Talking Politics

Presidential debate left Democrats reeling

By Ian Donnis
Posted 7/1/24

STORY OF THE WEEK: The Kennedy - Nixon debate in 1960 marked the dawning of a new age, when the optics of televised images carried more weight than the substance of what candidates conveyed verbally. …

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Talking Politics

Presidential debate left Democrats reeling


STORY OF THE WEEK: The Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 marked the dawning of a new age, when the optics of televised images carried more weight than the substance of what candidates conveyed verbally. That watershed came to mind for many observers Thursday night when President Joe Biden’s “stumbles right from the beginning played into his biggest vulnerability — his age and whether the 81-year-old is up to the challenge of handling four more years in office,” as NPR’s Domenico Montanaro put it in a recap. Democrats are reeling in the aftermath, even as they vent about how Donald Trump’s baggage and status as a historic outlier hasn’t significantly eroded his backing. Pillars of Rhode Island’s Democratic establishment remain publicly behind Biden.

In one such example, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse offered this statement after the debate: “President Biden is a decent, honest man and the only candidate in this race who will protect Social Security and Medicare, fight for middle-class families, lower costs, restore abortion rights, and defend our national security. Donald Trump will do none of those things and he lied to the American people over and over tonight.”

Biden himself seemed more energetic and on-point during a rally the next day. But with a little more than 120 days until the presidential election, the debate has sparked alarm among Democrats, raising the question of whether someone else will supplant Biden as the nominee and setting the stage for an unpredictable series of events in the months ahead – and beyond.

RI SENATE: Sen. Val Lawson (D-East Providence), the Democratic Whip in the chamber, has enjoyed a rapid rise since first winning election in 2018. As the number three in the Senate, she’s someone to watch with an expected leadership change in the two-year cycle beginning in January. Lawson, who also serves as president of the National Education Association Rhode Island teachers’ union, however, is avoiding making news on hot topics. Asked on Political Roundtable if the Senate presidency holds any allure for her, Lawson said, improbably, “I haven’t really given that much thought.” What about the strong ties between organized labor and the Senate – could that be a factor in the hold of RIDOT Director Peter Alviti (who previously worked for the Laborers International) on his job amid the Washington Bridge fiasco? Lawson remained on-message, saying mainly that the fact-finding process is still ongoing.

GENERAL ASSEMBLY: If we had a dime for every time someone said politics is among the top local sports in Rhode Island, we’d have a stack of dimes. But Americans hate politics, as a native son of Fall River noted years ago, and more recent polling supports that view. Many people are not interested in participating, let alone following the fine-grain details of what happens day to day. That helps explain why 48% of incumbents in the General Assembly will not face an opponent this year. (The actual number of uncontested races could climb higher depending on how many candidates qualify for the ballot.) While it’s not unusual for many Smith Hill incumbents to seek re-election without opposition, the number seems higher than usual this year. A couple of factors could explain why. The Rhode Island Political Cooperative, the progressive group that picked up a number of legislative seats in 2020 before losing ground in 2022, seems to have faded from the scene. And although Republicans are contesting a number of seats, the GOP has a steeper climb in the House due to the exit of three incumbents. That suggests the current nine Republicans in the House – who had a handful more members not that long ago – might be even fewer in number after November.

On a broader basis, a lot of people don’t want to run for office because of the time commitment. John Marion, executive director of the non-partisan good government group Common Cause of Rhode Island, reports via email that Rhode Island is hardly an outlier: “Research by Common Cause found that in many states, both red and blue, state legislators face little or no competition. The reasons for the lack of competition are many. A redistricting process allows politicians to pick their voters, instead of allowing voters to pick their politicians. A campaign finance system allows incumbents to reap the rewards of their power by raking in cash from special interests interested in gaining access to lawmakers. Electoral structures that reinforce a two-party system that promotes extreme candidates and limits choice.”

So what can be done to bring more participation to the participatory sport of democracy?

Marion’s response: “We are seeing a variety of states try innovative solutions to these problems. This year, Ohio may join the growing list of states that take redistricting out of the hands of politicians and put it in the hands of voters, a reform that has been shown to reduce partisan gerrymandering that limits competition. Our neighbor Connecticut has an innovative public financing system that increases the financial competitiveness of state legislative elections. A number of states will have ballot questions to implement various forms of ranked choice voting this fall, an increasingly popular reform. Common Cause will return to redistricting reform as the next cycle approaches. We’re also seeing a growing movement for ranked choice voting being led by Ocean State RCV. I expect the same dissatisfaction with the status quo that is driving reform efforts in other states will provide energy for these efforts in Rhode Island.”

PRYOR NOTICE: Stefan Pryor was publicly introduced in Rhode Island in December 2014, ahead of Gina Raimondo’s inaugural for her first term a month later. He’s had a long run in state government, leading the Commerce Department for Raimondo and then bringing an experienced hand to the housing secretary role after Josh Saal didn’t work out. Pryor’s signature quality is his irrepressibility. House Speaker Joe Shekarchi used a statement to praise Pryor for “a tireless work ethic” and said “he produced immediate results in a very challenging housing climate.” Via statement, Pryor said, “Together we have financed approximately 2,600 units of housing, achieved a 32 percent increase in homeless shelter beds compared to the previous winter, and secured authorization for the largest housing bond in the state's history to appear on the ballot.” However, as is the case with Raimondo and the economy, Rhode Island still faces familiar problems on the housing front, a situation that developed over decades: the state continues to rank low on housing starts and one of Pryor’s signature initiatives – the hoped-for revitalization of the Superman Building – remains unfulfilled amid a time of higher interest rates and increased construction costs.

GOP GLIMMERS: The perennial challenge facing Rhode Island Republicans in building their presence notwithstanding, a poll out this week from the Pell Center at Salve Regina University offered a few hopeful notes. For starters, the survey (caveat emptor: conducted via internet and text) showed low approval ratings for both Gov. Dan McKee and Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos. At this point, it’s anyone’s guess who might run for governor as a Republican in 2026, amid a field expected as of now to include McKee and fellow Democrat Helena Foulkes. At any rate, the poll had another favorable takeaway for the GOP: broad support for the idea of creating an office of inspector general, with 68% of Democrats (and even more independents and Republicans) favoring the concept. Democratic and Republican state lawmakers have supported IG efforts over the years. Now the GOP has fully embraced it, suggesting that a sustained campaign might play well with the public.

TRUMP’S GOP: The ProJo’s Kathy Gregg had the story on how Cranston Republican Steve Frias decided against running for another term as RI GOP National Committeeman since he could not wholeheartedly support Donald Trump. Frias, a staunch conservative, ran for state representative against then-House Speaker Nick Mattiello in 2016 and 2018. Bristol GOP Chair Tom Carroll is the new GOP National Committeeman. Another memorable Frias moment: during a forum staged a few years ago by The Public’s Radio at the Providence Athenaeum, Frias said reporters have done more to expose wrongdoing in Rhode Island than the GOP.  

BLOCK ISLAND: Mopeds remain a hot topic on the Block, so it didn’t escape notice when an effort to impose more restrictions on the vehicles didn’t make it through the General Assembly this year. Via statement, House Speaker Joe Shekarchi offered this explanation for why things bogged down in that chamber: “There was opposition to this bill at the committee hearing, including from the former 15-year Block Island police chief. I felt the bill needed more work because there was not a proper appeals process in place and there was a long history of litigation involved with this issue. When the bill passed the Senate in the final week, I worked diligently on it, along with the banking legislation and a whole host of other bills as we attempted to wrap up our session. Although we couldn’t reach agreement on a bill that I felt comfortable putting before the House, I made a commitment to all parties involved that we will continue to work on forging a compromise before the 2025 tourist season.”

NUTMEG STATE: A small GOP faction in Democratic-dominated Connecticut led the state to back out of a commitment to ending sales of new gas-fueled cars. Some Democrats there accuse the Republicans of fear-mongering, but the story shows how even a legislative minority can sometimes wag the dog.

POLLING: Really interesting inside look via PBS NewsHour at the mechanics of how it conducts its polls with NPR and Marist College.

BOOK CORNER: Paul Burton, a longtime reporter and former regional editor for Bond Buyer, is no stranger to Rhode Island. He has a new book, “Fiascoes and Foibles: An Unfiltered Look at Public Finance, Media, Politics and Sports.” The chapter on 38 Studios includes this memorable quote from Anthony Sabino, a law professor at St. John’s University: “It’s still a black eye for Rhode Island. But the nice thing about black eyes is that they go away. And you can learn to duck the next time.” 

IN MEMORIAM: Peggy Sharpe, remembered for her mix of kindness and strength, has died at age 96. She and her late husband Hank were big benefactors of The Public’s Radio … Sympathy to Gov. Dan McKee and his family on the passing of his mother, Willa, also 96, who had a memorable card-playing turn in McKee’s best campaign commercial in 2022. “Our mom and grandmother was an extraordinary source of love, joy, kindness, and support to her husband, children, grandchildren and many friends,” the McKee family said in a statement. “Her home will forever be known as a fun, safe, and welcoming place to be.”

KICKER: We can almost imagine Gina Raimondo – who has steadily sidestepped talk of her status as a possible presidential candidate – saying, “So you’re saying I have a chance?”

Ian Donnis can be reached at

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