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Two months ago Hans von Spakovsky of the conservative Heritage Foundation, de facto apologist for a new wave of conservative-inspired voter ID laws, appeared on PBSNewsHour to defend the cause.

The laws, passed in eight states last year, are widely viewed as a Republican ploy to disenfranchise minorities and older voters who are less likely to have the photo identification the measures require at the polls.

But von Spakovsky, flashing a blue tie and tight smile, brushed aside criticism with what has become a standard talking point on the right. "While many Republican legislatures have passed these kind of requirements," he said, "we know that in Rhode Island, Democrats passed it."

Rhode Island is, indeed, the curious exception to the rule: the only state with a Democratic legislature and left-leaning governor to approve a voter ID law last year.

And with the measure set to face its first big test in this fall's elections, civil rights activists and Democratic operatives — local and national — are still scratching their heads: how is it that one of the bluest states in the nation enacted a law so red?

It is not an easy question to answer; Governor Lincoln Chafee turned down a request for an interview for this story and Speaker of the House Gordon Fox and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed's offices were no more forthcoming.

The silence isn't all that surprising.

While a Brown University poll conducted after the bill's passage found 85 percent of Rhode Islanders in favor of voter ID, elite opinion in Providence and Washington generally runs opposed. For those operating in leadership circles, this is an uncomfortable topic.

But after weeks of digging, the Phoenix has cobbled together a comprehensive account of Rhode Island's most compelling political whodunit in memory.

It is, in part, a political thriller: a tale of a quiet truce at a Providence restaurant, frantic phone calls from Washington, and intrigue in the governor's office. But the voter ID story also says something fundamental — and, at times, less than flattering — about how the people's business is conducted in Rhode Island.

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Jon Brien

DINNER

In July of 2010, Speaker Fox and State Representative Jon Brien met for dinner at Fleming's, a steakhouse and wine bar on the ground floor of the Westin Residence Tower in downtown Providence.

They were, in some respects, an unlikely pair: Fox the pragmatic, openly gay Providence Democrat who had ascended to the Speaker's office just five months previous and Brien the brash, deeply conservative Woonsocket Democrat with a penchant for controversy.

But the two had known each other for some time; Jon's wife Stella briefly served alongside Fox in the House from 2001 to 2002. And Brien had been in the chamber since 2007.

Over the years, Brien says, the pair had developed a brotherly kind of relationship: sometimes close, sometimes combative, but always animated by a mutual regard.

And on this night, the brothers were meeting to make peace.

Over the winter, Brien had backed Fox's prime challenger to the speaker's chair, Gregory Schadone, throwing a few of his trademark haymakers along the way. And while the insurgents were gearing up for another run, it didn't look good.

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  Topics: News Features , Politics, elections, Harold Metts,  More more >
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