It’s deja vu all over again in the race to be the next governor of Rhode Island. Governor Gina Raimondo, the incumbent Democrat, leads her Republican rival, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, by just two points, 38 percent to 36 percent, according to a new WPRI/Roger Williams University poll that revealed eerily similar results as last time these two squared off for governor, when Raimondo took 41 percent of the vote and Fung won 36 percent in 2014.
Somewhere Bob Healey just lit up one of his signature stogies and a wide smile spread across his forested face. Rhode Island’s perennial third party phenom who passed away in 2016 could prove as influential from beyond the grave as he was on the ballot.
The poll found 17 percent of respondents are undecided, even if the two leading candidates are the same. In 2014, Healey, who famously founded the Cool Moose Party but campaigned as a member of the Moderate Party, took 22 percent of the vote. It’s entirely unclear if today’s undecided voters supported Healey four years ago, but it’s a fairly safe bet that they aren’t a dissimilar lot.
Assuming both prevail in their respective primaries, Raimondo and Fung may spend the better part of the next eight months trying to win over Rhode Island’s Cool Moose constituency. After trolling the local political establishment for almost three decades through a series of quirky, low-budget, high-buzz outsider campaigns for public office, Healey gets to affect one more Rhode Island statewide election, this time posthumously.
He lived on a commune in southern Oregon before becoming a homegrown Warren school committee member in 1982, and maintained the look of a sixties radical until he died. But Bob Healey’s political philosophies were always decidedly more eighties yuppie. He was a social and fiscal libertarian. In eulogizing his longtime friend, Rudy Cheeks wrote of Bob Healey, “I have some ‘libertarian’ leanings but they don’t extend to laissez faire economics.”
For it’s part, the Moderate Party, which hosted Healey’s 2014 bid for governor, had always been more conservative than moderate. The party’s founder, Ken Block, ended up running for governor as a Republican, and losing in the primary to the more-moderate Mayor Fung. The conventional wisdom is that in 2014 Healey and the Moderate Party pulled more support from the right than the left. Raimondo, a fiscally-conservative Democrat, and Fung, a socially-liberal Republican, have reason to think the 17 percent of undecided voters are probably somewhere in the mushy middle of the political spectrum – it fits with both of their strengths as a general election candidate.
But Bob Healey didn’t pull 22 percent by running as a moderate Moderate Party candidate, and I don’t think a more moderate or mainstream candidate would have done half as well. This year’s Moderate Party candidate Bill Gilbert has more moderate proposals than his predecessor, so we’ll get some indication of how more moderation plays for the Moderate Party.
As he always did, Healey ran a campaign against the establishment and floated bold, out-of-the-box ideas. His most enduring message was that he spent less than $40 on the entire effort, essentially mocking those who by contrast seemed beholden to big money donors and other special interests.
Paul Roselli or Spencer Dickinson, both of whom intend to primary Raimondo, could easily catch some of that fire if they manage to get their message to the masses. Roselli has an aggressively progressive platform that is as far outside the Overton window as anything Bob Healey ever proposed. And it could well appeal to a mix of traditional progressives and others who feel disaffected by modern corporatism.
On the right, Trump supporter Joe Trillo could tap into some of Bob Healey’s support. Certainly at least some of them wanted nothing more than a his wild mane forever emblazoned on a State House portrait. But despite both Healey’s and Trump’s conservative leanings, I don’t suspect Trumpism and Healeyism will have much in common. Bob Healey didn’t want to make Rhode Island great again. He wanted to make Rhode Island great like no place had ever thought to do before.
After the 2014 election, Bob Healey wrote a post for RI Future highlighting four issues from his last campaign that he thought Rhode Island should carry forward. They were: a statewide teacher contract (still a component of the Moderate Party platform), a state-run bank, state-run cannabis sales(?!?!), and instant run-off voting. Four years later, no candidate is really trumpeting any of those issues. Might that be why even with the same two leading candidates, almost one of five Rhode Islanders still seemingly haven’t decided who they want to be our next governor?