RI, the One-Party State

With a scant ten Republicans at the State House, checks and balances are long gone; will accountability follow?

Into every political life comes a reckoning. June Gibbs’ moment came right after the polls closed. On Election Day, the longest-serving Republican state senator was stationed, as she had been for the last twelve elections, at her own polling place. At about nine o’clock, Gibbs stared her numbers in the eye and she knew.

“I won. But not by the margin I needed,” she recalled. “The Obama sweep was like a riptide. Once you got caught in it, there was no way out.” 

Gibbs, who by all accounts has represented the ragged slice of East Bay’s Twelfth District competently since 1984, was still game for another run of the Smith Hill Follies—despite her eighty-six years. 

“I had really hoped to hold on because the balance was so bad,” she says.

But the imbalance got worse. The Republican ranks in the General Assembly shrank from five to four in the Senate and from thirteen to six in the House. The ratio of Republican to Democratic senators has not been so lopsided since 1974.

“When I first went in, there were twelve Republicans,” Gibbs recalls. “It was much easier. You had some company. You had some support. As our numbers went down it was harder and harder.”

Not a day goes by without a member of the state’s professional or amateur punditocracy tracing, in high dudgeon, the ills of Rhode Island to the headwaters of one-party rule. It explains everything from the state’s economic woes to the weather. And it’s an excuse with longevity. 

Republicans controlled the state for about a century with the aid of the 1834 Constitution, which created a weak governorship, gave rural districts disproportionate legislative sway over the cities and generally frustrated change by, among other things, the imposition of poll taxes. The Republicans dominated both local and state governments. General Charles “Boss” Brayton, the legendary chairman of the state GOP, continued their reign by engineering an amendment that stripped the governor’s office of most of its powers and wooing the French Canadian and Italian immigrant communities to hold the Irish Catholic Democrats at bay. 

“If Hitler were running as a Democrat, he could get elected in this state.”

But Brayton died in 1910, and in the face of larger forces—the Great Depression and the national rise of the Democrats—the Republican party began to weaken. In 1935, Governor Theodore F. Green shot an arrow through its heart. Green refused to seat two Republican senators whose election results had been contested. When a recount favored their Democratic rivals, the power of the purse changed hands. The Bloodless Revolution, as it was called, drove the editor of the Chicago Daily 

Tribune to cut one star from pictures of the American flag in protest, but the state appeared otherwise unharmed.

Political scientists are less hysterical in their reactions to a lack of political competition, but they have observed the downside. Brian Krueger, a University of Rhode Island political scientist, says that one-party dominance can allow corruption to flourish, engender less responsiveness to the electorate and drive down voter turnout.

“It creates a cycle of disengagement,” Krueger adds. “Why should a politician pay attention to you, if you aren’t going to vote anyway?”

Democrats tend to dispute the premise. They argue that Republicans have occupied the governor’s office for nineteen of the last twenty-three years and that the Democrats in the General Assembly are hardly a monolith.

“There are Democrats who don’t agree with the leadership,” says State Senator Susan Sosnowski, a Democrat who was once a Republican. “And we have several Democrats who exhibit beliefs and come up with legislation that is more reflective of Republicans.”   

State Representative Al Gemma, who has run and won as a Republican and an Independent, now represents Warwick as a Democrat. While he allows “if Hitler were running as a Democrat, he could get elected in this state,” Gemma himself embodies bipartisanship: “I think like a Republican, but I have the heart of a Democrat.”

On the Republican side, there is no shortage of failure analysis. Gibbs blames “the master lever,” meaning offering voters the straight-ticket option. (The actual master lever disappeared in 1996, when the state switched from the old-style pulley-and-lever machines to optical scanners.) Giovanni Cicione, chairman of the Republican State Committee, fingers the national GOP for failing to espouse policies or philosophies that resonate with Rhode Islanders. 

A 2006 poll showed more than three-quarters of voters thought the state was headed in the wrong direction.

“The national party has to do something pretty dramatic in terms of its approach to core values and we have to have consistent messaging up and down the party chain,” Cicione says. “If the national party doesn’t do that, I’m not sure anything can be done here to help the state Republican Party.”

Adds former United States Senator Lincoln Chafee: “This tiny minority is constantly fighting. My nasty primary is a good example. Instead of running against the Democrat, they ran against one of their own. There are those who want to win elections and those who want ideological purity.”

(In keeping with the honored tradition, right after the November shellacking, senate Republican Leo Blais challenged Minority Leader Dennis Algiere for the top spot among the four survivors.) 

Then there are those who seek balance through triangulation. Ken Block, a Barrington businessman, was not one to air his discontent on the Providence Journal’s editorial pages. He decided to establish a third party, which Block named for its platform—the Moderate Party.

“Democracy is broken in Rhode Island,” he declares. “And every year, I would hold my nose and vote.”

About a year and a half ago, he caught a whiff of third-party potential. Block hired Alpha Research to conduct a poll and, not surprisingly, more than three-quarters of surveyed voters thought the state was headed in the wrong direction. Encouraged by these results, Block began to gather kindred spirits. He now boasts a 500-name mailing list with the aim of raising funds and running quality candidates—if he can meet the state’s exacting requirements for attaining official party status.     

“The only way to fix this is to ensure a check and balance in the legislature—which is why this crazy extreme is required,” Block says.

Even if the Moderates were able to hoist both legs over the high bar to establish their third party, Brown University political scientist Wendy Schiller is not sanguine about their chances at the ballot box. Third parties tend to be marginalized by our winner-take-all electoral system, she says. The state’s last third-party experiment ended with a whimper in 2006. At its height, the Cool Moose Party fielded twenty candidates who captured more than 15 percent of the vote. Its ironic and iconic founder Bob Healy unsuccessfully ran for governor under banners like: “Healey for Governor, Why Not? You’ve Done Worse.” He sought the lieutenant governor’s position for the sole purpose of eliminating the office. 

In twenty years of quixotic campaigns, Healy’s greatest victory was a court challenge to the primary system, which rendered unconstitutional parts of state election law. Today he quietly operates a cheese shop in Warren.    

In the meantime, Rhode Island exhibits the classic symptoms of one-party malaise. Low voter participation? Nationally, Rhode Island historically scrapes the bottom in primary election voter turnout. Corruption? Umm, check. And how about responsiveness to the electorate? 

Gemma is philosophical: “You need the yin and the yang. Checks and balances. But it’s what the people want.”