The orderly transition of Harwood>Murphy>Fox has meant an astounding amount of discipline on the part of the RI House’s Democratic caucus. That discipline has been enforced in unsavory ways; the loss of committee chairs and seats, the holding up of bills, loss of party endorsement in primary races. But punishment for defying party leadership is to be expected, especially if you’re to have a functioning political party.
The ability of the RI Democrats to build a sprawling coalition from across the political spectrum and maintain control of it is no small feat. In another country, or under another political system, it would’ve fallen to pieces long ago. But in RI, USA, that discipline has held. The party’s dirty laundry is dealt with in private, not aired out in public where it could do political damage. This discipline has created a monolith of a Democratic caucus, one that papered over their differences.
We can look back at the failed budget amendment last year as a place where that discipline was breaking down. Even without Friday’s dramatic storming of the speaker’s office, it’s unclear just how long that discipline would’ve held. Regardless of how Gordon Fox left the speaker’s chair, the transition might’ve been bloodier than he’d hoped. When the news broke that law enforcement was raiding both his office and his house, you could almost hear long-dull knives being sharpened.
A disorderly transition is going to unmask the politics within the Rhode Island House of Representatives. According to the House Republican caucus, there are three Democratic factions; one led by Majority Leader Nick Mattiello, which might be termed the “establishment-conservative” faction. Another is claimed to be led by Oversight Committee Chair Mike Marcello; though majority whips Ucci and Blazejewksi are usually mentioned as among its brain trust. In Marcello’s words, this is the “dramatic change” faction. And finally, says Rep. Trillo in The Providence Journal, an “independent uncommitted” group. Whether that third group swings their backing behind a third candidate, or one of the frontrunners is unclear.
Come Tuesday, barring an early-spring blizzard interfering with the vote, we’ll finally see where the faultlines in the House Democratic faction actually are. We won’t be reading tea leaves of votes, or parsing over conjecture from the punditry. The names will align with one group or another, and we’ll see where everyone stands. If that vote is close enough and the dissenters don’t surrender, there could be a huge battle over the budget. That battle could spill into the 2014 elections, and onwards into 2015. That might be a horrifying prospect, but this is how our politics is actually supposed to work. It’s been too monolithic for too long. Now, that monolith is in ruins.
P.S. In a low-information environment like this, the media plays an outsized role. The whip count is being done in private and in one-on-one conversations. It behooves any faction to project an appearance of confidence of victory, in the hopes that indecisive reps will pick what they think is a winning side. That’s why we have two factions claiming to have the votes. One or both may be lying, or one or both may genuinely believe they have the votes. Maintain skepticism of such claims. Even after the new speaker is installed, it’s unlikely we’ll know the truth.