The more you know, the more complicated things get. Since I’m of two minds in this, let me run through a few arguments and counterarguments I have in the battle between Gordon Fox and Mark Binder.
- Removing Speaker Fox sends a message to state lawmakers that they can be held accountable for actions like 38 Studios. The primary reason that Speaker Fox is even vulnerable, that the media is even taking notice of his opponent, is 38 Studios. I’m not convinced about the answer Mr. Fox provided, which essentially boils down to that the Assembly knew that the funds would likely end up in the hands of Curt Schilling, but that they were reliant on the Economic Development Council to vet the loan. That is how the law works, but it still begs the question: why did no one (except the House Minority Leader Bob “No On Everything” Watson) vote against it? I think there’s more to that story (also, a number of Reps called in to the Dan Yorke Show to deny knowledge). In contrast to the House, everyone on the EDC board who voted for 38 Studios is no longer with the EDC.
- Removing the Speaker will hand power over to the conservatives. Like it or not, Mr. Fox is probably the most progressive Speaker of the House ever in Rhode Island’s history. That he ascended to power in such turbulent times was merely an inconvenient turn of events. But losing Mr. Fox creates a massive challenge to the progressives and liberals in District 4: those likely to ascend will be to the right of the Speaker on far too many issues they care about. They’ll lose someone who knows the system, who has power in the system, and can (should he choose) push things forward. The loss of the Speaker is likely to ensure that marriage equality remains a distant dream unless advocates can find an alternative path.
- “Learn from our mistakes” is not an argument for a 20-year legislator. More than once, Mr. Fox attempted to shut down the 38 Studios line of attack with a “you’re not proposing solutions” argument. But often the solutions Mr. Fox provides are in direct contrast to how he’s actually governed. Suggesting raising income taxes as a solution to property taxes at the Summit Neighborhood Association debate conveniently ignores that the General Assembly has cut income taxes on the highest income earners and then to balance against this loss of revenue, cut funding to cities and towns. This lead to higher property taxes! Furthermore, it contradicts statements made during last session that he would not consider raising the income tax, and the various bill that would’ve made the tax system more equitable were all quashed. Coming out in favor of a sunset provision for the Voter ID law begs the question: “why not have put it in in the first place?” Mr. Fox has been in the General Assembly since I was still in diapers. Veterans shouldn’t be making as many mistakes to learn from.
- Mr. Binder sometimes doesn’t answer. Mr. Binder apparently didn’t have an answer to property taxes either, which misses the obvious progressive answer: property tax is regressive, and fails to take into account someone’s ability to pay, whereas if the General Assembly hadn’t cut the income tax in good times, we could’ve had money to spend and blunted the crisis to cities and towns which forced them to raise properties taxes. Too often for my taste, in the Newsmakers debate, Mr. Binder simply said “abstain” or that he’d be a “freshman” legislator and thus didn’t yet have a position. He’s had quite a while to put together a platform. And part of being a candidate is having a platform. “I’m not a lawyer” is also a terrible answer.
- Mr. Binder is unabashedly progressive. It was a simple “no” on the Voter ID law for Mr. Binder. His criticism of Mr. Fox is that he hasn’t done enough on marriage equality. He believes progressives need leadership in the House. He writes for RI Future here (something Mr. Fox’s spokesman Larry Berman attacked the site for, despite our progressive Speaker or someone in his office being perfectly capable of using a computer). And untethered from the compromises of the Democratic Party, Mr. Binder won’t have to make the sort of deals with his own beliefs when he votes for something; he can vote his principles. Mr. Fox has had to consistently compromise, whether to get things done or else to advance his own power.
- But there’s no organization behind him. Alone, as an independent, Mr. Binder seems likely to get zero done. Politics is the art of the possible, not the idealistic. He also comes off as a bit smug sometimes (the third time he used “abstain” in the Newsmakers debate, I was shaking my head; and more than once the moderators had to pin him on an issue) in contrast to Mr. Fox, who is both impassioned and reasonably likeable (in person though, I found Mr. Binder to have a quiet righteousness). While being independent has given him more time to work against Mr. Fox in this campaign, it also makes him a liability. He lacks an organization like the Democratic Party behind him, which means that any gains he might have in being a critic of the status quo may evaporate the moment he leaves office.
- Removing Speaker Fox changes nothing about the culture of the State House. Mr. Fox has become a convenient stand-in for all that is wrong with the General Assembly (I’ve clearly used him as such), but the truth is that though he no doubt is part of the institutional culture of the General Assembly, there are others who are worse and far more responsible. Some of these folks aren’t elected. There’s no guarantee that they won’t stick around, especially given as the General Assembly is to clean transitions these days. When an upstart comes in, they clean house. When a successor ascends, they often leave the status quo in place.
- Is there a possibility Mr. Fox could lose the speakership anyway? By saying “everyone knew” Mr. Fox’s campaign inadvertently undid much of the work that legislators have done in insulating themselves from the issue, saying that they were in fact in the dark when it came to 38 Studios. Though his campaign has since walked back the remarks, it unleashed a wave of criticism from Democrats defeated in the primary and a couple of incumbents. While it can be chalked up to those on-the-outs taking the chance to complain, it highlights the underlying value of Mr. Binder’s campaign. Whether he wins or loses, Mr. Binder has exposed the fissures in the State House, and spurred talk of action. In this regard, his candidacy is a good thing.
This is probably the toughest electoral choice I’ve ever had to make, but I’m interested in learning more. The comments section is the perfect place for your response. I am I way off-base on these? Do you have others? Are progressives shooting themselves in the foot, or advancing their agenda if the elect Mark Binder? What about if they re-elect Gordon Fox?
After I wrote this, but while it was pending review, Mr. Binder canvassed my home.
Update: Scott MacKay of RIPR has another reason to ponder: does Providence’s position in the General Assembly weaken if Gordon Fox is removed?