Rhode Island’s General Assembly Democrats have been an odd duck among Northeast Democrats. Data has long revealed that the median Democratic legislator in Rhode Island would be just as comfortable in Mississippi, and far to the right of neighbors in Massachusetts and Connecticut. It’s long been the position of many left-wing observers to consider the right-wing of the Democratic Party as de facto Republicans who have wormed their way into the dominant coalition.
This has led to disappointing outcomes, where Rhode Island’s Democrats seem more responsive to conservative demands than liberal and progressive ones.
But the 2020 primaries offer a real chance to change all that. Progressives in Rhode Island now have a chance to follow their colleagues in New York, and replace conservative leadership. In the House, this could mean the ability to block the budget and potentially block a Speaker. In the Senate, it could mean a two-thirds majority in the chamber; enough to elect their own Senate President, override vetoes, and (narrowly) pass a budget.
Let’s start with the House, where the situation is not so rosy, but still very intriguing.
By my count, there are 26 progressive candidates running for the House who likely wouldn’t support the Speaker. There are a further five who are currently supporters of Speaker Mattiello, and another three who opposed the Speaker in the last Speaker election in 2019. If every progressive won their primary, and every Democrat won the general, that would be 34 reps in the anti-Speaker faction, and 36 in the pro-Speaker faction.
Neither is enough to elect a Speaker outright, likely putting the Republicans in the driver’s seat. And now’s a good moment to talk about the Republicans here. If you did the math, you’d see my hypothetical only has five Republicans in the House.
That is extremely unrealistic; Republicans will likely end up with somewhere between twice and thrice that number, blocking both progressive and conservative Democratic candidates alike. The biggest target the Republicans have is the Speaker himself, who is potentially vulnerable in a presidential election.
How Republicans vote will be a big question mark. Speaker Mattiello has twice received the support of the Republican caucus, in 2014 and 2015 when the Speaker’s opposition was fragmented. More recently, the caucus has taken a different tact and started voting for its own leader. But Republicans have supported Democrats multiple times throughout history; electing John Harwood Speaker in 1993, and supporting John DeSimone in 2005 in an attempt to oust Speaker William Murphy.
However, it is no longer 1993 or 2005. A conservative Democratic Speaker dependent on Republican support in 2020 would draw a lot of heat and national attention for their caucus (Republicans would likely draw their own heat for such a maneuver, especially as any Democratic Speaker is usually Devil No. 1 in Republican messaging). And I’d argue the situation is different from 2014 and 2015: progressives have been fairly unified in their opposition. Both conservative Democrats and Republicans would have to weigh the cost and benefits of such a coalition.
There is one possibility I think is worth discussing, and that’s the creation of a “reform” coalition between progressive Democrats and Republicans. The goal of this coalition would not be to agree on legislation or on a budget, but to democratize the House and rollback the impediments to legislating instituted in 2005. In this scenario, Democrats and Republicans agree on a compromise candidate for Speaker, one who is supposed to handle the operations of the House fairly, but not run it from the top-down.
The best candidate for this, from what I’ve read, is Rep. Jack Lyle. Lyle was elected in 2018 as a Republican, but endorsed by unions, Planned Parenthood, and environmental organizations. This year, he’s running in a three-way election as an independent. My understanding is that he’s well-liked by his colleagues, and could be a congenial Speaker.
Such a person, a Republican-turned-independent, with a mix of liberal and conservative positions, could act as a good vehicle for transforming House operations to something more akin to a Westminster-system, where the Speaker is typically above the fray. Lyle might take a more active role, but allowing legislators actually craft legislation from the committees, without allowing any side to dominate another could completely alter the way politics happens in the House.
It likely presents even more liabilities. For one thing, it leaves control of the Democrats unsettled. It means difficult and divisive legislation could unpredictably come out of committee. And it leaves both sides, progressive Democrats and Republicans, open to accusations of working with those most opposed to their values.
Still, it likely represents the best chance RI has for a House that works as it was probably envisioned to work: a place where representatives go to debate issues and work toward solutions.
The Senate has long been the more progressive and more union-friendly of the two chambers; larger districts make it harder to break up Democratic numbers. That holds true in primaries. Nineteen races (half of the Senate) have at least one progressive with a few races actually featuring a strong progressive facing off against a less reliable progressive. Beyond that, there are about seven or so Democrats who might likely support any progressive faction.
In terms of the math, if every Senate progressive candidate were to win the primary and general, it would place them in the majority of the Democratic caucus (able to pick the caucus’ leadership), and if they could add all the potential progressives to their numbers, they’d have 26 votes, a couple votes above the 24 vote threshold necessary to pass a budget.
Progressive control of the Senate is pretty important. The Senate is the second to last veto point for the state budget (the last being the Governor’s explicit veto). Forcing the House and Governor to agree to include Senate progressives’ priorities in any budget would be hugely important. But it also allows a progressive majority to start rejecting gubernatorial nominees with the Senate’s advice and consent powers. That would be extremely useful in the event a conservative Democrat or a Republican was to be elected governor in 2022.
How plausible is this?
Look, these are maximal progressive visions of what could go down this year. They also would be pretty massive upheavals. In the Senate, that means progressives beating the President, the Majority Leader, the President Pro Tempore, the Deputy President Pro Tempore, and the Majority Whip. In the House, it means ousting the Chairman of the RI Democratic Party, and a couple Deputy Majority Leaders.
But I was fairly pessimistic about this until I did the analysis. I would’ve put the likelihood of a Rhode Island Democratic Party in the General Assembly resembling the national party at over a decade off. But having considered these numbers, I think it’s more plausibly one to three cycles away.
It’s going to be a very messy transition, and there’s still a big question mark about how different progressive control would be compared to what we currently have. But we’ve seen in other states that progressives and even further to the left, socialists, are starting to make serious wins in the Democratic Party in state legislatures. There’s no reason to assume that Rhode Island is an island unto itself.