Ocean State: Storm of the century

by John Perilli

There are currently 69 Democrats seated in the Rhode Island House of Representatives. This fact may not seem too impressive until it is provided with some context: There are only 75 legislators. Yes, the Rhode Island Democratic Party holds a staggering 92 percent majority in the General Assembly’s lower house, officially opposed by only six Republicans scattered around the state. Their Senate majority is no less impressive, with 32 out of 38 seats belonging to Democrats this term. Among state legislatures, these are two of the largest Democratic majorities in the U.S.

By almost all measures, Rhode Island is a reliably blue state. The last time we voted for a Republican in a Presidential election was in 1984 for Ronald Reagan. Even then, Reagan’s margin of victory was only 3.7 percent, well to the left of the national average. This past election, Rhode Islanders overwhelmingly supported President Barack Obama, and he carried the Ocean State with 62.7 percent of the vote.

But even considering this, how can 92 percent dominance of the House and an 84 percent majority in the Senate be explained? Rhode Island’s two neighbors on the 2012 Obama support list, New York (63.3 percent) and Maryland (62 percent), aren’t nearly as Democratic at the state level. The only place in the United States that even approached a 92 percent Democratic vote was Washington, D.C., and it came up just short with 90.9 percent. How did the Rhode Island General Assembly get that Democratic?

One could try to explain it by examining Rhode Island’s state party organizations. The Democratic Party has an influential network of operatives statewide, allowing it to keep hold of a membership that is anything but homogenous. The Rhode Island G.O.P., on the other hand, is part-time and haphazard. However, in order for such a Democratic network to have developed, there must first have been strong Democratic candidates and winnable races. The correlation works both ways.

Another explanation some will point out is gerrymandering. Redistricting in Rhode Island is carried out by the legislature, allowing the majority party to draw favorable districts for itself and defend the seats of its most senior members. To do this, though, the Democrats would need control of the General Assembly first. One condition necessarily predates the other.

To get to the roots of both these causes, and to understand why Rhode Island is so Democratic, we must look back to a pivotal event in Rhode Island political history that took place in 1935.

Enter Theodore Francis Green. It’s a name you probably recognize, especially if you’ve ever flown in or out of his airport. At the time, Green was the Democratic governor of Rhode Island, and the political climate was much less favorable to his party. The state Supreme Court was conservative, and the multifarious boards and commissions of the executive branch were controlled by Republicans. Additionally, the Republicans held a narrow majority in the State Senate, allowing them to block any of Green’s plans they didn’t agree with.

Nothing appeared to have changed after the midterm elections of 1934. However, two incredibly close Senate races had been called Republican, and the G.O.P. maintained their majority only on the strength of these victories. In a daring act of political opportunism, Gov. Green struck at the Republicans, challenging the results of these races and getting them officially overturned. The Democrats then took control of both houses of the General Assembly, and used their new power to clean almost every Republican out of the executive branch and the Supreme Court. This change of power was so sudden and so stunning that it became known as the “Bloodless Revolution,” and Rhode Island has been dominated by Democrats ever since.

Especially in such a polarized era, political change can take years, if not decades, to come about. In Rhode Island’s case, it took less than a day in 1935. While Rhode Island has undergone shifts in demographics and social priorities like the rest of the nation, there is no underestimating the importance of T. F. Green’s silent State House coup. It has molded our political institutions for nearly 80 years and will likely continue to do so unless, of course, another revolution unseats it.

 

Photo of Theodore Francis Green credited to the U.S. Senate Historical Office