumbents certainly enjoy advantages, the Rhode Island GOP has played a leading role in its own marginalization. “The party does almost nothing to support its candidates,” West says. “They provide very little in the way of financial support. They’re so disorganized there isn’t even a coherent platform around which they can rally.”
Yet instead of recognizing the failure of Republicans to run a competitive slate of legislative candidates in successive election cycles, many party supporters prefer, essentially, to whine about the ruling Democrats on Smith Hill.
Republicans, heal thyselves
As the news broke in Saturday’s ProJo that Rhode Island’s deficit for the next fiscal year has more than doubled — from $200 million to between $400 million and $450 million — this ritualized criticism of Democrats was already well under way.
A case in point was the November 1 broadcast of RI-PBS’ A Lively Experiment. WPRO-AM talk-show host John DePetro found a largely sympathetic reception among his fellow panelists when he blamed the nexus of organized labor and legislative Democrats for the state’s most serious problems.
In a subsequent interview, DePetro says he doesn’t hold Republicans responsible for the party’s meager presence in the legislature. He likens the GOP to a Pop Warner team taking on the New England Patriots, or a mom-and-pop store competing against Wal-Mart. “They’re up against too much of a well-organized, well-financed team,” says DePetro, who sees Operation Dollar Bill, US Attorney Robert Clark Corrente’s ongoing probe of legislative influence-peddling, as the best hope for remaking the partisan equation.
The only dissenting voice during the Lively Experiment broadcast came from Keith Stokes, executive director of the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce, who suggests that continually slamming Democrats is counter-productive, in part since harsh rhetoric discourages people from getting involved in politics.
Stokes, whose ancestors include the first blacks elected (as Republicans) to the General Assembly and to the city council in Richmond, Virginia — the former capital of the Confederacy — calls himself “very sensitive to the importance of having a strong Republican Party.”
But when he thinks of philosophical descendants of Abraham Lincoln, he names one person who is deceased (John Chafee) one who recently lost office (Lincoln Chafee), and two others long since departed from the political scene (former US Representatives Claudine Schneider and Ron Machtley). Stokes certainly doesn’t include Richard Nixon, whose “Southern strategy” used white discomfort with growing voting participation by blacks to seek advantages for the GOP.
In the 30-plus years since Nixon left office, the national Republican Party has moved to the right, and moderates — like Lincoln Chafee, who lost his US Senate seat last year because of George W. Bush’s unpopularity in Rhode Island — are a dying species. Rhode Island’s tiny GOP, meanwhile, which once operated as the state’s good-government party, is weakened by the divisions between its moderate and conservative elements.
State Republican Party chairman Giovanni Cicione, who started in his volunteer post about seven months ago, was reluctant to discuss the party’s responsibility for its current place, although he talks a good game about efforts to ramp up a competitive slate of legislative candidates for 2008 (more about this later).
Cicione says he is spending most of his time as chair “working in minority communities, immigrant communities, to let people know there’s an option,” to run as a Republican. “I think that’s going to be an appealing message for a lot of people” who wouldn’t normally consider themselves part of the GOP.
But it remains an open question if Cicione’s embrace of the rhetorical battle — referring to Democrat-aligned anti-poverty advocates as “poverty pimps,” for example, and calling unions “the last vestige of institutional racism in this country” — does more to help or hurt the party.
Cicione is unapologetic. After labor interests called for his ouster, he used an op-ed in Saturday’s ProJo to push the envelope, asserting, “The labor movement has become the most offensive special interest in Rhode Island history.”
But Brown University’s Darrell West thinks that similar remarks “hurt Republicans, because they associate the party with an extreme message and they distract from efforts to close the budget gap. I think the Republicans need to stay focused on the budget.”