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In Rhode Island, A Battle for the Democratic Party's Future In Rhode Island, A Battle for the Democratic Party's Future

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In Rhode Island, A Battle for the Democratic Party's Future

A budget-balancing Democrat could be the state's first female governor. But unions prefer the Hispanic mayor of Providence.

Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo receives applause as she addresses a rally of supporters for her pension legislation at the Statehouse, in Providence, R.I., Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011.((AP Photo/Steven Senne))

photo of Kevin Brennan
April 15, 2013

Rhode Island is one of the most reliably Democratic states in the country. President Obama won 63 percent of the vote there in 2012, and the state hasn't supported a Republican presidential nominee since Ronald Reagan's historically lopsided reelection win in 1984. Yet the Ocean State hasn't elected a Democratic governor since 1992. With Lincoln Chafee, a Republican-senator-turned-independent-governor, entering his reelection bid with dangerously low approval numbers, Democrats have their best opportunity in years to end the drought. But the party may first have to navigate a potentially divisive primary between two rising stars.

State Treasurer Gina Raimondo has received national acclaim for her efforts to rein in the state’s ballooning pension obligations. If elected, she would be the state’s first female governor. Her expected primary opponent, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, has built strong alliances with unions, and would be the state’s first Hispanic chief executive. Neither has announced campaigns yet, but both are privately preparing to run for governor.

The looming Democratic primary battle between the state's two most popular politicians could also represent one of the earliest internal struggles between different factions of the new Democratic coalition that carried Obama to victory in 2008 and 2012. Raimondo is positioned to do well with the upscale wing of the party, because of her fiscal reforms. Taveras’s base is the working-class wing of the party and Hispanics, both groups protective of government programs at risk under budget cuts. Both officials had to deal with the deep-seated budget problems that have hit Rhode Island hard: Raimondo has challenged the unions head-on, while Taveras has sought accommodation with their demands. “These really incredible forces that could make the Democrats a permanent majority at the national level could also start cannibalizing the Democratic party,” said Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University.


Raimondo would appeal to women, and EMILY's List President Stephanie Schriock already has professed her excitement about the treasurer's likely candidacy. Rhode Island has never elected a female governor or U.S. senator, and the timing may be right to shatter the state's glass ceiling. "Women in Rhode Island are sort of starving for an executive who's a woman," Schiller said. "They really, really want to be able to vote for a woman who can win."

But the defining issue of Raimondo's campaign won't be her gender, but the landmark pension-reform legislation she championed and pushed through the Democratic-controlled Legislature. The former venture capitalist has said she decided to turn to public service after reading about how the state's budget problems were causing library closures and cuts to public bus schedules. The product of a working class family who took public transportation into Providence's La Salle Academy as a high school student before moving on to Harvard, Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar) and Yale Law School, Raimondo decided to run for treasurer with the goal of easing the state's fiscal woes.

Once elected, she made it her mission to reform the public-employee pension system that, like in states across the country, was soaking up an increasingly large chunk of the state's budget. The Wall Street Journal, in a glowing profile of the Democrat, called Raimondo's plan "perhaps the boldest pension reform of the last decade." After a protracted battle with labor, during which Raimondo toured the state rallying support for the measure, the changes, which included a raised retirement age and a suspension of cost-of-living adjustments, became law in late 2011.

The legislation put Raimondo on the map in the state and nationally, as high-profile public pension battles are more commonly associated with Republicans. "She's writing the Democratic playbook on these tough issues," said Democratic strategist Karen Petel, who worked on Raimondo's 2010 campaign for treasurer. In addition to winning praise from unlikely circles, such as the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, Raimondo also emerged as a fundraising powerhouse. She finished 2012 with more than $1.35 million in the bank -- a hefty sum by Ocean State standards.

As she turns her attention to a potential run for governor, she likely can count on support from a wide swath of voters who generally support such pension reforms -- upscale Democrats, young people, and even fiscally conservative independents, who can choose to vote in the Democratic primary in the state's open primary system. But pension reform also represents her greatest political liability, as labor unions, a powerful force in Democratic nominating battles, opposed the changes and blame Raimondo for their implementation. "If she thinks that the public employee unions are going to support her, she's got a real uphill battle," said Lawrence Purtill, the president of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Education Association.

The labor movement is likely to fall in line behind Taveras if he meets Raimondo in the Democratic primary. The first-term mayor had his own issues with unions early in his tenure after the temporary firing all of the city's teachers over a pension dispute. But Taveras negotiated a compromise and has maintained a positive relationship with the labor leaders. In a Democratic primary, he could rely on support from working-class Democrats who are turned off by Raimondo's pension reform.

Taveras's appeal stretches beyond the labor community. Like Raimondo, he possesses a powerful personal story. A product of the Providence public school system, he graduated from Harvard and earned a law degree from Georgetown before becoming Providence's first Hispanic mayor. His leadership in guiding the city back from the brink of bankruptcy has earned him high statewide approval ratings. He can count on support from the more progressive elements of the party, while also relying on turnout from the state's rapidly growing Hispanic community.

Taveras has less than half as much money as Raimondo in his campaign account. But sources close to the mayor are confident he'll have enough to compete in the primary, and he's already receiving help from prominent national Hispanic leaders. A primary battle between the two rising stars could come down to Taveras turning out union and Hispanic voters and Raimondo relying on the enthusiasm of female voters and an expanded electorate, with independents opting to cast a Democratic primary ballot.

A Brown University poll conducted in late February shows both Raimondo and Taveras highly popular. Raimondo wins high marks ("excellent" or "good") from 56 percent of statewide voters, while Taveras wins the same positive reviews from 64 percent of respondents. Independent Gov. Lincoln Chafee, one of the most vulnerable governors up for reelection in 2014, gets excellent or good ratings from only 26 percent of voters.

Chafee's biggest problem could be that whether it is Raimondo or Taveras, the Democrats are likely to field a strong candidate, making it more difficult for the governor to peel off as many Democratic votes as he did in 2010, when Democratic nominee Frank Caprio's campaign imploded. Chafee supporters argue that the Democratic nominee could emerge battered from a tough primary fight, but even those close to him acknowledge that his path to reelection is murky. But the election is still 18 months away, and his odds could improve if the state's economy takes a big step forward.

Given Chafee’s vulnerability, the expected primary between the two rising Democratic stars could be the more important race to watch. It will test the powers of factions within the broader Democratic coalition -- women against Hispanics, upscale Democrats versus working-class voters. A Raimondo win would signal to other Democrats that taking on spending cuts and battling entrenched interests isn’t necessarily a political death sentence. A Taveras victory will signal the continued influence of the labor movement, particularly in working-class states. For the two Democrats, a shot at the Governor's Mansion will be on the line, but the primary fight could offer a larger preview of which forces hold more sway within the Democratic party as the calendar inches toward 2016.

CORRECTION: Rhode Island last elected a Democratic governor in 1992, when Democrat Bruce Sundlun won his second two-year term.

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