Rhode Island, the land of 'DINOs'


While the issue of same-sex marriage has garnered the most attention during the first few weeks of the new General Assembly legislative session, another issue of particular import has also picked up steam as the idea of removing the so-called “master lever” from the voting booth gained wide-ranging support.

From East Bay resident and Moderate Party leader Ken Block to state Democratic Party chairman Edwin Pacheco to Governor Lincoln Chafee, voices across the spectrum have seemingly coalesced around the notion of ending the practice of allowing voters to cast their ballots down straight party lines with one pull of a lever or in modern times the drawing of one line to connect the dots.

The minority parties in Rhode Island, like Mr. Block’s Moderate group, believe the practice has a negative effect on their ability to compete for votes on election day and that it ultimately harms our democracy. In the Ocean State, however, that’s a bit of a stretch. This is so due in part because Rhode Island actually has quite a variety of political views, despite what critics may claim.

We have plenty of “DINOs” here, as in “Democrats in Name Only.” Ironically, the sister acronym “RINOs” has become part of the political vernacular nationally to describe Republicans who aren’t true to supposed party doctrain. Gov. Chafee is familiar with the phrase, hearing it often during his time in the U.S. Senate. Mr. Chafee, of course, ran as a third-party Independent when he sought the governorship.

Locally, the same could be said of Rhode Island Democrats. Liberal observers can point to recent decisions made here on pension and tax reform as well as the likely drawn out fight over same-sex marriage as examples of core Democratic issues that haven’t been legislated in the Ocean State along the lines of perceived party principals.

We live in a “blue” state, where Democrats have historically held a decided advantage in the legislature, but we’ve been very “purple” in electing state-wide officers. Four of our last five governors, including Mr. Chafee, were or had been affiliated with the Republican Party. And Democrat Bruce Sundlun was certainly no “bleeding heart” liberal.

While we’re all for eliminating the master level, let’s not fool ourselves. An archeologist would sure call Rhode Island the land of “DINOs.” Sure, the change it will help, but it’s incumbent upon Republicans, Moderates or any other minority party to improve their brands first, which would make some candidates more comfortable running under their “true” colors.


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But what if candidates were willing to 'run under their true colors' but did not want the disadvantage that the Master Lever conveyed to them running not as Democrats - especially in a Presidential election year? That was my reality in my job of trying to recruit candidates for legislative races in 2012.

The Master Lever has no impact on 'top of the ticket' races like the Governor's race and the Presidential race. The Lever's largest impact is on the legislative, Town/City Council and School Committee races.

You are correct in opining that abolishing the Lever will not magically fix RI's political mess. But, it WILL in fact go a very long way in correcting a key element which contributes to our political imbalance. In a Presidential election year, the average Democratic legislative candidate for a Rep seat gets close to a NET 15% bump in votes compared to the same race in a non-Presidential year. 15%!!! That is the margin of victory in a great many races. And that 15% does not factor in the base Master Lever advantage conveyed to Democratic candidates in Gubernatorial year elections.

The Dem/GOP in our legislature does not mirror the ratio of political affiliations in our state. The key question you should be asking is why is this the case? The partial answer to that question is in fact the Master Lever. I can back every one of my statements up with data.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.