Rhode Island’s modern political history is filled with bitter Democratic primaries for governor. But RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says this campaign season it is the Republicans who are bashing each other.
Rhode Island voters have not elected a Democratic governor since 1992, when Bruce Sundlun decisively beat Republican Betty Leonard. There are many factors contributing to this Democratic Statehouse futility.
Ocean State voters have long tried to balance the Democratic Party’s historic grip on the General Assembly with Republican governors who are seen as more careful with taxpayer money and not a part of the too often incestuous culture of Assembly Democratic leaders.
Yet no sane political observer of Rhode Island political history would deny that a major reason for the Democratic Party’s long drought in elections for governor in our blue state is the party’s penchant for down-and-dirty primaries.
Who can forget the knock-down drag-out Democratic primary joust of 1984 between then-State Treasurer Anthony Solomon and Warwick Mayor Joseph Walsh, which cleared the path for election of the Republican, then-Cranston Mayor Edward DiPrete. Or the 1994 faceoff between Providence State Sen. Myrth York and Sundlun that resulted in Lincoln Almond’s Republican win.
Then came the three-way 2002 donnybrook among Democrats York, Sheldon Whitehouse and Tony Pires that paved the way for Republican Donald Carcieri’s general election victory. York won that primary with about 39 percent of the vote, but Democrats were so split that Pires refused to endorse her in the general election and Whitehouse lent only lukewarm backing.
While Democrats were beating each other up with campaign circuit insults and negative television spots, Republican primaries were noted for civility. In 1994, Almond and then-Congressman Ronald Machtley fought a competitive primary but played by Marquis de Queensbury rules in a contest won by Almond. And in 2002, the GOP faceoff between two men with business backgrounds, Jim Bennett and Carcieri, did little to blemish either candidate.
Fast forward the reel to 2014. The Democrats have three major candidates vying for the governorship – State Treasurer Gina Raimondo, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and Clay Pell, grandson of Sen. Claiborne Pell. They had their first televised debate on WPRI-Channel 12 last week. At the end of the hour it was difficult to find any substantial differences in policy or rhetoric. Pell, trailing badly in polls, tried to shake up the dynamic a bit with a few jabs at Raimondo and Taveras. Yet, even Pell’s rhetoric was as calm as a Sunday morning church service.
Pell noted that his opponents were ``two elected officials.’’ Trying to claim the outsider mantle, Pell said ``I am not a politician.’’
Pretty tame stuff compared to the Republican thrust-and-parry attacks swirling around the campaign between Cranston Mayor Alan Fung and Barrington businessman Ken Block. Fung fired off a television commercial labeling Block supporters as ``Blockheads’’ and asserting that Block supported Obamacare, a fatal flaw among much of the small Republican voter base. Block punched back, saying Fung’s campaign was ``filled with lies and half-truths.’’ Block said Fung’s `Blockhead’ ad was shameful in describing Block supporters as blockheads.
The GOP rhetoric has escalated since. Block hammered Fung’s tenure in Cranston, saying the mayor negotiated overly generous contracts with unionized city employees. Block also said Fung is responsible for a parking ticket ``scandal’’ in the Cranston police department.
While Block has been portraying Fung as a failed mayor, Fung has been trying to make the case that Block, a former Moderate Party leader turned Republican, is a chameleon on a plaid couch when it comes to consistency. Fung’s campaign asserts Block is desperate and deceptive, asserting that Block is trying to walk away from his votes in 2008 and 2012 for Obama, which Block has acknowledged.
Former governor Almond, who has endorsed Fung, is mostly retired from politics these days. Yet Almond released a statement last week that skewered Block. Referring to Block’s plan to cut $1 billion from the state budget and other government programs such as unemployment insurance and Temporary Disability Insurance, Almond said, ``Rhode Island voters do not need more empty rhetoric from a typical politician.’’
``We can’t afford to have another governor who needs on-the-job training,’’ said Almond of Block, who has never held elective office.
There are still nearly three months to go until the Sept. 9th primary. Nobody really knows what shape the Republican campaign will take. But history tells us that once the rhetoric gets raw, there is no turning back. If you haven’t been watching boxing matches on ESPN lately, you may want to tune in to the Fung-Block debate on WPRI-Channel 12 on Tuesday evening. There may be more teeth on the floor at WPRI than at the ESPN fisticuffs.
The Democratic campaign isn’t likely to stay so polite and issue-focused. The closer we get to election day, the rougher the rhetoric. The danger in nasty primaries, of course, is that the winner comes out so bruised and bloodied that voters have soured on his or her candidacy just six weeks before the general election. Once a negative narrative has been established in politics, it isn’t easy (or cheap) to change it. And holding primaries so close to the general election always makes it hard to heal primary wounds and forge party unity in the general election runup. (Massachusetts has a simliar system).
In this through-the-looking glass election for governor, the Democrats so far have been acting like Republicans and the Republicans like Democrats. Maybe Hunter S. Thompson, was right when he said ``When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.’’
Scott MacKay’s political commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:35 and 8:35 on Morning Edition and at 5:50 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics’ Blog at RIPR.org