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What does it mean to be a Democrat in Rhode Island?

The answer isn't simple
By PHILIP EIL  |  August 20, 2014


The Governor of Rhode Island is a Democrat. So are the lieutenant governor, secretary of state, general treasurer, and attorney general. So are the mayors of Providence, Pawtucket, Johnston, North Providence, Cumberland, Woonsocket, and Central Falls. So are 69 of 75 state representatives, and 32 of 38 state senators — a combined 89 percent of the General Assembly. So are all 15 members of the Providence City Council. So is our entire Congressional delegation, which has been across-the-board Democratic for the better part of a decade.

This political predominance compels writers and editors to reach for extreme headlines. A recent New York Times article dubbing us “America’s Least Polarized State” noted that “Rhode Island’s largely Democratic legislature has worked with Republican governors for most of the last three decades, but they have struggled to find an effective economic development strategy.” Meanwhile, “The Bluest State,” a lengthy City Journal article by consultant and policy blogger Aaron Renn earlier this year, described a near-dystopian malaise brought by left-leaning policies. Ticking off the accumulated effects of required-pay temporary disability insurance (TDI); unmatched land-use regulations; high levels of government-transfer payments for things like workers’ comp, food stamps, and Medicaid; “a crippling tax structure,” and other policies, Renn wrote, “Like Detroit, Rhode Island enjoyed success for so long that it came to believe that it could do whatever it liked, without consequences — even when economic developments started to leave it behind.”

Local progressives, meanwhile, argue that Rhode Island isn’t nearly as liberal as it might seem. They point to the 2011 passage of a voter ID law (which Ann Coulter later used as a talking point), the state’s relative reticence to legalize same-sex marriage (we were last in New England), and House Speaker Mattiello’s “A+” rating from the NRA’s Political Victory Fund. Last year, Governor Lincoln Chafee vetoed a bill that would have allowed the state to issue “Choose Life” license plates, the sales of which would partially go to a Christian organization called CareNet Pregnancy Center of Rhode Island. That bill passed out of the House and Senate with 40-26 and 23-13 margins, respectively.

So, what does it mean to be a Democrat in Rhode Island? And what does our state’s  one-party dominance mean for how things function?

Surely these are important questions to ask in a year when Rhode Island only recently edged ahead of Mississippi and Georgia to claim the third highest unemployment rate in the US, and when Democratic high-profile resignations — House Speaker Gordon Fox, in March; state Democratic Party chair David Caprio, in July — have overshadowed legislative achievements.

And, anyway, shouldn’t people always be asking what it means to be a Democrat in Rhode Island, given the party’s enduring supermajority? To simply identify as a Democrat here, without further explanation, is no more enlightening than saying you’re a fan of the Red Sox or Del’s Lemonade.

So this week, we poked, prodded, and examined the Ocean State’s “blue”-ness to see if we could learn anything. We fully acknowledge that the questions we asked are never going to be answered in just 3000 words. But now is as good a time as any to be asking them. (And if we can be a bit preachy: we urge readers to ask similar questions of their candidates and elected officials, before stepping into a voting booth.)

But a quick story before we begin.

The most logical place to begin to our quest was by reading the Rhode Island Democratic Party platform: the document listing the core principles and shared goals that define the party, at any particular time.

Accessing party platforms is incredibly easy in the Internet Age. Within minutes, anyone can see Connecticut Democrats assert “climate change is real and is impacting our way of life” or Massachusetts Dems highlight protecting “women’s reproductive rights and woman’s right to choose” and “eliminating racial and ethnic health disparities.” The Maine Democrats state how they “support a democratic government that . . . Opposes the legal concept of corporate personhood as it is applied to participation in the political process [and] Calls for the constitutional or legislative steps to establish that for political campaigns money is not free speech.” Vermont Democrats vow to “continue working to undo the damage done to Vermont’s infrastructure by eight years of a Republican administration’s neglect, abandonment, destruction, and deliberate disrepair.” Other platforms are available from parties in New Hampshire, California, Texas, Washington State, Utah, Idaho, Virginia, and many others.

But not Rhode Island.

You won’t find a party platform among the outdated press releases (most recent: “2012 Electoral College Unanimously Votes for Barack Obama”) and even more outdated photographs (the latest “Photo Album” pics appear to be from a 2010 Unity Dinner) at We had to personally email the party’s executive director, Jonathan Boucher, to request a copy. And when did receive one — which we promptly published online in a Google Doc — it felt, absurdly, like we had landed some kind of scoop. “I’ve asked a couple of people over the years who do opposition research for the [Rhode Island] Republican Party, and they’ve never seen a platform document in at least the last decade or so,” says blogger Andrew Morse, who wrote a 2013 post reporting that the most recent reference to a Democratic Party Platform in the ProJo archives comes from 1988. “I’m kind of shocked that it exists at this point.”

So, what does it say?

The five-page, undated document includes embedded links that lead to dead websites, and a “CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES” section with a mismatched font that gives the whole document a cut-and-pasted feel. Though the platform does present some timeless ideas — “Democrats stand behind the right of every woman to choose,” “The Democratic Party wants to preserve and protect our natural environment,” “We shall put forth leaders that the public can trust and hold to the highest ethical standards,” — it also makes stale statements like, “Every Rhode Islander must have health care, and our Party is willing to work with national leaders to make this plan a reality.” When we inquired, Boucher told us the platform is from 2008. Though certain sections — like “During the Clinton Administration, Democrats have worked to dramatically transform the welfare system” — indicate that it’s even older than that.

So, perhaps the most telling thing about being a Democrat in Rhode Island is that three weeks before primary elections, in a ballot year of enormous importance, the über-dominant party only feels compelled to release a copy of its platform when a reporter asks for it, and the document it sends is at least six years out of date.

When we asked Boucher why the platform isn’t more current, he told us, “I’m not sure as to why the most recent platform is from 2008, you’d have to ask our former chairman or former executive director for that information.” (We’re still working on tracking them down.)

He added, “We intend on updating the platform at a later date, obviously we are in a transition at the Party with an acting Chair and have not had a chance to discuss a platform committee yet since we are in the middle of a very busy and contentious primary election season.” And he assured us that both the platform and the bylaws — which also weren’t online until we inquired about them — would be published by the September primary.

So, with all of that said, let’s talk about Democrats in Rhode Island, shall we?

Note: some of following quotes have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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