Politics makes for strange bedfellows, observed Charles Dudley Warner in 1850, and it seems true enough this campaign season in Rhode Island as the highest-profile incumbent Democrats are each taking fire from not only Republicans, but also the progressive left. Sometimes even on the same issues.
Governor Gina Raimondo faces the most-obvious two-front campaign for re-election. She has left-leaning Matt Brown and all four conservative candidates attacking her policies and performance. Brown and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, the front-running Republican, have both portrayed her corporate tax incentives, which Raimondo says are needed to attract and retain businesses, as crony capitalism and/or corporate welfare – depending, perhaps, on which wording plays better with one’s base.
“Governor Raimondo’s agenda of paying out-of-state companies taxpayer money—transferring wealth from the public to wealthy corporations—has taken a system that creates massive inequality and exacerbated it,” Brown said in a recent statement. A few days later, Fung said in a statement, “Where is the oversight by the administration to make sure the taxpayers aren’t being taken for a ride with these hidden taxpayer costs that lie in her extravagant corporate welfare deals.”
Raimondo will have to best Brown in the Democratic primary – if not a debate before then – if she’s to face off against anyone in the general election. Heated primaries against more progressive men has been a mainstay in her campaigns for governor. In 2014 she beat both then mayor of Providence Angel Taveras and Clay Pell, both of whom ran to her left, before beating Fung, with an assist from Bob Healey, in the general election. Prior to Raimondo, the last time a Democratic candidate for governor faced a primary was 2002, when Myrth York narrowly beat Sheldon Whitehouse for the nomination.
Like Raimondo, Sen. Whitehouse also has to navigate a progressive opponent before the general election. It’s the two-term incumbent’s first primary since being elected to the Senate 12 years ago, when he easily beat Chris Young, who prior to this year’s challenger Pat Fontes running against Whitehouse in this year’s primary, was the last person to challenge in a primary an incumbent Rhode Island senator (Young also ran in the 2008 Democratic primary against Senator Jack Reed).
Fontes, a staunch peace and justice activist, may not have the resources or the resume to knock off Whitehouse – she’s 82 years old, has never run for office, and is opposed to abortion and gay marriage. But she does have the ability to hit him where it hurts – on the environment.
Even prior to her campaign, Fontes was a leading voice among vocal activists calling for Whitehouse to take a position against the proposed Burrillville power plant. Now Bob Flanders, the Republican running for Whitehouse’s senate seat, is criticizing Whitehouse for the same thing.
“Most distressing of all, perhaps, is the fact that you’ve got a Senator down there, Mr Whitehouse, who supposedly is a champion of the environment and someone who is adamant about opposing fossil fuel plants like this one and yet all we hear from him on this issue is crickets,” Flanders said about Whitehouse on a recent visit to Burrillville, according to Steve Ahlquist.
In a series of tweets following his visit to Burrillville, Flanders said, “It is clear that the people of Burrillville do not want this massive power plant desecrating their home.” He added, “I will always put our communities first.”
But it remains unclear if Flanders actually opposes the proposed power plant. He declined to respond to a pointed question about the power plant after his visit to Burrillville. In December, he told Ed Achorn, the Providence Journal opinion page editor, “Generally, I’m in favor of more power,” he said. “I’d like to hear the arguments of those who are opposed to it before I signed off on it. I’d like to approach that like a judge and hear all the facts first but generally i think we need more power not less.”
Then Flanders told Achorn, “At this point it’s a state issue, not a federal issue.” Which is the same reason Whitehouse has said he hasn’t weighed in.
House Speaker Nick Mattiello
With no primary to contend with like Raimondo or Whitehouse, libertarian-leaning Republican Steve Frias is the only person House Speaker Nick Mattiello has to beat on the ballot. But that doesn’t mean Frias and the Republican Party will be the only ones working against his reelection.
A conservative Democrat, Mattiello has arguably made more enemies on the progressive left than on the conservative right. Frias says Mattiello hasn’t done enough to institute a budget line item veto for the governor and was too generous in the deal the state offered to the Pawtucket Red Sox while progressives say he actively works behind the scenes to marginalize many liberal policy solutions, and has severe blind spots on issues relating to race and gender.
In 2016, when Frias came within 85 votes of beating Mattiello, he was helped to some degree by progressive activists who canvassed Mattiello’s district against him. While Frias may not get the Trump bump this time around, he’s likely to get some help again from activists who think the legislature would be better off without Mattiello as the so-called most powerful person in state politics.