Talking Politics

Democrats have a problem – but is it actually just a Biden problem?

By Ian Donnis
Posted 7/8/24

STORY OF THE WEEK: With 122 days until the Nov. 5 election (as of the writing of this column), Democrats find themselves in a fix. Various news reports this week had President Biden weighing a …

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Talking Politics

Democrats have a problem – but is it actually just a Biden problem?


STORY OF THE WEEK: With 122 days until the Nov. 5 election (as of the writing of this column), Democrats find themselves in a fix. Various news reports this week had President Biden weighing a possible exit from the race, resolving to stay and fight, and still thinking about getting out. Precisely what will happen remains unclear, but the window for a change in course is closing fast. With the Republican National Convention set to start in Milwaukee July 15, Democrats could divert attention with a move to shake things up.

The November election has long been perceived as a tight race, and Biden’s faltering debate performance came at the worst time for Democrats. This has made for a field day for Donald Trump enthusiasts and offered more grist for the “double-haters” who may decide the election, even as the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision expanding executive power has fanned Democrats’ fears about the future.

Elected Democrats find themselves in a difficult position. This week included more calls for Biden to step aside – and many prominent Democrats probably share that view, although they remain publicly behind the president. It hardly seems coincidental that the most outspoken local Democrat, former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg, does not hold an elective office, after making a losing bid in CD1 last year. Regunberg likens the situation facing Democrats to being on a train racing toward a cliff, with a final chance to veer off in a different direction.

Here’s one of the less fiery tweets from the Providence Democrat: “We’re winning special elections. Our swing state senators have been polling well. It was pretty clear even before the debate that we don’t have a Democrat problem in 2024, we have a Biden problem. As president he’s helped fix many national problems. He now needs to fix this one.”

ANOTHER VIEW: Local historian Steve Frias, who recently decided to not seek re-election as the R.I. GOP’s national committeeman due to his inability to embrace Donald Trump, shared his view in the Cranston Herald/Warwick Beacon on the recent Biden-Trump debate. Excerpt: “I expect Biden’s poor debate performance to have a small impact on the polls and erase Biden’s small gains after Trump’s felony conviction. Because the debate was months, not weeks before the election, Democrats could still recover. But still, it leaves me wondering if Democrats truly believe that Trump is a threat to democracy. If democracy is really on the ballot, as they claim, is Biden really the best they can do? If this is truly the most important election in our lifetime, why are Democrats nominating one of weakest incumbents in history? If Biden remains the Democratic nominee when Democrats say democracy is on the ballot, Republicans will laugh and respond, dementia is on the ballot.”

MISSED OPPORTUNITY?: Restaurateur and local historian Bob Burke is sounding an alarm about how the state plans to celebrate the 250th anniversary of American independence in 2026. As things stand, Burke contends, it will mark a pale imitation of Rhode Island’s Bicentennial in 1976, when the Tall Ships visited the state and President Gerald Ford and Queen Elizabeth II stopped in Newport. The problem, he said, is how Rhode Island isn’t putting up the money to attract the Tall Ships and stage a celebration worthy of America’s 250th birthday.

According to a Burke plan reviewed by the House Finance Committee, earmarking 5% of the state meal tax for two years would generate about $3.8 million – enough to stage a statewide WaterFire with an Olympic-style torch run, expanded civic education, concerts with fireworks, grants by local historical societies, memorials, commemorations and other celebrations.

“To put the funding in perspective, the five cities that will be hosting Tall Ships ’26 (New Orleans, Norfolk, Baltimore, New York, Boston) put up more than $50 million,” Burke, chairman of the RI250 Tourism Committee, said via email. “How will Rhode Island compete for tourists with states who have a war chest in excess of a hundred million dollars? Rhode Island has committed $250,000 [for the current fiscal year]. A quarter million – a single wedding in Newport can cost more than that.” A bill sponsored by Rep. June Speakman (D-Warren) to generate more funding was held for study this year.

Burke blames opposition from the R.I. League of Cities and Towns, although the state Department of Revenue, not the League, cited concerns during a hearing. Nonetheless, this isn’t the first time when Burke accused the state of missing an opportunity to boost the economy by better promoting itself and Rhode Island’s history. House Speaker Joe Shekarchi maintains there may still be time to bring the Tall Ships to Rhode Island in 2026. Via statement, Shekarchi said, “We’re reviewing options to bring the Tall Ships to Rhode Island. This is a work in progress.”

Lauren Greene, a spokeswoman for the League of Cities and Towns, offered this comment, via email: “The League of Cities and Towns supports the state, chambers and other tourism entities in their efforts to organize celebrations around the country’s 250th anniversary. Tourism and philanthropic funds are the appropriate sources of support for these efforts. Diverting established funding away from cities and towns and asking local property taxpayers to foot the bill is poorly thought out, ill-conceived public policy.”

THE BRIDGE: Gov. Dan McKee is downplaying how no bids came in for the RFP to build a new Washington Bridge. The absence of interest in the state’s initial bidding process suggests, however, that more time and money will be needed to move past this prolonged issue. The McKee administration had hoped to button up the bridge build ahead of the September 2026 primary for governor. But demolition costs came in higher than estimated and Rhode Islanders in the Providence area are still dealing with elevated congestion due to fallout from the bridge.

HOUSING: The intractability of Rhode Island’s housing crisis can be seen in how the names and faces of those responding to the situation will change over time. This week, Jennifer Hawkins, president/CEO of nonprofit developer One Neighborhood Builders, revealed she will be leaving that role later this year. Elsewhere, R.I. Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor is poised to leave his job in state government. Perhaps with that in mind, Pryor used a federal housing grant announcement this week to offer a bit of a valedictory message, pointing to heightened production, expanded capacity in government and more shelter beds for unhoused people. While the housing crunch developed over decades and sustained progress will take years, Pryor said new Census data shows how the first four months of 2024 featured the most housing permits over a comparable period in the state since 2007.

HOSPITALS: ProJo alum Mark Arsenault and his colleagues on the Spotlight Team at The Boston Globe report that Steward Health Care – a poster child for how private equity can have a negative effect on healthcare – spent millions surveilling its critics even as it became engulfed in a financial spiral. Meanwhile, Prospect Medical Holdings, which used to be mostly owned by a private equity company and is trying to sell its two Rhode Island hospitals, faces a civil investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice in connection with the sale of three hospitals in Connecticut.

BOOMERANG: Five former state representatives are attempting a comeback this year: Anastasia Williams (D) of Providence, who was defeated by Rep. Enrique Sanchez in 2022; Jean-Philippe Barros (D), ousted by Rep. Jennifer Stewart (D-Pawtucket) in 2022; Democrat Bernard Hawkins, narrowly defeated by Rep. Brian Rea (R-Smithfield), who is not seeking election, in 2022; and Justin Price, an Exeter Republican, who was ousted by Democratic Rep. Megan Cotter in 2022. Finally, former Rep. Scott Guthrie (D), a perennial candidate since being defeated by Republican Robert Nardolillo in 2014, is running for the seat held by Rep. George Nardone (R-Coventry).

RI POLITICS: On Political Roundtable this week, come for the analysis on the top Rhode Island stories of the year so far, from Nancy Lavin, Ted Nesi and myself, and stay for our picks on fun summer food and activities.

LINES OF POWER: Providence Mayor Brett Smiley and East Providence Mayor Bob DaSilva met in late June to discuss the ongoing effort to bury the power lines run along the waterfront from India Point Park into E.P. Smiley spokesman Josh Estrella cited “productive conversations with Rhode Island Energy to develop a path forward on an initiative to bury power lines at India Point Park. While there aren’t currently specifics to be shared, we are optimistic that all the parties will come to a solution that is an exciting resolution to this decades long conversation.”

Via statement, DaSilva said, “We would like to replace the antiquated and rusty lattice-style powerline towers, moving those lines from adjacent to Bold Point Park to align with the Washington Bridge and bury the lines as far back as feasible on the Providence side and a portion of the East Providence side to improve not only the conditions in Providence but also our sightline into Providence and the beautiful India Point Park. Currently, funding is available to move the lines over the river to align with the Washington Bridge, however expanding burial would require extra funding, which Rhode Island Energy is working with us to identify funding sources.” David P. Riley of Friends of India Point Park, a leader for decades in trying to make progress on this issue, said his organization is encouraged by the meeting with the mayors and hopeful for more action.

MED SCHOOL: The idea of creating a state medical school at URI to help relieve the shortage of primary care doctors is steadily gaining more currency. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio this week announced his appointments to a 21-member panel to study the concept. The co-chairs are Sen. Pam Lauria (D-Barrington) and URI President Marc Parlange. Other participants include past and present state lawmakers, Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera, power players like Armand Sabitoni and Tom Ryan, and such policy wonks as Christopher Koller and Dr. Michael Fine. The commission is charged with developing findings by Dec. 20, 2025.

KICKER: Rhode Island hasn’t staged a constitutional convention in almost 40 years. Opponents like Steve Brown of the Rhode Island ACLU say a ConCon would open the door for a series of reactionary proposals. Supporters detect a rare opportunity to make change outside of Democrats’ stranglehold on the General Assembly. Regardless of which view you favor, Rhode Islanders need to vote every 10 years on whether to stage a constitutional convention. Legislative leaders have now filled a 12-member panel to set the stage for more discussion. An initial meeting is tentatively planned for July 24 at the Statehouse.

Ian Donnis can be reached at

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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.