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
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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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