Being Republican in RI
How is the state's GOP faring after the national win?
The Saturday after Election Day, the South County Republican Breakfast convenes at the Wood River Inn and the mood is buoyant. Donald Trump had failed to capture the popular vote by two-and-a-half million ballots, but he won an Electoral College landslide. Even in this bluest of states, Trump earned 39 percent of the vote, winning fifteen inland towns. The syrup on the pancakes never tasted sweeter. Republican stalwart and breakfast organizer, Martha Stamp, eighty, can barely contain her joy.
“I never thought I’d see it in my lifetime,” she says brightly. “It’s a revolution!”
On the state level, however, the revolution will have to wait. Despite Trump’s relatively strong showing in Rhode Island, and the disappearance of the much-maligned master lever in 2014, the Republicans returned to the chamber last month a slightly smaller minority than they left last June. Out of thirty-eight state Senate seats, just five are occupied by Republicans. The House now has eleven members from the GOP. In total, the tiny minority dropped from nineteen to sixteen.
“We generally lose seats in a presidential election,” says Brandon S. Bell, chairman of the Rhode Island Republican Party. “We had four retirements in the House, so we went from twelve to eight and ended up with eleven. I wish it had been a pick-up year, but it wasn’t. It was a very successful defending-our-seats year.”
An anemic electoral performance, however, didn’t stop the Rhode Island GOP from having an outsized influence on public policy and on the mix of political players. Over the last eighteen months, Bell, a trial lawyer and energetic complaint-filer, exploited multiple statutory paths to afflict Democrats who had otherwise been comfortably ensconced in their legislative seats for decades. GOP pressure was among the drivers of reforms that included an announcement from Speaker Nicholas Mattiello that the car tax would be phased out, changes to the legislative grant program and the successful passage of a referendum to restore the state Ethics Commission’s power to investigate General Assembly misconduct.
“We give parties a special place in our democracy to hold their political opponents accountable,” says John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, a non-partisan good-government group. In states where the power is more balanced, he says, “the parties don’t tolerate people in their midst who could cost them power. In Rhode Island, we’ve seen a lot of tolerance for misbehavior by politicians. I think there’s a comfortable margin for the Democrats. Look at the rogues’ gallery of folks who have only recently been driven out.”
In September 2015, Bell filed a complaint with the state Ethics Commission over the revolving-door hiring of former Narragansett State Representative Donald Lally Jr. A member of the chamber since 1989, Lally abruptly quit his seat in March 2015, ostensibly to focus on his law practice and his family. Four months later, Governor Gina Raimondo hired Lally, on the recommendation of Mattiello, as a business liaison with the Department of Business Regulation. The ensuing outcry prompted Lally to leave the post one month before the Ethics Commission found probable cause that he violated the law requiring elected officials to wait a year before accepting a state job. As of December, the case was still pending.
In May, Bell filed an ethics complaint against Anastasia Williams, a Providence state representative since 1992, for failing to disclose to the Ethics Commission her job in the city of Providence’s Department of Planning and Development and her chairmanship of the financially distressed John Hope Settlement House, the recipient of a $300,000 Community Development Block Grant. Williams took umbrage, but corrected her filings and the Ethics Commission dismissed the complaint.
In June, after an investigative report by WPRI reporters Tim White and Ted Nesi questioned whether Representative John Carnavale actually lived in the Providence district he had represented since 2009, Bell filed a residency challenge with the Providence Board of Canvassers. A month later, the board ruled that Carnavale lived in Johnston and Carnavale, vice chairman of the powerful House Finance Committee, quit the primary race for House District 13.
A decade-old seed of doubt that West Warwick Representative Patricia L. Morgan planted about former Bristol Representative Ray Gallison’s ties to a nonprofit that benefited handsomely from the $11.6 million legislative grant program took root. In 2006, Morgan, then the state GOP chair, complained to the Ethics Commission that Gallison had a bald conflict of interest: voting on budgets that paid his salary at Alternative Education Program. Gallison eventually resolved the complaint by paying a $6,000 fine for failing to report this relationship on his yearly financial disclosure form. But the grants continued and, in 2014, Gallison rose to the position of chairman of the House Finance Committee. Last May, a federal probe, rumored to be about financial improprieties and prostitution, prompted Gallison to resign.
Even the GOP’s biggest near-coup reverberated. Republican Steven Frias came within the paper-width of a mail ballot of unseating Mattiello, who won by just eighty-five votes. Frias, a lawyer, says his strong challenge “already has had an impact on the speaker. He’s reversed course on the car tax, he’s gone from being absolutely opposed to the line-item veto to now a public stance of ‘we need to consider supporting it.’ I hope my race reduces the arrogance of the State House politicians to show that they could be challenged and possibly defeated.”
The GOP’s inability to capitalize on these victories, says Adam Myers, a Providence College political science professor, represents a “huge” missed opportunity this cycle. Myers analyzed the preliminary results of Trump’s district-by-district performance and found that he won twenty of the seventy-five House districts. Yet the state GOP didn’t field candidates in nine of those districts. For example, District 44 Representative Gregory J. Costantino, who represents Johnston, Lincoln and Smithfield, ran unopposed in a district in which 58 percent of voters went for Trump.
“When people vote in state legislative races, they follow the partisan vote up the ticket,” Myers says. “It’s a very well-known phenomenon. Most people don’t follow state politics closely and they don’t know who their state legislators are. As a result, when they make a decision in the state legislatures, they vote on their partisan predisposition. There’s not that much ticket-splitting between the presidential and state legislative races.”
Now minority leader, Patricia Morgan, says that party building requires more than coattails.
“This my fourth term, and the minority party has a hard time raising funds and that continues to be a challenge. I was the state party chairman when Governor Carcieri was in office and fundraising was easier and enough to hire a full-time executive director. When President Obama was elected, we were not able to keep raising those funds,” she says. “We had a lot of really good Republican candidates who got within two to three percentage points from winning in this last election. But people were focused on the presidential race instead of state-level issues. I think a lot of the same folks will come back in two years and I hope they do. We could grow our caucus to twenty and do more things to make Rhode Island a better place to live and work.”
In the meantime, navigating a bill to law in a politically hostile environment will still require Republicans to evince a tailback’s agility to slip the defensive line and move the ball. State Senator Elaine J. Morgan, who represents Hopkinton, Richmond, Exeter, Charlestown and West Greenwich, joined the South County GOP breakfast just before the waitress began setting down plates groaning with bacon and eggs and in time to preside over a prayer of thanks.
Now in her second term, Morgan has had one success: a sex trafficking bill in 2014 that increased penalties and toughened enforcement. She’s also had a few failures: an ill-considered email to place Syrian refugees fleeing a civil war into internment camps that earned her brief notoriety, and a second sex trafficking bill lost to another Democratic senator. It’s been a learning experience, she says.
“We have to work for everything we accomplish,” she says. “We don’t get things handed to us. There are no gimmes. I had bills taken from me and it’s extremely frustrating. This happens constantly to the minority party. We need balance up there at the State House. That’s what I’ve been pushing for.”