David Caprio: Exit, Pursued by a Bear

I don’t think there’s a serious political observer who takes David Caprio’s statement that he’s stepping down as RI Democratic Party chair because he cannot “dedicate the necessary time and energy to assist [Democratic candidates] in their respective campaigns,” at face value. It’d be like a CEO resigning because they couldn’t find the time to run the day-to-day business of their company. Why take the position you if you couldn’t dedicate the time and energy?

Some background: while much of RI’s politcal class were twitting around the much less important story of Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis having to rent from Governor Lincoln Chafee (Mollis’ former landlord — a state contractor — was foreclosed upon and Mollis was forced to vacate), NBC 10’s Parker Gavigan went out and investigated a suspicious awarding of concession stand contracts at state beaches to Caprio and Democratic state representative Peter Palumbo which the state police are now investigating.

While both stories are difficult to parse out, since they both appear to be ethically suspcious, it’s clear to me the latter is worse. Short of a place to stay, Mollis doesn’t seem to have really benefited from the rental arrangement, and in another workplace I could easily see this scenario playing out without much comment — it’s interesting because it’s the Governor and the Secretary of State, not your coworkers.

The Caprio-Palumbo story is about actual financial gain. Both Caprio and Palumbo are cogs within RI’s political and governmental framework. Palumbo initially wins the bid, but backs out, leaving Caprio with the second highest bid who then turns around and hires Palumbo. To the person on the street, this easily appears to be two insiders gaming the system. I’m not well versed enough in the awarding of state contracts to be sure, but we have a police investigation to see if anything shakes out.

Caprio’s decision to resign is the right one though. The story plays directly into the trope that the RI Democratic Party is a corrupt political organization that’s been in power too long and whose members use the government as their own personal piggy bank. Now we enter a much more interesting moment though; who becomes the new chair?

We’re about to go through the ritualistic dance that Speakers of the House must do when they pick a new chair. The media will ask who he favors. The Speaker will insist that the state committee makes the final decision, and he can only offer recommendations. The Speaker will then select the new chair, which the media will know about beforehand, and then the committee will miraculously decide this person is the new chair. You only need pull up the three stories from Caprio’s confirmation and swap some names around to get the gist of it. Given the rate at which Democratic chairs change, I’m surprised that The Journal doesn’t have a standard story where they just fill in the blanks.

Battle for control of the Democratic Party may take center stage if there is a Democratic governor who has an agenda that differs from that of the Speaker. So far, it’s not clear if Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo having substantial policy differences with Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. Clay Pell is likely to, but he has not shown himself to be interested in the messy nature of intra-party politics this cycle. Basically, all three major Democratic gubernatorial candidates are building brands that are separate from the Democratic Party one. Whether they will even need to attempt to assert control of the Party should they be elected governor is an unanswered question.

I wouldn’t expect the recent events to have much impact on the direction of the Democratic Party. Just like the transition from Speaker Fox to Speaker Mattiello didn’t really change the trajectory of the House of Representatives (despite the bluster from its new leadership), this will have a negligible impact. Beyond that, there’s still the smallness of Rhode Island factor which can help handwave away this scandal before it becomes too big. While it may cause some minor problems for the Frank Caprio campaign and Palumbo’s reelection campaign, and while the RI Republican Party will crow to their followers about it, it won’t hit again until the state police announce the results of their investigation.

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