The Coming Definition of the Rhode Island Democrat Party


As I skimmed through various state-level political stories earlier today, some lines began to emerge that I think may indicate the likely picture of 2018.

Start with the datum that appears to be the most frivolous.  Providence progressive Democrat Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell wants to eliminate the phrase “and the Providence Plantations” from Rhode Island’s name.  Nevermind that Rhode Island voters rejected exactly this change in 2010, 78% to 22%.  Ranglin-Vassell (a public school teacher) appears to have little awareness of the actual history of the name, so why would she care about what the people of Rhode Island actually want?

Her suggestion is little more than another example of progressive policy thinking.  One possibility is that she is cynically manipulating identity politics and stoking culture war as a means of increasing progressive power.  A more disturbing possibility is that she (and her fellow progressives) really think that this is an important issue that ought to resonate with the public, and if it doesn’t, that’s just more evidence that the public is racist.

Now move to a slightly-more-serious topic, if only because it involves our governor, Gina Raimondo.  When Samantha Fenlon asked the Democrat on ABC 6 about the performance of State Police Colonel Ann Assumpico, this was the response:

“She has substantially diversified the command staff. And, she’s doing an awful lot to make the State Police a culture of inclusivity. So, I think after one year I’d give her a solid grade,” said Raimondo.

That is what the governor thinks is most important about the state’s chief law-enforcement agency.  Again, either this is a cynical ploy to play to a progressive base, or the governor really thinks the key criterion for judging the police isn’t how well they’re keeping people safe and otherwise securing the public square, but whether their leadership is diverse.

Next a juxtaposition.  Framing his expectations for the upcoming legislative session, Democrat Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello of Cranston strikes a pretty conservative, back-to-basics tone.  The car tax elimination must continue.  Regulations on businesses must be reduced and reformed.  The PawSox owners, if they want taxpayer help, must convince the public, not seek special deals from politicians.

In the same Providence Journal article, by contrast, new Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D, Providence, North Providence) is surprisingly aligned with the progressives:

Ruggerio gave his personal commitment to Senate passage, for a second year in a row, of legislation to protect Rhode Islanders should the GOP-led Congress finally succeed in repealing the Affordable Care Act, known familiarly as Obamacare. …

Ruggerio also promised an effort to “close the gender salary gap.”

What makes this surprising is that many political observers in Rhode Island have thought of Ruggerio as more of an establishment Democrat, mainly concerned with labor union issues, particularly in construction — a field in which members tend to be more socially conservative.  Indeed, some analyses of Donald Trump’s electoral victory for the presidency have cited union members as “Trump Democrats.”

This rift has been increasing in recent years, however.  Private-sector labor union members have been relatively conservative, but public-sector unions (particularly teachers) have tended to be indistinguishible from progressive political organizations, a tendency that has also appeared, here and there, among the leaders of labor organizations, more broadly.  As government unions have increasingly dominated the movement, one has gotten the impression that member services may be how they make their money, but left-wing activism is their reason for being.  Ruggerio may be bending to that reality as he moves the Senate left.

If this impression of the starting point in 2018 has some validity, we may see an interesting shakeup among Rhode Island Democrats.  To the right will be what I’ve characterized as “establishment” Democrats, who have ties to the business community, are relatively conservative when it comes to cultural issues, and are still in keeping with a traditional Democrat base.  On the other side will be the progressives and the labor union leaders.  In general, what this political field would indicate is a shift of the union Democrats to the progressive side, away from the establishment side.

Such a rift could reach well beyond the party.  For example, if Ruggerio’s platform is an indication of things to come, increasing numbers of union members may shift their voting patterns away from their supposed self interest and toward their principles, but also seek to stop the flow of the money that they earn through their work into the funding machine for progressive activists (with their six-figure salaries).  In that light, a possibly impending decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that workers can’t be forced to pay dues to unions to which they don’t want to belong will have even-more-profound implications.

As for Rhode Island, the left-right split may prove interesting, indeed, as it cuts through the near-total partisan control of the state and through the solidarity of the labor unions — interesting and full of opportunity (and risk).