The New Year is shaping up as potent dope for the political junkie.
With a gubernatorial slugfest atop the ticket, change afoot in the General Assembly, and talk of casino gambling in the air, Rhode Island should offer some of the nation's most compelling political storylines.
Quite the contrast with a 2009 that was, to put it charitably, less-than-inspiring.
Smith Hill punted on same-sex marriage last year amid history-making maneuvers in the rest of New England. A high-profile spat between a Congressman and his bishop over health care and abortion got us nowhere. And a recession fairly begging for redress stirred nothing in the way of real economic reform.
In a year that called for decisive action — or, at a minimum, elevated debate — we got little of either.
But now, with elections approaching and the economy still in a state of emergency, there will be plenty of pressure for bold ideas and decisive action. And if Rhode Island pols fall short on those measures, well, at least we can count on some palace intrigue.
Here's what to look for.
THE BATTLE ROYALE
The Rhode Island gubernatorial race should be a doozy: two high-profile Democrats in a tight primary battle, an independent with a legitimate shot at the job, and if we're lucky, a replay of the state's best political grudge match.
First, the Democrats.
Observers say Treasurer Frank T. Caprio is probably the favorite in his battle with Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch for the party's nomination. He has amassed a sizable fundraising lead. And his campaign tells the Phoenix he'd be willing to tap the family fortune in a pinch, though he doesn't expect the need to arise.
Caprio's job, moreover, lends him credentials on what is bound to be the paramount issue in the campaign — the economy. And the treasurer, with his smooth veneer, seems unlikely to crack.
"He's pretty self-disciplined and good at staying on message," says Darrell West, a former Brown University political science professor now at the Brookings Institution. "He's not someone who's likely to make a mistake."
Indeed, Caprio burnished a reputation for transparency when he released his travel records after Lynch provided minimal cooperation for a Providence Journal story on the topic. And he deftly handled a potential controversy over campaign contributions from law firms that landed work with the state.
But Caprio's campaign has been something less than flawless, to date.
When the candidate announced the launch of a $100,000 per-month advertising blitz in November, political observers suggested the unusually early effort was unlikely to register with voters so far from Election Day and had little chance of pushing Lynch out of the contest. And last month, as first reported by the Phoenix, the campaign suspended the effort until some undetermined point in the first quarter of the New Year.
It was a small victory for Lynch. And after posting its best fundraising quarter to date in the last three months of 2009, the campaign is claiming some momentum headed into the New Year.
But the attorney general is still expected to trail Caprio in the money chase, over the long haul. And his job, which requires prosecution of often-controversial cases, can be politically treacherous.