We’ve done it again. After months of campaigning and a tumultuous political climate in which many voters claimed to be undecided, fed up and unhappy with the direction things are going, we did what reliable Rhode Island voters can always be counted on to do: reward the incumbents and strengthen the Democratic monopoly of our state offices. The next General Assembly will convene with Democrats holding 69 of 75 House seats and 32 of 38 Senate seats. Speaker Fox, tarnished by his role in the 38 Studios fiasco, retained his seat and his speakership. Congressman Cicilline has been faulted for both mismanaging city finances and misleading the public about them, yet was handily rewarded with a second term.
Of course, the Democrats aren’t entirely to blame. Their only real opposition comes from a Republican Party seemingly incapable of producing a slate of candidates worthy of election to a student council, let alone state office, and remains trapped between the rock and hard place of an increasingly extreme and intractable national party agenda and a local electorate that’s not buying what they’re selling. The fact that they could not produce a victory for a well-respected former State Police superintendent of unquestioned integrity over a weak incumbent who fought a damaging primary battle says all we need to know about their prospects – simply put, they took their best shot and came up short. We often talk of a need for a third party, but at this point we’d do well just to have a second party.
If there is one state in this country that should be capable of fielding a viable third party, it is the smallest one, with a reputation for independence and contrarianism. There is evidence of this already – admittedly small flickers of hope, but hope nonetheless. Whatever people may think of Governor Chafee, it is significant that we elected someone without party affiliation to our highest state office. On the East Side, a grassroots independent with no political resume gave the Speaker of the House, far and away one of the most powerful people in the state, a run for his money. The Moderate Party, which in its 2010 debut managed to field a formidable candidate for governor, continues to build for the future.
Furthermore, those few rogue candidates are operating in a small, affordable media market made up of equally small, manageable districts that are relatively easy to canvass. Within those districts resides an electorate that is perpetually ready to throw the bums out. So why can’t alternative parties and candidates gain more traction?
The master lever is one big answer. That antiquated tool of party machinery continues to make an already safe Democratic majority even safer, especially during big national elections like this one. The ability to vote straight party with one easy flick of a pen is something Rhode Islanders simply don’t need, but inert incumbents and the deeply entrenched ward-heelers they rely on won’t give it up without a fight. More than that, a thoroughly dominant party in a parochial, everybody-knows-everybody state makes for a powerful and wide-reaching patronage machine – every Rhode Islander either is or knows one of its beneficiaries. It’s easy to maintain lockstep party loyalty when a combination of scare tactics and blunt reality means that we all have to wonder if casting our vote for the “other guy” will endanger our sister’s pension.
Despite all this, we have the simplest and most effective means possible to fight back: our votes. If you’re tired of the same old hucksters, crooks and career politicians, don’t vote for them. Give the “other guy” (or girl) a shot, even if he or she is not necessarily your ideal candidate. And if you’ve really got some ideas about how to fix this state, consider running. It’s tough to beat the party machine, but it’s far from impossible. In a state this tiny, it’s only a fine line that separates a concerted effort by a small group of concerned citizens from a full-fledged movement.