The United States first went to war with Iraq, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and parts of the Berlin Wall were still standing as the Soviet Union continued to collapse. Cheers was the most popular TV show in America, Home Alone had yet to be released on the big screen, and you were probably watching the “Ice, Ice Baby” video on MTV.
The year was 1990, and prior to Tuesday night’s blue tsunami election in East Greenwich, that was the last time the voters of this affluent suburb elected a Democratic majority to its town council.
Democrats actually controlled the East Greenwich Town Council from 1986 until 1992, led by local legends like Mike Lenihan, who went on to become a much-loved state senator, Barbara M. (“St. Barbara,” they called her) Tufts, who started the local co-op nursery school, and Vince Bradley, who went on to become an even-shrewder politician in West Warwick.
On Tuesday night, East Greenwich Democrats did something that even Lenihan, Tufts, and Bradley never pulled off. They won all five seats on the town council. There were all-Republican town councils in East Greenwich from 2010 until 2014. Prior to that, the last time East Greenwich had a town council with one party rule was 48 years ago, when the Republicans controlled all five seats. It’s unclear if Democrats have ever controlled all five seats on the town council prior to this year (I only researched back 50 years).
This year’s blue tsunami was stoked in large part to residents rejection of Town Manager Gayle Corrigan’s caustic style of management and laser focus on stoking a labor war with fire fighters. Her biggest supporter on the town council, Sue Cienki, got the second lowest vote total of all the candidates while Corrigan’s only enemy on the current town council won the most votes. All five winning candidates campaigned on firing Corrigan and the two previous Republican town council presidents campaigned against Corrigan supporters. Corrigan told Dan Yorke she plans to quit or be fired.
Certainly this reverberated in other campaigns as well. Indeed, the all-Democrat town council was just the crest of the wave as East Greenwich voted for the Democrat in every race on the ballot. That’s five town councilors, four school committee members, four statewide officers, members of Congress, and one governor.
The most telling numbers might have been the least local campaign – the one for the U.S. Senate seat that pitted Bob Flanders, who lives in East Greenwich and is well-known there, against incumbent Democrat Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, of Newport. Whitehouse took 56.6 percent of the vote to Flanders’ 43.2 percent. In 2012, Whitehouse lost East Greenwich to Barry Hinkley, also from Newport, 50.8 to 49. Flanders likely performed poorly in East Greenwich for a myriad of factors, including the national atmosphere, but he was also a close ally of Corrigan and Cienki and admits he suggested to Cienki that Corrigan could help in East Greenwich. “We talked about doing some sort of analysis,” Flanders told me last year. ” He and his law firm were also hired to do much of the legal work incurred from Corrigan and Cienke’s approach to government.
But there were surely other factors other than Corrigan and Cienki.
The 2018 midterm election has been called the Whole Foods election because women and college-educated people turned out in large numbers, and suburbs all across the country turned from red to blue. EG’s blue wave was also helped by two hard-campaigning candidates for state legislator. Justine Caldwell beat incumbent Republican Anthony Giarrusso in a brutal and often ugly campaign while Bridgette Valverde defeated Dana Gee, a Republican who ran for the seat after her husband, the incumbent, decided against running. Caldwell and Valverde are both progressives and are active members of the state Democratic Party Women’s Caucus. Caldwell voted against Nick Mattiello for House speaker this week. EG hasn’t had a Democratic state legislator since Mike Lenihan in 2010.
East Greenwich has actually been trending blue for the last several election cycles. This is the second time Gina Raimondo took East Greenwich from Republican Allan Fung. This year she won 51.7 percent to 39.9 percent and in 2014 she won 42.3 to 41.4 over Fung with Bob Healey also taking 15.2 percent of the vote that year. EG residents voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016 by 52.3 to 40.6.
It’s likely that Corrigan, Cienki, Trump, hard-working Democrats, and a shift away from conservatism all contributed to East Greenwich’s blue wave, putting an end to 25 years of Republican control over the local government.