Unless you live in the area, you’re probably not paying much attention to the primary race between incumbent Representative Spencer Dickinson and South Kingstown Councilwoman Kathleen Fogarty in District 35.
I wasn’t, until I was randomly perusing Anchor Rising, and saw this series on Mr. Dickinson’s five-page mailer to constituents outlining the issues he sees in the State House, and specifically those under the reign of Speaker Gordon Fox. Merely due to formatting issues, I recommend reading the unmodified PDF version.
Mr. Dickinson, according to his Wikipedia page, previously served from 1973 to 1980, attaining the post of Deputy Majority Leader. So when you read the letter, it’s important to keep that in context. Mr. Dickinson isn’t some political neophyte shocked at what they’ve discovered; he is describing a system that does not have to exist, and has first hand knowledge of an alternative.
There’s a lot to unpack in the letter, but notably that Kimball Brace, the consultant behind the recent redistricting process, was also involved in a 1982 redistricting process that triggered a suspension of election for the Rhode Island Senate. Why? Because they were found to be attempting to remove a political opponent through gerrymandering, which Mr. Dickinson alleges Speaker Fox is trying to do to not only him, but also Representatives Rene Menard and Robert DaSilva.
DaSilva decided not to seek reelection, and instead to challenge Senator Daniel DaPonte for the Democratic primary. That race could be considered a proxy battle between the opposing sides in the battle over state worker pensions.
The primary race in District 35 appears to not be as lofty. In Mr. Dickinson’s telling, the reason is purely to provide a pliable legislator for the House leadership, something that Mr. Dickinson has incidentally decided not to be. It shouldn’t be called corruption (suspect redistricting process that lopped a hefty proportion of Mr. Dickinson’s supporters out of his district aside), but it is political maneuvering.
Mr. Dickinson may have just emerged as the most clear-spoken critic of Speaker Fox and leadership. He’s doubly powerful, not only because of his affiliation as a good Democrat, but also from the vantage point of his time as a Deputy Majority Leader. In a great many ways, Mr. Dickinson appears to have taken the blunt “throw all the bums out” refrain when discussing the failures of the General Assembly and sharped it.
What Mr. Dickinson is describing is an institutional culture problem. Rhode Island’s is particularly bad, because it stretches back centuries; those corrupt Democrats of years past learned all about corruption from the Republicans who’d practiced it on them before (the state GOP garnered the “for sale, and cheap label” so often quoted about RI’s corruption problems). But it’s not just corruption that we need fear. Good people can be placed in bad institutional cultures and then do bad things.
This should be a fear of every progressive, or anyone who believes in that there are principled legislators in the General Assembly (full disclosure: I do). An institutional culture can co-opt even good people. Rookie legislators come in, learn the system, and then practice and refine it on others. It’s easy to bargain away the good. ‘I’m just doing this to get my good bill passed,’ a legislator may think, ‘if I don’t play ball, it won’t ever see the light of day.’
It’s an understandable way of thinking. It’s also wrong. I believe Matthew 16:26 puts it succinctly: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”
We need more Spencer Dickinsons in office, it appears; people unafraid to keep their souls. At its root, that should be the foundations of a credible opposition. There are two ways to take power: by gaming the system, greasing the right palms, and working your way to the top; or; by smashing through, criticizing, working with other opposition members until the electorate hands you a bunch of like-minded people and you can take power after doing your time in the wilderness.
Anyhow, I could go on, but if you read Mr. Dickinson’s letter, and felt it was good, and wish more people would speak up about their experiences in the legislature like this, his contact info is on his website. On September 12th, win or lose, give him a call or send him an email and tell him about your response to his mailing. Personally, I wish more of our legislators had the courage to express their feelings like this.
P.S. A television camera in the Speaker’s office would be brilliant!