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Netroots Nation examines Rhode Island Democrats

June 11, 2012

PROVIDENCE — Denizens of Netroots Nation may have thought they were coming to a famously deep-blue state that has Democratic supermajorities in both chambers of its General Assembly for their 2012 get-together, but a panel of local activists gave them a sobering dose of bad news: While Rhode Island is heavily Democratic, it is not particularly liberal, or, in the current jargon, progressive.
The panel discussion, called “When Democrats Aren’t Democrats, the Story of Rhode Island,” used examples of what participants described as the Ocean State’s un-progressive stance on issues such as tax reform, voter ID, same-sex marriage and women’s reproductive rights.
Despite having an overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature, with an openly gay Speaker of the House, advocates still could not push through a same sex marriage law last year, Marriage Equality Rhode Island campaign director Raymond Sullivan said. Instead, he said, they had to settle for what he called the “second-class citizenship” of “the worst civil unions bill” in the country.
“And that’s not the worst part,” he added, explaining that an amendment was tacked on – the same amendment that had been shot down already in several other states – that allowed religiously-based organizations to disregard the legal rights of civil union couples.
“This is what they were going to do to placate the extreme right wing of the General Assembly – I’m not saying of either party, the right wing of the Democratic Party is far more right than the right wing of the Republican Party here.”
Sullivan, who was a three-term Democratic state representative, said it was up to the Independent governor, Lincoln Chafee, who used to be a Republican, to sign an executive order recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states.
“It was a big lift,” he said.
Kate Brock, director of the social advocacy group Ocean State Action, said she learned early that if you are going to push for causes like anti-poverty, workforce training, higher education and the environment, you are going to have to get knee-deep in tax reform issues.
“Consistently, we would hear this thing, ‘Yeah, I care about poor people too, but there is no money now, how are you going to pay for it?”
“When they tell us there is no money, they are lying,” Brock declared, “they are just lying.”
For the past 16 years in Rhode Island, she asserted, “we have steadily eroded income tax rate for the highest income earners in the state, we have steadily eroded them and we have seen a steady decline in investment.
“As we have cut taxes for our wealthy,” she added, “we have in turn stiffed our cities and towns. It is exactly corresponding. We have cut taxes for the wealthy, we have to pay for it somehow, we cut municipal aid.” She said that leaves cities and towns with no option but to raise property taxes and car taxes, measures Brock called, “incredibly regressive.”
Brock said Rhode Islanders who earn $18,000 or less a year are paying 11.9 percent of their income in various taxes, Those who earn $390,000 – the much talked-about top 1 percent – pay 5.6 percent. “That is broken, that is incredibly broken.”
Talking among like-minded folk, Brock acknowledges what opponents accused Ocean State
Action of for years: “We call them different things, tax justice campaigns or tax fairness campaigns, but ultimately it’s soak the rich.”
“Having a D (for Democrat) next to your name doesn’t mean all that much” in Rhode Island, Brock said. “Rhode Island is the second-largest Catholic state in the country, there are a lot of anti-choice Democrats. There are an awful lot of pro-voter ID Democrats in the state; there are a lot of anti-tax Democrats in the state, there are a lot of anti-LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered, queer) Democrats in the state.”
Steven Brown, executive director of the RI ACLU said the Democratic leadership in the General Assembly “acts to conserve relationships with much more conservative Democratic members in the legislature.”
Brown said legislative bosses received calls from national Democratic leaders about how bad it would be for Democrats if massively Democratic Rhode Island passed a voter ID bill. Democrats across the country had painted voter ID as a Republican effort to suppress voting among certain groups of people.”
Because Rhode Island has a reputation as heavily Democratic, “people sometimes get a little more comfortable than they should be with the idea that ‘it can’t happen here’” and the voter ID law is an example of why that can be a mistake.
Part of the problem, in Brown’s view, is that Democrats have such a “big tent” that it allows in people who don’t hold Democratic views.
Moderator Patrick played off Brown’s statement that the Democrats’ big tent “is so big it’s a circus tent. You know the reason why, that’s how you let the elephants in.”
Some of the big stars of the American left visited the Rhode Island Convention Center in the past four days for the 2012 Netroots Nation conference, a gathering of progressive activists, journalists, bloggers and politicians. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman gave a speech and sold his new book, Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren participated in a panel discussion and whipped up some support for her campaign to unseat incumbent Republican Scott Brown, one of the U.S. Senate’s up-and-coming progressives, a fellow by the name of Sheldon Whitehouse, showed up with colleague Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and former “green jobs” advisor to President Barack Obama, Van Jones, gave the wrap-up keynote speech. President Obama himself had a few words of encouragement via video hook-up.

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