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Rhode Island goes red

Progressives look back on a string of bitter defeats
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  December 21, 2011

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For Rhode Island progressives, the new year arrived with an air of anticipation.

Gordon Fox, the openly gay, left-leaning Providence Democrat, was firmly ensconced in the Speaker of the House's office.

And newly elected Governor Lincoln Chafee, delivering his inaugural address on a crisp January afternoon, called on the General Assembly to live up to Roger Williams's centuries-old call for a "civil state" and pass a same-sex marriage bill posthaste.

But 12 months later, as the weather turns chilly again, progressives are looking back not on a year of triumph, but on a string of bitter defeats.

The gay marriage fight ended in deep disappointment, with passage of a civil unions law that pleased no one. The General Assembly was the only Democratic-dominated state legislature in the nation to pass a voter ID law, which critics fear will disenfranchise poor, minority, and elderly voters who might not have the identification now required to cast a ballot.

Chafee, once viewed by medical marijuana advocates as a strong ally, blocked plans for three dispensaries in the face of a threatened federal crackdown. And organized labor, long a mighty force in Rhode Island politics, watched helplessly as the General Assembly passed the toughest pension reform law in the country.

Our deep blue state is suddenly looking red. And progressives, still a bit stunned, are left with two pressing questions:

What happened? And where to go from here?


THE EXPECTATIONS GAME

Part of the problem, in retrospect, was one of expectations.

Chafee relied heavily on liberals, Latinos, and labor unions to secure a narrow victory in a four-way gubernatorial race. And most observers, left and right, believed he would deliver for his base in his first year in office.

But Chafee vowed to go his own way. And there was plenty in his principled — and at times mercurial — political career to suggest he would do just that.

As a Republican US Senator, he frequently clashed with the Bush Administration. And more recently he had launched his independent gubernatorial campaign [http://providence.thephoenix.com/news/110038-in-chafee-we-trust/] not with the usual platitudes about a brighter future, but with a pledge to expand the state sales tax.

So, while liberals were pleased with his first official act in office — repealing former Governor Donald Carcieri's controversial illegal immigration order — their views soon dimmed.

"The first two hours were great," quips Bob Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association — Rhode Island teachers union, which backed Chafee's gubernatorial campaign. "It was all downhill from there."

Walsh and other union officials felt most betrayed by Chafee's support for the pension bill, which was far more sweeping than the reform he embraced during the campaign.

But progressives have also voiced disappointment in the governor's efforts on same-sex marriage — complaining that he failed to use the bully pulpit after the inaugural address and was ineffective in his behind-the-scenes push to win over legislators.

The inevitable comparison was to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose relentless pursuit of marriage equality paid off with a bill in June. But if advocates expected that sort of aggressiveness from the mild-mannered Chafee, they had a poor understanding of the governor's style.

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