Representing Your Constituency In an Era of Unchallenged Incumbency

On Friday, The Public’s Radio released a brief interview with Kate Coyne-McCoy, the RI Democratic Party’s new chief strategist. For a 13-minute interview, there’s a lot to unpack there. I noticed some tension in her proclamations of there being a new, different leadership when paired with her parroting of the same “big tent” rhetoric every set of Democratic leadership has used to suppress party dissenters. However, I wanted to focus on a particular part of the interview.

A couple of times she made a comment about constituent representation:

ED FITZPATRICK: As Maureen [Moakley] mentioned the legislative session so far has seen a lot of action so far on progressive issues like climate change, housing discrimination, minimum wage… what do you attribute that to? Is it having a new House Speaker, is it the election of more progressives, do you see that trend continuing, and will you be standing in the way if you’re working for incumbents who are facing progressive challenges?

KATE COYNE-MCCOY: No, I really see it, Ed, as representing your constituency. It is clear that the constituencies in Rhode Island were — are — in favor of raising the minimum wage and engaging in climate and sea level rise protections… I forget what the third one you said, but it… for me it’s about about representing your constituency. Doc Corvese, who — I don’t agree with Doc Corvese on one thing that I can think of — but he represents his constituency. He is elected by his constituency. Whoever the most sort of liberal member of the House and the Senate, they represent their constituency. And so you want to take those issues, you’ve got to take on that constituency, you’ve got to educate them, you’ve got to communicate with them, you’ve got to not ignore them, you’ve got to talk to them in the out-year and the on-year. For me it comes down to letting the voters decide, and running a straightforward campaign with all the resources and tools at your disposal so that you mobilize the voters who can get you elected.

FITZPATRICK: Just a follow-up, are you saying that you think the constituency in Rhode Island has changed, become more progressive, or is it just who’s up at the State House?

COYNE-MCCOY: You know, I do think that, I think that the current leadership in the State House has listened to their constituency, both at the leadership level and at the rank-and-file level, in a closer way than previous leaderships. Joe Shekarchi is not Nick Mattiello. This is a different ballgame.

Political Roundtable: Coyne-McCoy on intra-party controversy among RI Democrats & more, May 14, 2021

She raised this idea of “representing their constituency” again in reply to a question from Ian Donnis about Democratic support for gun rights.

This is an appealing idea; socialist Democrats, progressive Democrats, liberal Democrats, moderate Democrats, conservative Democrats, they’re just out here, representing their constituency. My question is:

Are they?

Let’s pick Rep. Corvese, since Coyne-McCoy used him as an example. First elected in 1998 when the House was 100 members, Corvese has gone through 11 election cycles which means he’s appeared before voters 22 times (once for the primary, once for the general). Only twice has he ever had a contest: once in the general in 1998 when the seat was first open against an independent named Charles Lombardi, and once in 2008 in the Democratic primary against Paula DiNucci.

That’s it. Corvese has had an opponent in 9.1% of all the elections he’s had. He’s literally never needed mount a campaign in over a decade. He’s often cited as the #1 DINO, a man who would be a Republican in almost any other context. He serves as the RI Democratic Party’s secretary.

If Corvese is representing his constituency or if he’s way too conservative for his district or if he’s not conservative enough, that’s not really something we can tell. There simply isn’t enough data for us to really glean that. It’s possible though that Corvese should’ve been removed by a more moderate Democrat a long time ago; his district was narrowly carried by both Clinton and Raimondo it the two-party share of the vote, and Biden won it by a stronger margin in 2020. None has appeared, in part because we lean on narratives like the one Coyne-McCoy is repeating to make sense of complex things like why our election rules favor incumbents.

To say Corvese is representing his constituency, I think, elides the reality that in Rhode Island, we have very little competition for seats, either intraparty competition or interparty competition. There’s nothing that holds Corvese and his colleagues to account to their constituents but elections. But for dozens of General Assembly members (conservative, progressive, or moderate alike) they never face this critical test.

Elections are the best tool we have to oust incumbents who have outlived their usefulness to their constituents. Everything else falls short of this. But too many voters in Rhode Island never get the option to vote for someone else. Incumbents, especially incumbents like Corvese who (ten times out of eleven) never have an election, should not be said to be representing their constituents if they never have to face those constituents. The constituents of House District 55 could totally be in support of minimum wage increases and addressing climate change, but Corvese opposed both (he did vote in favor of ending housing discrimination based on source of income).

I think there’s a strong case to be made that the gains of progressive candidates and progressive policy in Rhode Island are proof that the state’s Democratic Party has either drifted (or perhaps, remained) too far to the right. Lenny Cioe’s narrow defeat against Senate President Ruggerio shows there’s a sizable faction of Democrats, even in districts thought to be too conservative, for progressive policy and politicians.

I think Ed FitzPatrick hit it on the head with this question. The fear from progressives, justifiable or not, is that as Coyne-McCoy goes about her remit to modernize the Democratic Party, she will hand incumbents who no longer represent their constituents better tools than they had before. That for all her progressive credentials, she will end up strengthening the least-progressive faction in the party, and put more hurdles in the way of those who want to bring the Rhode Island Democratic Party in line with the values of the United States Democratic Party.

This may be unfair, but Coyne-McCoy should recognize a lot of damage has been done up to now to harm trust within the party. The left wing of the Party has heard a lot of this before, often just before Party leadership moves to crush them. Coyne-McCoy says she does not see eye-to-eye with Corvese on anything, but when she talks about the big tent, she sounds an awful lot like him. And if you’re progressive, that really should give you pause.

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