The One 2014 Primary Highlighting the Democratic Divide

Democrats have mostly avoided high-profile primary fights this year. But the one in Rhode Island highlights the differences across wings of the party.

Rhode Island state Treasurer Gina Raimondo
National Journal
Karyn Bruggeman
July 27, 2014, 4:15 p.m.

While the 2014 primary sea­son has provided count­less ex­amples of Re­pub­lic­an in­fight­ing, the split between Demo­crats’ pop­u­list left and their middle with stronger cor­por­ate ties has been more of an ab­stract dis­cus­sion. The one ex­cep­tion: Rhode Is­land, where the fiercely con­tested Demo­crat­ic gubernat­ori­al primary may be the best win­dow in­to the party’s di­vi­sions.

And yet, the true dif­fer­ences between two po­ten­tial Demo­crat­ic stars — pen­sion re­form-cham­pi­on­ing state Treas­urer Gina Rai­mondo and Eliza­beth War­ren-chan­nel­ing Provid­ence May­or An­gel Taver­as — largely lie in the mar­gins. But when Demo­crats next grapple with their in­tern­al dif­fer­ences on a na­tion­al stage, hav­ing mostly avoided high-pro­file primary fights since Barack Obama sur­prised Hil­lary Clin­ton in 2008, their rhet­or­ic may echo the fight Rai­mondo and Taver­as are hav­ing right now in the Ocean State.

“Rhode Is­land really does en­com­pass every ele­ment of in­tern­al di­vi­sions with­in the Demo­crat­ic Party right now,” said Brown Uni­versity polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist Wendy Schiller. “On eth­ni­city, gender, uni­on versus non-uni­on.”

The can­did­ates per­son­i­fy­ing those splits are two of Rhode Is­land’s biggest polit­ic­al per­son­al­it­ies, both com­ing from mod­est back­grounds and head­ing to­ward Novem­ber with the chance to make his­tory. Rai­mondo, a Rhodes schol­ar and founder of a loc­al ven­ture cap­it­al firm, would be the state’s first wo­man gov­ernor, while Taver­as, the son of a Domin­ic­an-born single moth­er, would be the first His­pan­ic to hold that of­fice.

The most im­port­ant dif­fer­ence between them, though, is that Rai­mondo was the one spear­head­ing a deal to re­form the state’s un­der­fun­ded pen­sion sys­tem in 2011. The deal raised the state re­tire­ment age, cut be­ne­fits, and changed the sys­tem from a defined-be­ne­fit plan to a mixed one in­clud­ing some per­son­al sav­ings ac­counts, spark­ing massive push­back and lit­ig­a­tion from Rhode Is­land’s uni­ons. And part of Rai­mondo’s plan to keep the state’s in­vest­ments grow­ing in­clud­ing put­ting a big chunk of them in­to hedge funds, where some of her biggest cam­paign back­ers come from.

Taver­as is try­ing to cap­it­al­ize off grow­ing pop­u­list sen­ti­ments by paint­ing Rai­mondo as the can­did­ate be­hold­en to Wall Street. In one TV ad, Taver­as says: “Wall Street val­ues, they make money off of your hard work. I be­lieve we’re all in this to­geth­er,” and claims “I’ll take Main Street in Rhode Is­land over Wall Street any day.” Taver­as’s ads fea­ture con­struc­tion work­ers, and his cam­paign puts heavy em­phas­is on his sup­port from labor.

Taver­as’s man­tra is de­riv­at­ive of Eliza­beth War­ren’s re­frain: “We need a cop on the beat so no one steals your purse on Main Street or your pen­sion on Wall Street.” But the tagline will­fully ig­nores all Taver­as and Rai­mondo share in com­mon, even when it comes to those same pen­sion in­vest­ments and re­la­tion­ships with or­gan­ized labor.

A hand­ful of pub­lic em­ploy­ee uni­ons see al­most no dif­fer­ence between Taver­as and Rai­mondo, par­tic­u­larly teach­er’s uni­ons, which take is­sue with Taver­as’s policies as may­or — spe­cific­ally, when he fired and then re­hired thou­sands of teach­ers in his first year in of­fice to al­low great­er flex­ib­il­ity to close the city’s huge budget gap.

“Gina Rai­mondo is un­der fire for hav­ing so much of the state’s pen­sion funds in­ves­ted in hedge funds, but An­gel ac­tu­ally had a high­er per­cent of the city of Provid­ence’s funds in­ves­ted in hedge funds,” said Robert Walsh, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Rhode Is­land Na­tion­al Edu­ca­tion As­so­ci­ation. “And the changes An­gel made are now also tied up in lit­ig­a­tion,” like Rai­mondo’s.

But Taver­as’s slo­gan “con­jures up a whole stream of re­sent­ment” that many feel to­ward “Wall Street” right now, Uni­versity of Rhode Is­land polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist Maur­een Moakley said, and he’s brought them to bear against Rai­mondo ef­fect­ively.

“The Wall Street at­tacks are un­true and a de­lib­er­ate mis­char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion of who I am and what I’ve done as treas­urer,” Rai­mondo said. “I don’t work for Wall Street, I nev­er have. I’m from Rhode Is­land and I ran a busi­ness in Provid­ence.”

“Re­gard­less of wheth­er it’s true, it fits in­to the na­tion­al con­ver­sa­tion,” Rai­mondo said. “It’s rhet­or­ic. There is that na­tion­ally. It’s a theme, and it’s a prob­lem. In­come in­equal­ity is a huge prob­lem in Amer­ica.”

Rai­mondo ac­tu­ally has more uni­on en­dorse­ments than Taver­as. She has con­sol­id­ated sup­port among private sec­tor build­ing trades uni­ons, which tend to be more con­ser­vat­ive. Pub­lic em­ploy­ee uni­ons have split their sup­port between Taver­as and Clay Pell, the grand­son of former Sen. Claiborne Pell and the third Demo­crat in the race. Walsh’s teach­ers uni­on, one of Rhode Is­land’s largest with 12,000 mem­bers, op­ted to en­dorse Pell.

Des­pite the Go­liath versus Go­liath nature of the Rai­mondo-Taver­as match­up, one way or an­oth­er, Pell is ex­pec­ted to play spoil­er. “What saves Rai­mondo is that Clay Pell is still in the race,” said Schiller. “The teach­ers uni­on has backed him 100 per­cent, and if the teach­ers uni­on votes for Clay Pell that takes away votes from Taver­as. Un­der the state’s open primary sys­tem she’s count­ing on get­ting a lot of in­de­pend­ents and wo­men who might not vote in a Demo­crat­ic primary to vote.”

“Clay’s the first choice of a lot of people and the second choice of every­one else,” Walsh said.

But he comes with his own set of vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies. Taver­as de­scribes him­self as “the son of nobody fam­ous,” a quiet jab at Pell and out­go­ing Gov. Lin­coln Chafee, the son of former gov­ernor and Sen­at­or John Chafee, a fam­ily whose polit­ic­al lin­eage dates back to 19th cen­tury gov­ernor Henry Lip­pitt. The wedge is just one more ex­ample of how Rhode Is­land could serve as a har­binger of things to come.

“In a very small way the idea of Clay Pell fail­ing to res­on­ate in Rhode Is­land is sim­il­ar to Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton and Jeb Bush,” Schiller said. “People are a little bit sick of dyn­asty polit­ics even in the little state of Rhode Is­land.”

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