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Mission possible: The GOP targets Smith Hill
In a time of Democratic ethics scandals, Rhode Island Republicans have a prime opportunity to incease their meager ranks in the General Assembly
BY IAN DONNIS

FROM HER SIXTH-floor office at Citizens Plaza, Patricia Morgan has a birdís eye view of Providence City Hall. As chairwoman of the Rhode Island Republican Party, Morgan can envision any number of reasons why it would be beneficial for the GOP to increase its perennially meager ranks in the General Assembly. But when asked whether Republicans will attain enough legislative seats this fall to sustain a veto by Governor Donald L. Carcieri, Morgan demurs, saying, "Oh, thatís an impossible thing to ask me."

When it comes to their presence in the legislature, Rhode Island Republicans have been down so long that activists like Morgan canít be blamed for not knowing whether the partyís fortunes will rise later this year. Even though a series of ethics controversies have buffeted the Democrat-controlled General Assembly in recent months, causing torrents of unfavorable publicity and abruptly upending the order of the usually more staid Senate, the dominant party is so strong that anyone who underrates it does so at their own peril.

That said, this much is clear: if the GOP ever had a golden opportunity to increase the number of Republicans in the House (12 of 75 seats) and Senate (six of 38), this year marks the best chance in a generation.

Republicans havenít made major legislative inroads since a 1983 special election, when voters, angered by a badly flawed Senate redistricting plan that ended up in federal court ó causing a six-month delay in elections, lame duck representation, and a $1.5 million tab in court and election costs for taxpayers ó tripled the number of GOP senators, from seven to 21. Five other Republican candidates missed winning their Senate races by 208 cumulative votes. John Holmes, who, as state party chairman, engineered the Republican gains, credits the victories to an energetic statewide campaign. "We talked about redistricting, which is about as exciting as deceased grass," he notes dryly. "We talked about it every single day. We talked about redistricting as a byproduct of one-party rule. We were honest enough [to acknowledge that] if the Republicans had been in control for tens and tens of years, Republicans might have acted the same way."

If redistricting can spark an effective statewide movement, it would seem relatively easy for a band of Republican rebels to mine the historic imbalance in the General Assembly ó a situation that dates to the "Bloodless Revolution" of 1935 ó not to mention the ongoing fallout from Democratsí ethics quandaries.

Indeed, in a preview of the GOPís forthcoming campaign message, Morgan says, "If people in Rhode Island are voting against Republicans because of [their dislike for George W. Bush or other national Republicans], theyíre not getting the point. The 85-15 equals corruption," she says, referring to the approximate partisan split in the legislature. "The 85-15 equals the increased budget deficits. The 85-15 equals special interests swarming throughout the State House." Republicans, she says, plan to target "those leaders in the General Assembly who have violated the trust of the people."

Such rhetoric hasnít gone unnoticed by Democratic Party chairman Bill Lynch. After Morgan recently called for the resignation of House Majority Leader Gordon D. Fox, Lynch issued a news release, asking Morgan "to cease the political witch hunt," and he faulted her for playing fast and loose with the details of Foxís acknowledged conflict of interest. ("When the Democrats canít defend their actions, they attack me and thatís all that is," Morgan responds. "The Democrats have a hard time understanding what an ethical crime is.") Lynch, meanwhile, went on his own offensive in late January, filing a complaint with the state Board of Elections over Carcieriís donation of $1454 ó $454 more than the legal limit ó to an unsuccessful candidate for a House special election last year.

Although some of this sniping represents politics as usual, it might also signify an early phase of the Rhode Island GOPís drive to reinvent itself as a more viable political entity. With more than four months until the filing deadline in June, Republican candidates are prepared to run for about a third of the 75 House and 38 Senate seats, "and," Morgan says, "If we could get another third, Iíd be happy." Considering the historic also-ran condition of the state GOP, this fledgling field of candidates suggests some meaningful short-term progress.

BY THE TIME when Morgan, a financial consultant at Smith Barney who served as Carcieriís West Warwick campaign chair, assumed her state party chairmanship in March 2003, the party was "moribund," as she freely admits. Former governor Lincoln Almond, who served from 1995-2003, "was disinterested in the party," Morgan says. "There was no organization. People had no faith in it, didnít want to work for it anymore," and the party was in debt. "We really kind of started at ground zero."

Morgan, an Ohio native, came to Rhode Island when her husband was assigned to the Naval War College in Newport in 1976, and she brims with the certitude of a true believer. The daughter of a union tire builder at Firestone, she became a Republican convert at Kent State University, attracted by what she describes as the GOPís emphasis on personal responsibility and fiscal conservatism. Although even conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and Club for Growth are expressing concern about the Bush administrationís profligate ways, itís not exactly a stretch to share Morganís view that utter dominion by one party over another will foster certain unhealthy excesses in the body politic.

"Iíve always liked the design of modern zoos, where they try to put the zebras and the lions within sight of each other across a moat, so that each one is made more alert by the otherís presence," notes H. Philip West Jr., executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, a nonpartisan group that doesnít endorse political candidates. "I think one of the weaknesses of Rhode Island culture, as long as Iíve watched it, is that there has never been a serious threat at the legislative level that the Republicans would even approach a veto-sustaining number, much less gain control of the chamber." Referring to the possibility that a majority part could lose control of the House or Senate, West adds, "I think thatís a healthy thing for other parties, to always be alert to the danger of being picked off if they ignore the public interest."

So, thanks to Democratic ethics scandals and a more energetic Republican governor in the form of Carcieri, will the Rhode Island GOP make some significant gains this fall?

"I do think this is fantastic opportunity for the Republicans," says John Holmes, who, after serving as party chairman from 1981-86 and 1992-96, is no longer closely involved in the state party. "And I would imagine that with the popularity of Governor Carcieri and a party that is willing to really roll up its sleeves, this could be ó could be ó a repeat of the 1983 election. Iím not going to bet the house on it, but it could, in fact, be the case."

THE REPUBLICANS may be on the warpath, but Bill Lynch isnít exactly shaking in his shoes.

To Lynch, chairman for the last six years of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, Republican complaints about the evils of one-party rule amount to so much whining about the GOPís inability to be competitive. Referring to grousing that single-party control is a recipe for some of the controversies that have recently tarnished the legislature, Lynch says, "They say that because they canít get elected. I would expect them to say it, but to me that is very condescending and insulting to people all across the state of Rhode Island. If you look at that statement, what those Republican leaders say is that weíre smarter than the average person in Rhode Island. People in Rhode Island take their vote very seriously . . . There are elections. The Republicans would have you believe theyíve been prevented from participating in the political process."

Indeed, by failing to field a critical mass of candidates in legislative elections, the state GOP bears much of the responsibility for its own sorry state. In the í80s, the gains of the 1983 special election were eroded when the state party switched its focus to more prominent state and federal offices. And although the state banking crisis of the early í90s highlighted conflicts among some Democratic legislators, the corrupt acts of former Governor Edward DiPrete ó once the shining light of Rhode Islandís Republicans ó dealt a severe blow to the GOP claim to the mantle of reform.

Asked how much ground Republicans will gain this year in the General Assembly, Lynch says, "Probably very little. I mean, it would be disingenuous to say that the atmosphere and the publicity wonít have some impact, but I think it will be very little." Although not a few people have a dim view of the legislature, the Democratic Party chairman asserts that most voters like and respect their own legislators, and, "By and large, theyíre there for the right reason." Summing it up, Lynch says, "I think Democrats across the state, if they run again, will win again."

The results of the 2002 election support Lynchís point. Although then-Speaker John B. Harwood, a well-publicized personification of unbridled legislative power, barely beat a write-in challenger for his Pawtucket seat and later relinquished his decade-long leadership post, Republicans failed to gain any meaningful ground in the General Assembly.

Then again, notes House Minority Leader Robert Watson (R-East Greenwich), the scandal in which Harwood was accused of harassing legislative worker Wendy Collins broke in August 2002 ó "months after the filing deadline had come and past. Weíre five months away from people having to make that decision as to whether or not theyíll run or stand for reelection. They say timing is everything in politics, and clearly, the scandals that are swirling about the legislature these days is bound to get people thinking about being a candidate come June, when people have to make a decision whether or not theyíre going to run for office."

Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere (R-Westerly) says heís been approached by people in recent weeks, including Democrats, "that believe we need more Republicans in the General Assembly, [saying], ĎYou know, itís about time we have more Republicans to provide a balance.í " With voters being asked to offer approval this fall of a measure that would more evenly distribute power among the stateís three branches of government ó the concept known as separation of powers ó voters might be receptive, Algiere suggests, to a message of more equitably distributing legislative power.

 

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Issue Date: January 30 - February 5, 2004
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