Bill Murphy, the right-wing former House Speaker, the lobbyist for the gun people and the payday lenders, and the man at the center of Rhode Island’s conservative movement, is standing up for one of his own. He’s defending Patrick McDonald. McDonald, the former South County state senator who was defeated by Jim Sheehan in 2002, is perhaps most famous for topping the unpaid campaign fines list. For not making the required financial disclosure statements, the Ethics Commission slapped him with another fine. Now, he’s facing embezzlement charges.
Also representing McDonald is Norman Landroche, a right-wing former representative from West Warwick. Let me be clear: I have no problem with conservative ex-politicians representing another conservative ex-politician. Nor do I think it is fair to assume that McDonald is guilty, since we really do not know. What really impresses me about this story is that it provides a tiny glimpse into the often-hidden world of the right-wing Democratic* machine that runs our state. It reveals a surprising feature of the Rhode Island right, one vital to their unparalleled success–the deep network of strong personal loyalty that binds them all together.
It would be easy for the right to get bogged down in personal fights, for vendettas and drama to seethe beneath the surface, occasionally exploding across the pages of newspapers and blogs. During the tumultuous period from 2002 to 2004, when Bill Murphy rose to power, there was ample room for a divided coalition to emerge. Instead, the conservative movement grew even tighter.
When John Harwood resigned the speakership under the cloud of scandal, he is widely understood to have pulled the strings to have Bill Murphy to replace him, with Murphy’s core support coming from Harwood’s right-wing committee chairs (like Brian Kennedy, who is still in power today). Crucially, Frank Anzeveno, Harwood’s chief of staff, kept his position as the Speaker’s top aide. Gordon Fox, who had served as Harwood’s Finance Chair, became Majority Leader. Deputy Whip Rene Menard moved up to Whip. The core team remained in place. In a feature from the Phoenix, Steven Stycos quotes one of my favorite representatives, who sums it up perfectly:
Voicing an opinion shared by many others, state Representative Edith Ajello (D-Providence) says Murphy and Fox “are not outsiders, they’re insiders.” And she adds that their election has “the appearance of a hand off” from Harwood.
So when Harwood backstabbed Murphy, deciding he wanted the Speakership back, and Murphy said no, the stage was set for an epic battle, one that threatened to rip apart the Rhode Island right in a fury of nasty, internal squabbles. Instead, Frank Anceveno remained loyal to Murphy. The team closed ranks. Harwood’s bid fizzled. Providence conservative John DeSimone became the face of the leadership challenge. The challenge met with relatively little support, although it gained steam when Menard endorsed it in August. But only a few weeks later, when Paddy O’Neil defeated Harwood in a primary challenge, the revolt died altogether. When the dust settled, Murphy, Fox, and Anceveno were safely enthroned as the leaders of one of history’s most successful political movements. Relatively unimpeded by internal squabbles, aided by a friendly Senate and Governor, the House conservatives were able to pull off a bold, audacious, improbable goal–the imposition of much of the national Republican Party’s agenda in an incredibly liberal state. The rich got their tax cuts. Government jobs were cut to the bone, giving our state the second lowest percentage of public sector employees. To help protect local conservatives and give ammunition to national Republicans, they passed the voter ID law. Unsurprisingly, Rhode Island’s economy collapsed. (For more, I suggest reading this blog.)
It would have been easy to pursue retribution, but Murphy’s team largely folded DeSimone into the machine. Although DeSimone mounted an unsuccessful challenge when Fox succeeded Murphy, Fox was quick to mend fences. Murphy even got the state to reimburse Harwood for the money he spent defending against an ethics complaint. Menard remained on the outside as a principled, if very conservative, critic of leadership until moderate Mia Ackerman defeated him in 2012. Charlene Lima, a Cranston moderate and Harwood critic who been brought on as Deputy Whip in a concession to the sensible wing of the House, left leadership to become one of its most strident and passionate opponents. But Lima was never part of the conservative establishment. Inside the core right-wing network, there were very few defections. They all became Murphy men. (Or in rare cases, Murphy women.)
None of this would have been possible had the conservatives not bound themselves together in a web of friendship and loyalty. I may fundamentally disagree with their politics. I may fundamentally disagree with their ethics. I may fundamentally disagree with how they use their power to squash dissent. I may fundamentally disagree with how they have governed Rhode Island. But I have to respect their personal loyalty. Without it, even with their undisputed political talents, they would never have been able to get as shockingly far as they have.
So I am not angry that Murphy and Landroche are representing McDonald. Indeed, it speaks to one of their (few) good qualities.
*In fairness, I should note that the machine is somewhat bipartisan–by all accounts, the lobbyist Bob Goldberg, a former Republican senator, plays a vital role.