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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))

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.

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