GovernorDonald Carcieri (R)
SenatorsJack Reed (D)
Sheldon Whitehouse (D)
RepresentativesRep. Patrick Kennedy (D)
Rep. Jim Langevin (D)
Districts1st District (Kennedy)
2nd District (Langevin)
Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, this tiny state with a mouthful of an official name, boasts as long and as turbulent a political history as any in the union. It was founded by Roger Williams as a refuge for religious dissenters, ‘‘the sewer of New England,’’ as the orthodox Puritan Cotton Mather put it. It has been a successful trading community since the late 16th century and a leader in manufacturing since Samuel Slater replicated from memory an English water-powered cotton textile mill in Pawtucket in 1791. Rhode Island profited from slavery (two-thirds of America’s slaves arrived from Africa on ships owned by Rhode Islanders) and war (the state boomed during the Civil War), and carried its tradition of tolerating just about anything into its politics. Rhode Island refused to pay its share for the Revolutionary War, declined to send delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and delayed joining the union until the other 12 states had, prompting George Washington to say, ‘‘Rhode Island still perseveres in that impolitic, unjust—and one might add without much impropriety—scandalous conduct, which seems to have marked all her public counsels of late.’’ The new nation’s first bank failure occurred here in 1809, when a bank capitalized at $45 issued $800,000 in bank notes. In the 1840s, conflict between hard-money merchants and soft-money farmers resulted in two state governments and a conflict known as Dorr’s War, with the outcome determined when merchant Thomas Dorr’s two ancient cannons failed to fire.
Then, in the 1930s, the state had something resembling a political revolution. Thousands of immigrants from French Canada, Ireland, and Italy came to Rhode Island to work in the textile mills, and this colony of dissident Protestants became the most heavily Catholic state in the nation. Yankee Republicans tried to appeal to Catholics by running French Canadians for office. But national events—Catholic Democrat Al Smith’s presidential candidacy in 1928, when he carried Rhode Island, and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal—moved the Catholics toward the Democrats. Then came the revolution: Although they had won only 20 of the 42 state Senate seats, the Democrats under Gov. Theodore Green refused to seat two Republicans in 1935. With the lieutenant governor’s tiebreaker, they voted Democrats into the seats, and proceeded in 14 minutes to declare the state Supreme Court vacant, to abolish state boards that controlled Democratic cities, to increase the power of the governor, and to reorganize state government to purge Republicans. This ended the direct political control of Rhode Island’s ‘‘Five Families’’—the Browns, Metcalfs, Goddards, Lippitts, and Chafees—who owned or ran many of the textile mills, the Rhode Island Hospital Trust (long the largest bank), the Providence Journal-Bulletin, Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design and the state Republican Party. Democrats have won most elections ever since with the lion’s share of votes from Rhode Island’s Catholic majority, starting with Green’s election in 1936, at age 69. From 1940 to 1980, Democrats won every election for U.S. House seats. The state’s Democratic percentages in presidential elections from 1968 to 2008 are rivaled only by Massachusetts’. Republicans have won when they’ve been able to capitalize on scandal or Democratic disarray, as governors Lincoln Almond and Donald Carcieri did in 1994 and 2002. But even the most durable Republican politician here, the late Gov. and Sen. John Chafee, lost elections as well as won them.
Rhode Island has gone through a long and often painful economic transformation, from blue collar to white collar, from textiles to high-tech. It suffered economic problems in the early 1990s, as the submarine factory and Navy base at Quonset Point shed thousands of jobs, and employment in costume jewelry, Rhode Island’s major manufacturer, fell from 32,500 in 1977 to 6,300 in 2000. But Republican Gov. Lincoln Almond, elected in 1994 and 1998, persuaded the overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature to gradually cut income taxes and eliminate the car tax, and Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci promoted successful redevelopment in the state’s capital and largest city. Its downtown was enlivened with new buildings such as the GTECH tower and events such as the SoundSession music festival and WaterFire, an art fair with 100 bonfires lit along the city’s three rivers. After the Legislature passed a 25% tax rebate for moviemakers, Disney was given free rein to shoot Underdog film scenes in the Statehouse, and all 11 episodes of the Brotherhood series were shot in the state. Tourism became Rhode Island’s second-largest industry and computer data processing a major part of the economy. The state’s population, after hovering around 1 million for decades, started to grow again.
But all was not well. Cianci, caught up in scandal, was disgraced and imprisoned, and investigators honed in on state legislators. As in neighboring Connecticut and Massachusetts, economic inequality increased, with the state divided between a growing professional class and a blue-collar remnant that scraped along in an increasingly service economy. The population’s makeup remains tilted toward the elderly, and taxes remain relatively high by national standards. Rhode Island has embraced green policies, such as requiring 16% of electricity to be generated by renewable sources by 2020, at some cost in the short term. Voters rejected a Narragansett Indian casino in West Warwick in 2006, but politicians continued to try to compete with Foxwoods in nearby Connecticut and with casinos proposed in Massachusetts. Legislators have grappled with whether same-sex couples married in Massachusetts can get a divorce after they have moved to Rhode Island. In the face of looming budget deficits, Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri in 2008 called for requiring proof of citizenship by hospitals and schools, while others urged reducing prison populations by releasing inmates early.
Politically, Rhode Island continues to be heavily Democratic, although not always so; Carcieri was re-elected 51%-49% in 2006, and the state has not elected a Democratic governor since 1992. Carcieri lost Providence and Pawtucket and some working-class suburbs, but carried just about every other city and town. Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee, appointed to succeed his late father in 1999 and elected to a full term in 2000 by 57%-41%, compiled the most liberal record of any Republican senator, but he faced fierce opposition in 2006. Chafee defeated conservative Cranston Mayor Steven Laffey in the GOP primary by only 54%-46%, and then lost to Democratic Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse by the same margin. (This is a small state: The two candidates’ fathers were roommates at Yale.) Whitehouse won 72% in Providence, which had voted 63% for Chafee in the primary and had given him 44% of the vote six years before; his percentages declined similarly in other ethnic cities and by somewhat lesser margins in affluent suburbs. A Democratic trend was also observable in the 52%-48% approval of restoring felons’ right to vote, which had been taken away by voters in 1986.
2008 Presidential Vote
2008 Democratic Presidential Primary
2008 Republican Presidential Primary
Rhode Island is almost always one of the most Democratic states in presidential elections—over the last generation, the most Democratic, though just a little bit less so lately. It voted 61%-32% for Al Gore in 2000—his best state in the country—but gave John Kerry from neighboring Massachusetts a somewhat smaller margin of 59%-39% in 2004. In 2008, it voted 63%-35% for Barack Obama, his third best percentage in the nation, after his native Hawaii and liberal Vermont. Turnout was 469,000, well above the records of 437,000 in 2004 and 432,000 in 1980. Rhode Island’s Catholic majority is heavily Democratic and, interestingly, favors abortion rights: In states where Catholics are beleaguered minorities they may stand together and strongly oppose abortion; here, where they’re the strong majority and where the mostly Mediterranean Catholics traditionally don’t pay strict attention to the mostly Irish priests, they come out against the church position.
For years Rhode Island held a presidential primary on the same day as Massachusetts, usually with the lowest turnout rate in the nation. In 2008, the state voted on March 4, the same day as Vermont, Ohio, and Texas. At that point, the Republican contest was effectively decided, although Mike Huckabee remained in the race and lost to John McCain here by a predictably large 64%-21%. But the Democratic race, after Barack Obama’s string of victories in February, was very much alive, and both his campaign and that of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s opened Rhode Island offices and sent in paid staff and recruited local volunteers. The economic divide seemed fairly apparent in the results. As in Massachusetts, Obama carried upscale towns and city neighborhoods, while Clinton ran much better in blue-collar areas that have not shared in the regional prosperity. She won the state by 58%-40%, and with her narrower victories in Ohio and Texas, could claim to have won the majority of the March 4 primaries. That outcome kept her in the race for three more months.
|111th Congress: 2 D|
Rhode Island legislators had a heck of a time redrawing the boundaries of their own districts in 2001 and 2002. Voters in 1994 adopted a constitutional amendment reducing the size of the state House after the 2000 census from 100 seats to 75 seats and the state Senate from 50 to 38 seats. Redrawing the state’s two congressional districts was much easier. Rhode Island’s two districts have remained pretty much the same since 1842, except for the period from 1912 to 1932 when the state had three districts. Providence is split, and both districts are overwhelmingly Democratic. For the 2002 redistricting, 14,000 people needed to be moved from the 2nd House District to the 1st House District. Democratic incumbents Patrick Kennedy and Jim Langevin agreed on a change in Providence that gave Kennedy his old state legislative district near Providence College. Rhode Island will not lose its second district in the apportionment following the 2010 census, and the boundaries of the two districts are likely to change little.