2016-07-21 / Opinion


‘Trumping’ Common Sense?

With Rhode Island’s near-monolithic domination by the Democratic Party, it may be that you cross political leadership at your own peril. Early developments in an Aquidneck Island House race seem to illustrate that premise.

As the 2016 political landscape began to unfurl, the Middletown and Portsmouth Democratic town committees endorsed former state Rep. Linda Finn, D-Middletown, in the race for House District 72.

At about the same time, an unknown Portsmouth Democrat, James Cawley, decided he was also going to seek that seat. Without contacting the local party apparatus, he made what he’s described as “a simple phone call” to the state Democratic Party seeking its endorsement.

And just like that, Cawley obtained the state party’s endorsement.

“I was a little taken aback,” Finn told Newport This Week. “I didn’t vote for Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello. He’s the one who is ultimately making the decision.”

She was referring to the election of Mattiello to succeed Gordon Fox as House speaker in 2014. The speaker is arguably the most powerful politician in the state, with a strong hand in determining the fate of legislation and generally deciding who gets what and when they get it.

Portsmouth Democratic Town Committee Chairman Len Katzman complained that “the state party never consulted us. Our committee works hard to elect Democrats in Portsmouth and, indeed statewide. Some members feel that the lack of consultation … shows a lack of respect for our efforts.”

We agree.

One might be tempted to look at this as just a mix-up among Democrats, that someone got their wires crossed somewhere, leaving the Portsmouth and Middletown committees looking – and probably feeling – a little foolish.

“I’m just as confused as anyone,” Cawley told Newport This Week. I think its politics as usual in Rhode Island. It’s kind of shocking that I became a part of that. I just made a simple phone call.”

But the situation begs the question: What’s the value of a town committee endorsement? It may be that the State Committee should focus its energies on candidates for state and national offices.

In Finn’s case, the endorsement by the local town committees was nice to have but did not hold up in the face of Cawley’s backing by the State Committee. Finn also apparently lacked support from the Democratic Committee for House District 72.

Of course, in Rhode Island the House speaker’s support probably matters more than any of these other things.

As Middletown Council president and Democratic Town Chair Robert Sylvia said flatly, “This is because she didn’t support Mattiello.”

In our view, that’s not a good reason to ignore local political sentiment.

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