A look at Rhode Island

Posted April 4, 2003 at 6:14pm

I n the smallest state in the country, it has been relatively easy for one party to cast a big shadow: Rhode Island’s tradition of electing Democrats is longer than the Ocean State’s shoreline. [IMGCAP(1)]

There are about 250,000 registered Democrats in the state, compared with just 70,000 registered Republicans.

Both parties underwent a transformation following last year’s elections. Changes in leadership in the state Legislature and the statewide election results helped bring a crop of new, younger faces to the forefront. What’s more, the state’s newly elected governor has made rebuilding the Republican Party a top priority, giving GOPers renewed hope.

While Democrats hold a large majority in the state Legislature and other statewide offices, a Republican has occupied the governor’s mansion for nearly a decade. Gov. Don Carcieri (R) was elected to succeed two-term Gov. Lincoln Almond (R) last November.

“One of the the things that Carcieri has said is that he wants to rebuild the party,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Cook Political Report. “He’s going to have to spend a couple of cycles to do this.”

The party’s first major test will be in 2006, when Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R) is up for re-election.

Chafee, the only Republican in the state’s Congressional delegation, was appointed to the seat after his father’s death in November 1999 and was elected to a full term a year later, running 25 percent ahead of President Bush in the state.

The late Sen. John Chafee (R), a former

governor and secretary of the Navy, served in the Senate for 23 years and was widely popular.

The younger Chafee is arguably the Senate’s most liberal Republican. He has sided with Democrats on numerous issues, although he has rebuffed overtures to switch parties.

Chafee’s willingness to buck the president and his party is considered essential for his political survival. A February poll showed he had a 54 percent job approval rating.

“Here, the more he stands up to the president, the more popular he is,” said Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

Still, with a closely divided Senate, there appears to be little doubt that Democrats will target their loyal Republican ally in 2006.

“There might not be so much will in the state party, but there will be in the national party,” Duffy said of efforts to retire Chafee.

To do that, the party may look to a number of young, fresh faces, including Secretary of State Matt Brown and Attorney General Patrick Lynch, both of whom were first elected to statewide office last year. Brown has already visited Washington, D.C., to talk to party leaders about his political future. Lynch, who gained national attention earlier this year in the aftermath of the nightclub fire in West Warwick that killed 98 people, may also have gubernatorial ambitions.

Another possible contender with an interesting profile and high approval ratings is new Providence Mayor David Cicilline (D), who is Italian, Jewish and openly gay.

Cicilline has pledged to reform the city and its image following the reign of former Mayor Buddy Cianci (D), who was convicted on federal racketeering and conspiracy charges and sentenced in September to five years in prison. In a Brown University poll taken in February, Cicilline had a job approval rating of 76 percent.

“He overwhelmed every other officeholder in the state,” West said.

Still, West said 2006 is likely too early for Cicilline, as well as Brown and Lynch, to look to higher office.

One of the potential Chafee challengers most often talked about in the state is Sheldon Whitehouse, a former state attorney general who lost a gubernatorial primary last year.

Others include Lt. Gov. Charles Fogarty, who is term-limited and cannot seek re-election in 2006; former Providence Mayor Joe Paolino; former Lt. Gov. Bernard Jackvony; and former Lt. Gov. Richard Licht, who lost to then-Rep. Bob Weygand in the 2000 Senate primary.

On the House side, Republicans have been less competitive in recent years. When Weygand’s 2nd district seat opened in 2000, the race was essentially decided in the Democratic primary. Then-Rhode Island Secretary of State James Langevin (D) won the four-way contest with 47 percent of the vote, and the seat is likely his for as long as he wants it.

Last cycle, Republicans were eager that they might have a chance to knock off Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D), who faced some bad press in 2000 after a series of imbroglios. But Kennedy mended his image back home, and won with 60 percent of the vote.

“Republicans’ real shot [against Kennedy] was last time,” said West, who wrote a book about the Congressman’s political rise. The rest of the Congressional delegation, he said, are “all young, they’re all charismatic. None of them really are in political trouble.”