Opinion

The beginning of the end of machine politics in Rhode Island

How progressives are making an end run around Democratic Party bosses

Things are changing fast in Rhode Island. In the state's primary elections last week, left-wing challengers ousted a slew of Democratic incumbents, and won a couple additional open seats. It's very likely the start of a serious political realignment in the state, and another instance of the left chipping away at a corrupt Democratic establishment that has completely lost touch with its voting base.

This is interesting not only for the result, but for how it was accomplished. In Rhode Island, as in many other states, the Democratic Party had all but ceased to exist as a normal political party that serves its constituents, so the challengers built an external organization as a substitute for traditional party infrastructure and focused on basic issues that impact voters directly. The left, in other words, is bringing democracy back to America's tiniest state.

Rhode Island is a solidly liberal state in terms of opinion — Hillary Clinton defeated Trump there by nearly 16 points, and Democrats control both the governorship and super-majorities in both houses of the state legislature. Yet for decades, Rhode Island state politics have been dominated by a famously corrupt political machine. Notably, this machine functions very differently from the Tammany Hall-style machines of old — instead of being a nexus of patronage and insider dealing where the voters get a substantial cut of the spoils to ensure their loyalty, the machine more often commits straight-up looting and embezzlement.

The Rhode Island legislature has long been a place where corporate lobbyists found basically every door open to them, where the Mafia was involved in politics for decades, where elected officials have been repeatedly caught with both hands in the public till, and where the actual public has been all but ignored. It's a place where for years, "you don't run for office unless you were tapped on the shoulder by the political establishment," Cynthia Mendes, one of the successful primary challengers, told The Week in an interview. They didn't "feel like they had to even throw the public a bone."

However, that also meant that the machine had very little organic political support. Mendes took on incumbent Senator William Conley, who is also the powerful chair of the Senate finance committee, in his East Providence district. He essentially "had never had to run a campaign before," said Mendes, and she clobbered him by a whopping 62-38 margin. As that and the other victories reveal, the establishment had been caught napping. All somebody had to do was point out their failure to do much of anything to actually represent their constituents, credibly promise to do better — including stuff like aggressive climate policy, higher taxes on the rich, constituent service, and so on — and multiple top-ranking senators and representatives folded like wet noodles. A tax on the top one percent, joining the Renew New England regional clean energy and job creation alliance, and extending health insurance coverage were particularly attractive, Mendes said. "Those are exciting for people."

Interestingly, Mendes and her colleagues relied on a sort of para-party organization called the Rhode Island Political Cooperative (which works closely with the Sunrise Movement and other progressive groups) for her victory. "They do what the political parties used to do for their candidates ... show up with volunteers, a shared platform, training," Mendes said. That's the kind of infrastructure that develops potential candidates into serious politicians.

Again, this makes for a jarring contrast with Democratic Party history. In the Tammany Hall days, the machine was quite proactive about recruiting ambitious up-and-comers into politics — to keep the party bench stocked, and to co-opt people who might otherwise challenge their power. Then, when someone had paid their dues, there was considerable room to do serious policy, particularly if it could be framed as benefiting the machine. Someone like Al Smith could rise from being an anonymous machine spear-carrier to being elected governor of New York, where he passed groundbreaking expansions of the welfare state — both because such things were morally necessary, and because they were popular.

But today, across much of the country, the Democratic Party is basically an empty shell. It is not easy to beat a political machine, but it is also not impossible either — particularly if it doesn't even try to buy off its voters with genuine goodies. In New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, the left has been gradually chipping away at such machines, knocking off incumbents who are barely even recognized by their constituents. And once the machine has been broken for good, it will be much easier for the left to cement itself in power by, you know, doing some good old democracy. "We had a really high turnout for primaries," said Mendes. "For people to be excited about their representation in the state house, the idea that the state house could be porous — you have to see their faces, it's just amazing. And there's no going back now."

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