Ocean State: Who’s the King of Smith Hill?

Rhode Island statehouse

John Perilli

In a government with a three-branch separation of power, the executive ought to be the most powerful person. With sweeping administrative authority, veto power, and the flexibility to respond quickly to crisis, the executive should have more influence on government than any bargaining legislator or any deferential judge. This is not the case, however, in Rhode Island.

Governor Lincoln Chafee, a former Republican most recently elected as an Independent, shouldered a great deal of responsibility upon entering the State House in 2010. Rhode Island faced an 11.9 percent unemployment rate, one of the worst in the nation, and was still doomed to suffer from many of the decisions made by the outgoing Donald Carcieri administration. It was up to Chafee to lead the state through a contentious reform of the pension system as well as the collapse of 38 Studios, all without a major party behind him.

Despite all this responsibility, though, Governor Chafee’s power is deceptively weak.

Let’s start with the most obvious limit: Chafee’s lack of party affiliation. Being an Independent allows Chafee more decision-making freedom, but in this era of steep polarization, being affiliated with a party earns you a certain base of support no matter what you do. Chafee does not have this luxury. Additionally, Chafee cannot count on the aid of the vast Democratic Party network in Rhode Island for any of his ventures, unless they involve cutting deals with the Democratic legislature. Chafee is dancing on a glass floor — a grievous misstep could lose him everything. So he must always be careful, and caution limits his mobility.

Chafee also won his office with only 36.1 percent of the vote — far from a mandate. Much of his support came from disaffected Democrats unhappy with Frank Caprio, their party’s outspoken nominee in 2010. But the Democrats are likely to field a stronger, more popular candidate in 2014, like Treasurer Gina Raimondo or Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, so Chafee must govern with the knowledge that reelection might be an uphill battle.

Most significantly, though, Chafee is limited constitutionally. His most senior cabinet members, including his treasurer, attorney general, and secretary of state, are all elected on separate tickets. His appointment power over “quasi-public entities,” of which Rhode Island has many, is narrow. Assuming he is reelected in 2014, Chafee is also term-limited and cannot run for governor again. Lastly, Chafee lacks the power of a line-item veto, which would let him strike down parts of laws without vetoing the whole bill. In most states, this is one of the most significant checks the governor has on the legislature, but Chafee cannot use it.

Lincoln Chafee bears a heavy burden as governor, but he is not on the whole a strong executive. In reality, the most powerful politician in Rhode Island is the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, Gordon Fox.

Representing a district on the upper East Side of Providence, Gordon Fox was first elected to the Rhode Island House in 1992 and became Speaker in 2010. With the gavel now in hand, he holds more authority than any other public official in the state.

To start, Fox’s Democratic House caucus has one of the widest state house majorities in the country, holding 65 out of 75 seats. He isn’t without allies in the Senate, either — 29 out of 38 of those seats are Democratic as well. Fox controls his caucus with a steady grip, much steadier than does his Senate counterpart, President Teresa Paiva-Weed (D-Newport and Jamestown), allowing his Democrats to dominate the lawmaking process. What if Governor Chafee vetoes? All Fox needs to overcome him in the House is a three-fifths vote of all legislators present, or only 45 votes at full attendance, which he can drum up easily.

Fox also has a strong presence behind the scenes. His chief of staff, Frank Anzeveno, is one of the most powerful insiders at the State House, acting as a final gatekeeper for bills heading to the Speaker’s desk. At last check, Fox had over $230,000 in his campaign war chest, or around $16.50 per constituent. Although he is facing a contested general election, as well as a defection by House Majority Whip Patrick O’Neill (D-Pawtucket), Fox appears to be in no real danger. He will be Speaker, and the most powerful politician in Rhode Island, for as long as he wants.

I do not say this to condemn Fox; I only want to point out how much responsibility Gordon Fox has over the future of our state. With an upcoming battle on marriage equality, as well as a slate of fiscal problems that need attending to, Fox’s leadership will make or break our tenuous economic recovery as well as our progressive push on social issues. Lincoln Chafee may be governor, but Gordon Fox has the fate of Rhode Island most firmly in his grasp.


photo by Doug Kerr