I have long argued that the key to contemporary Rhode Island politics lies almost entirely within the RI Democratic Party. “With Democrats like these, who needs Republicans,” I quipped. In 1995.
The laws our General Assembly has FAILED to pass undermine our “most liberal state” reputation. The keystone legislation for any liberal issue area never seems to make it to the governor’s desk. Environmentalists have given up on the Bottle Bill. We lack any alternative energy feed-in tariff. We don’t have a state bank. And, most glaringly for a state as gay as ours (and I mean that in the good way), we lack marriage equality.
On this last item, we’re already behind liberal stronghold New Hampshire and soon to be behind Maryland, a state south of the Mason-Dixon line. We’re behind The South. THE SOUTH!
As a Rhode Island progressive, I see only one reason we don’t have this kind of legislation – the RI Democratic Party, the state party. Having held the reigns of power for decades on end, there is no other option on the table. In a case like this, The Machine is responsible for its own product.
How to Dismantle a Machine
In my 20+ years bathing in the waters of RI politics, the great tide has slowly eaten away at the edifice of the RI Democratic Party. While the RI GOP has done well to win the governor’s office with surprising regularity in the last two decades, the Dems have defended from a virtually unassailable fortress built within the state during the previous era.
I can only call the Dem’s traditional platform center-right; it reflects the demographics of another time. Strong, institutional labor unions with the cooperation of an inordinately influential Catholic Church served a political enterprise that specialized in inside dealings and turned a blind eye to vice.
Talk about your grand bargain? The arrangement outlined above covers pretty much everybody, and it works great when you’re flush. Riding strong middle-class growth in wealth, this model facilitated the creation of an operational network that dug itself into every corner of Rhode Island public and commercial life.
Only this: that was 30 years ago.
Since then, the grand bargain has gone to hell. Most of the players are dead or left, and growth of middle class wealth is a punch line. The network of relationships has held on with expected tenacity; nobody just gives up power.
Meanwhile, time marches on. Dedicated, old-school liberals within the party connected with smart, young activists for whom Rhode Island has become a magnet. Gen-X in mentality, these can-do, boots-on-the-ground political entrepreneurs created a grassroots network that has won a solid caucus of GA seats and, in case you missed it, Providence City Hall.
The 2010 Democratic primary decimated the old-school Machine. Frank Caprio, the Lynch brothers, Stephen Costantino and several GA Dems all routed in a progressive sweep. The writing, as they say, was on the wall.
Yours truly predicted a marriage equality bill by Valentine’s Day. Or not.
What’s the What? Who’s the Who?
Not for nothin’, but I should have been right about the marriage equality bill. Even if it lost in the full body, every Rep and Senator needed to put down a marker that would be a point of discussion in the next election cycle, i.e., now. Instead, RI Democratic Party leadership in the GA put forth a concerted effort to quash a legitimate bill put forward by the newly enlarged progressive wing.
It was a people-vs-machine struggle, and the Machine won. Despite a strenuous effort for real equality that should not be overlooked in this debate, we got a half assed cop out. And every legislator got a cop out.
Or rather, every legislator but one. And I’m sorry to break the news: it’s not Ms. Paiva-Weed.
I voted for Gordon Fox in 2010, fully expecting his powerful support for marriage equality. It’s a big issue for me. It is for a lot of people in the neighborhood, and Gordon Fox knows it. I used to describe my old micro-neighborhood as “1/3 black, 1/3 orthodox, 1/3 lesbian”.
The fiasco that was Art Handy’s bill shocked me. I kind of freaked out. I said some pretty un-nice things about the Rep, and friends know I can turn a colorful phrase. I believe this topic may have come up at one of the RI Future re-set meetings that were happening about the same time, so other authors can attest – I was cheesed.
In his position as Speaker, Fox had the opportunity to be a leadership voice for the growing progressive force. Considering his political history, it should have been a no-brainer. So his choice in this case felt to me like a betrayal of trust. And this from an in-district, many-term supporter.
Power, however, has its own ways. Rather than go with the incoming tide that he himself helped create, Gordon Fox made a political calculation that by caving in to the right-leaning, Catholic Church-influenced Democratic State Party Machine, he could somehow do more in other areas for RI progressives. Such as…?
Oh, right, that economic development idea!
When news broke about the RIEDC plan to guarantee $75mm in bonds for a video game company owned by a retired sports star, I wrote the following:
“I worry that our little state is too hungry to put out a decent headline and, like the rest of the US, terminally star-struck. This deal scares the bejeezus out of me… These are giant dice to be rolling, and surely, this will make or break the careers of the decision makers.
I am _so_ glad that I am not them.” (9 July 2010, Yesterday on the Internet)
It’s one thing to play politics with probably the single most important issue in your district. It’s altogether different to follow that up with complicity in a high-risk deal put together by an end-of-term Republican governor and his cronies. And when that high-risk deal blows up…?
Dissatisfaction in the district is pretty high these day. And yet Fox was running unopposed – the hallmark of a political machine. Everybody knew that any serious progressive candidate could do a lot of damage. So it should be no surprise that Mark Binder’s independent candidacy rapidly gained traction. It is arguably the biggest political story in the state this cycle.
Mark Binder, Independent for RI House, District 4
I’ve known Mark Binder for about 15 years. We met when we both hosted Japanese exchange students from Bryant College, as it was called back then. We’ve watched each others’ kids grow up. We’ve helped each other in our various business ventures. We’ve talked an awful lot about local politics. He published my book.
Beyond being articulate, well-educated, civically-active and pretty good with policy, Mark Binder can bring sharp insight into the state house for this simple reason: he knows what the hell is going on.
By that I mean that Mark spends most of his time “in the field”, performing as a storyteller at schools across the northeast. One might assume that the schools where Mark performs would be in well-off towns, but his actual mix spans the range from inner-city to remote, rural and poor. And perhaps no institution is a better indicator of a community’s social conditions than the public elementary school. So on a regular basis, Mark is working with the kids that policies are designed to help in the public schools that state and municipal governments provide. To say the least, Mark’s perspective is grounded in reality.
Many professionals, and now I include myself in this group, get a narrow and skewed perspective on the world simply for lack of bandwidth. We’re in the office or working at home. We go out with our clients and vendors. We travel to a conference. We don’t do much else (as my poor attendance on this blog proves out), and I believe our perspectives on the world suffer for it.
If you want to know about policy, ask a wonk like me. If you want to know about the impact of that policy on real people, ask Mark Binder.
If elected, I trust that Mark will strive to enact smart policy that strengthens the widely-shared progressive values of the community that elects him. He’ll vote his conscience and he’ll deal straight, because that’s the way he is.
The Binder Campaign and Political Costs
As I said, I was not surprised to see Mark’s campaign gaining traction. Likewise, I was not surprised to see anti-Fox forces rally to his cause – the classic “enemy of my enemy” alignment. (And, no, I don’t expect Jeff Deckman, whom both Mark and I know from our work with New Commons, to have an impact on Mark’s policy views. Rather, the opposite I’d say, as I’ve always read Deckers as more of a back-bencher and not so hard right as he plays. Be that as it may…)
It is a bit unseemly to have so direct an RI GOP connection. But, c’mon, people. What do you want from life? This is politics, right?
If Gordon Fox or anybody wants to play at the top, they are going to make political enemies, and therefore it is critical that they build a rock-solid relationship with voters in their districts. Fox critically underestimated the blowback from his failure of leadership on marriage equality. Long before 38 Studios collapsed, Fox’s potential vulnerabilities came up in many conversations.
And then 38 Studios collapsed, and the Speaker found himself in a serious fight, taking heat in the press. It’s unreasonable to think that the Speaker of the House that both failed his base and was complicit in an epic boondoggle would not face serious consequences. That this is even a story indicates how atrophied political machines make the politics that they dominate.
It looks like Speaker Fox is hung out to dry here, but only because he is. Even given today’s legal action from the EDC, Gordon Fox is left holding the political bag in this spectacularly costly and potentially ruinous disaster.
He’s only paying the price because Mark Binder is running against him as an independent candidate. Dissatisfaction is pretty high, and Speaker Fox needs to get a sense of how high via the polls.
The Machine Fights Back
Likewise, I am not surprised to see the party rally to the Speaker’s side. The recent chain of endorsements leads me to think that the Binder campaign has raised appropriate concern within the RI Democratic party about their ongoing vulnerabilities.
It’s pretty thin gruel to compare reciting an incumbent’s own failings with mud-slinging. Fox needs to stand and account for his stewardship of MY vote, of Mark’s vote, of the votes of all the people in the neighborhood that are [colorful turn of phrase].
38 Studios, frankly, I could forgive, as I never envied anybody the position on that call. I look forward to the deep study on what was said to whom when.
Marriage equality I can’t forgive, but it wouldn’t have been a deal-breaker had there been something else to soothe the sting. There was nothing else, and a negative result is unacceptable from leadership.
“Faith has been broken. Tears must be cried.” ~Wild Horses, Richards/Jagger
The Ugly Reality called “Tomorrow”
Here’s the sad truth: it scarcely matters. Whoever represents the fourth district, Rhode Island faces a massive headwind. We face high unemployment, still-massive retirement and pension costs and there’s precious little on the “plus” side of the ledger to build around. The real solutions the RI Democratic leadership needs to get behind are _not_ the ones they get from the usual cast of characters.
Progressive policy, smart policy yields great benefits that lower the drag on everybody’s life, producing prosperous economies and thriving communities. Restoring environmental resilience should be a money maker, not a money loser. Alternative energy is such a no-brainer that I will no longer discuss the topic.
I wish I could say that the RI Democratic Party was capable of assessing this complex and deteriorating situation, plotting the smart, non-boondoggle course and then mustering the political will to enact the bold reforms that constitute the state’s last, best chance.
I don’t think the leadership of the RI Democratic Party is up to this task. I _definitely_ don’t think the leadership or any other part of the RI GOP is up to this task. That’s not to say that this state doesn’t have talent that’s up to the task – and many GA Dems are part of that talent pool.
The leadership of the party, though, needs to know that this past session was not what the progressive culture sector- and entrepreneurial-types were looking for when they chose to move to RI and live in House District 4.
That is why I am voting for Mark Binder. I hope a lot of people do. I hope he wins. I and many others in District 4 want the state party to register our severe dissatisfaction with their performance.