Dog days for the GOP
With two exceptions, Republicans in Rhode Island remain relegated to
also-ran status, and the situation is unlikely to change any time soon
by Jim Taricani
As the latest session of the General Assembly gets under way,
Republicans legislators find themselves in a familiar place -- marginalized and
largely left out of the action.
It's not that party leaders haven't tried to change the situation. When former
lieutenant governor Bernard Jackvony became chairman of the state GOP at the
start of 2000, he pledged the Republicans would run a competitive legislative
campaign, and he hired Tim Bonin, a party operative with Washington experience,
to coordinate it.
The chairman's lofty goals, however, never materialized. The GOP fielded 60
candidates -- 20 for the Senate, and 40 for the House. But in the end, the
Republicans lost two seats in the Senate, giving the Democrats an even more
lopsided majority of 44-6. The GOP picked up only two seats in the House, where
the Democrats hold an overwhelming 84-15 advantage (one seat is vacant after
former Representative Edward S. Inman III (D-Coventry) recently became
secretary of state). Republicans were also stunned by the defeats of longtime
incumbent Senator Michael J. Flynn (R-Smithfield), and Lincoln town
administrator Burt Stallwood.
Regardless of the methods, the state's perennial losing party just can't
compete with the dominating Democrats. In fact, Rhode Island's Grand Old Party
hasn't had a serious hold on the legislature, or state government in general,
since before Governor Theodore Francis Green led the "bloodless revolution" in
1935, which reduced the Republican Party to its inconsequential minority
status. But despite the numbers, Jackvony cites a few anomalous GOP bright
spots in trying to spin the dismal showing his way.
"We're happy we kept [Lincoln] Chafee, we kept Scott Avedisian [as
mayor] in Warwick, and we stopped the move to reverse downsizing," Jackvony
says. He points out that almost all of the incumbent Republican legislators won
re-election. Jackvony also gives high marks to Bonin, along with several other
local Republicans, nothwithstanding the party's lackluster performance at the
But Linc Chafee's US Senate victory clearly had a lot more to do with his
family name, his moderate political philosophy, and the way in which former US
Representative Robert Weygand was weakened by a brutal Democratic primary fight
with Richard Licht. And in Warwick, incumbent Avedisian, who inherited the job
when Linc Chafee was appointed to fill his late father's seat in Washington,
faced a political newcomer, Michael Woods, whose only claim to fame was being
the brother of actor James Woods.
With such a dearth of Republicans in the General Assembly, chances of getting
the GOP agenda passed, or even acknowledged, is difficult. State House sources
say the party is totally ineffective in blocking any piece of Democrat-backed
legislation, and that Republicans often have to compromise their ideology to
take the bacon home for constituents.
But House Minority Leader Bob Watson (R-East Greenwich), claiming credit for a
boost in educational aid and the phase-out of the excise tax, says, "the
Democrats seem to pass a lot of Republican ideas."
Across the aisle, Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere (R-Westerly),
concedes, "We certainly could use better numbers." Algiere says the six
Republican senators have a "good" working relationship with the Democrats, but
they can't help Governor Lincoln Almond sustain a veto since they lack the
necessary two-thirds margin for a vote.
The Republicans will also have a hard time finding candidates for state and
federal offices in two years. Popular Democrats Jim Langevin and Patrick
Kennedy, who, respectively, easily won election and reelection in November,
hold the US House seats. And this year's congressional races were a perfect
example of how the GOP can't take advantage of a potential opportunity for the
In the Second Congressional District, a hard-fought four-way primary cost
front-runner Langevin some money and political capital. But the Republicans
were only able to field Bob Tingle, a political novice and pit boss at
Foxwoods, who was considered by many a token candidate. In the first district,
Steve Cabral was no match for the powerful and well-funded Kennedy. The outlook
may not be much better in 2002, when the GOP will struggle to find a viable
candidate to oppose Jack Reed, the popular US senator, as well as candidates
for the five statewide offices, four of which are now held by Democrats.
The Republicans may have a decent shot at retaining the governor's seat, if
they could only come up with a well-funded and appealing candidate.
This is because the Democrats are facing a divisive primary between a handful
of potential candidates, including Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse,
Lieutenant Governor Charles Fogarty, Weygand, and once again, Myrth York. The
question remains, though, whether the Republicans will be able to find a
Only one GOP denizen sounds like a serious candidate right now, and that's
Jackvony, the party chairman, who will be stepping down in March and has
already begun to explore how to raise the money he'd need to be an effective
candidate. Other prospective candidates include former Attorney General Jeff
Pine and Jim Bennett, who unsuccessfully ran for general treasurer in 1998.
There is one rising star in the GOP -- Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian. A
long-time city councilor, he easily won a special election when his
predecessor, Linc Chafee, was appointed to fill his late father's US Senate
seat. In November, Avedisian handily beat Democrat Michael Woods in a city
that, until Chafee began his tenure at City Hall, elected Democratic mayors for
Avedisian concedes Chafee's coattails may have helped him in the special
election. But in the November election, he says, "People really looked at what
I did in the six months I was in office, and they like what they saw." Still,
if state GOP officials are looking to Avedisian to run for a higher office in
two years, they should look elsewhere. "I can hardly believe I'm here,"
Avedisian says, "and I can only think about being a good mayor, and looking
forward to running for reelection in two years."
SO WHY HAVEN'T the Republicans made any inroads in the General Assembly since
1982, when, for at least one session, the GOP had 21 senators, the result of a
lawsuit, filed by John Holmes, the flamboyant and popular former GOP chairman,
that challenged redistricting? Listen to the party partisans, and it's the same
Republicans say it's hard to recruit candidates because of the lack of
financial support provided by the party, and since many prospective candidates
don't want to face the scrutiny of what they see as an overly inquisitive press
corps. "[It's the] negative aspect of campaigning, and we are in an entrenched
Democratic era," says Jackvony. But Democratic candidates put up with the same
nosy press, and the notion that Democrats have an overwhelming majority just
isn't true. According to the secretary of state's office, there are 221,002
registered Democrats and 61,693 Republicans in the state. But neither party can
lay claim to the biggest bloc: unaffiliated voters top the charts with a count
Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University, says local
Republicans "are fighting history, poor funding, and a state that has a more
The Senate's new majority leader, Senator Bill Irons of East Providence, has a
different view, and it's shared by many political pundits. "The Republicans,"
he says, "just don't seem to have the passion to put together a hard-fought
Another widely held outlook is echoed by Maureen Moakley, a political science
professor at the University of Rhode Island. "The Democrats take care of their
key constituencies: unions and the middle class," she says. It's also no
secret, Moakley says, that organized labor does a much better job at supporting
Democrats than the GOP's natural constituency -- the business community -- does
in supporting Republicans.
Many Republicans privately grumble that Almond, especially now in his final
term, isn't doing anything to raise money or recruit potential candidates. The
governor, claiming that he helps when he can, dismisses the criticism. But West
disagrees. "I haven't seen Almond working at party building," the Brown
professor says. "The tone is set at the top, and he hasn't set that tone."
Backed into a corner in trying to explain their poor showing in General
Assembly races, Republicans invariably claim that they fare much better in
statewide races and contests for federal office. But Moakley's forthcoming
book, Rhode Island Politics and Government, tells a different story.
Since 1968, for example, there have been only two Republican governors; no
elected lieutenant governors (Jackvony was appointed to the job by Almond when
Weygand left the lieutenant governor's job in mid-term in 1996 to go to
Congress); one general treasurer; two secretaries of state; and four attorneys
John Chafee, who held his Senate seat from 1976 until his death last year,
certainly wielded significant influence during his political career. But with
Claudine Schneider, who had three terms in the US House of Representatives in
the early '80s, Chafee and Schneider are the only Republicans to have
represented Rhode Island in Congress during that lengthy period. One thing does
stand out in favor of the Republicans -- more women have run and won local and
statewide offices as members of the GOP than as Democrats. Republicans have
also done better, especially in statewide races, when the economy is bad, or
the Democrats are caught up in scandal.
"When voters are mad, they vote for Republicans," says Almond, who won twice
against liberal Myrth York. But even when the Republicans have held the top
seat in state government, the coattails haven't been there for other
candidates. In 1996, for example, Republicans held four of the five statewide
offices. But two years later, even though Almond won reelection in a landslide,
the Democrats reclaimed the four other seats from the GOP. And even in the
mid-'80s, when former Governor Edward DiPrete had the highest popularity
ratings of any governor in state history, the Republicans failed to take
control of the General Assembly, or win a majority of the statewide offices.
But there is some hope for local Republicans, at least at the General
Assembly, which is scheduled to be downsized in 2002. The House will go from
100 representatives to 75, and the Senate will be reduced from 50 senators to
38. This impending change has Republicans salivating over the opportunity to
wrest control of the legislature from the Democrats. "It's all in the
reapportionment," says GOP chairman Jackvony. "If the legislature reapportions
fairly, we have a great chance to put Republicans in office." But with the
Democrats in charge and pushing for every advantage, it's a good bet that their
realignment of legislative districts will end up in court, as it did in 1982.
Many observers believe the GOP does indeed have a chance, once the General
Assembly is reduced in size, to pick up some seats in the legislature. But it
remains difficult to find candidates. The state Republican Party is seriously
under-funded, and getting Republicans to spend their own money has been an
uphill battle, according to former GOP chairman John Holmes. The silver-haired
strategist, who is still active in party matters, says the GOP in Rhode Island
hasn't done enough to convince the independents to see things their way.
"That's where the party has certainly failed," says Holmes, who, unlike some of
his fellow partisans, doesn't buy into the belief that legislative downsizing
will be a godsend for the Republicans.
"I wish I could tell you things will get better, but I can't," laments Holmes.
Like Almond, who Holmes helped to win election, the former chairman says his
party is going to be hard-pressed to make a sizeable dent in the
Democratic-dominated legislature, unless the economy goes seriously sour or the
Democratic leadership is caught in some scandal. And if the state's general
offices are added to the mix? It will take a Republican version of the 1935
"bloodless revolution" for Rhode Island's GOP to become something more than a
tic on a Democratic dog that it can't ever seem to wag.