The Meatball Factor: Fate of Nation May Hinge on Rhode Island Governor’s Race

2016 presidential voting results in RI. Graphic by Providence Journal

Two years ago on Election Day, Rhode Island showed its true colors. While the metropolitan coastal cities and towns voted for Hillary Clinton, the more rural inland municipalities went red for Donald Trump. The stark difference astounded many and demonstrated a widening socio-political gulf in a traditional machine Democratic state.

This year, the gubernatorial race is going to be particularly noteworthy. In fact, it might end up being one that could reverberate across the country, depending on the outcome.

Image from Wikipedia

Incumbent Democrat Gina Raimondo, a Clinton superdelegate in 2016, is deep in the pocket of Wall Street. She previously served as Treasurer and, in that capacity, invested the state pension in hedge funds, a move that led to some of the largest monetary losses in state history.

Challenger Allan Fung, currently mayor of Cranston, ran against Raimondo four years ago. He has deep ties to the Koch brothers and various corporate elements in the GOP funding infrastructure. Four years ago, when he went to the AFL-CIO for an endorsement, one of the questions he was asked was regarding making the state right-to-work (watch this video featuring Robert Reich for a quick and easy definition of right-to-work laws and why they are awful). According to my sources, he responded by saying “I wouldn’t want to try in my first year but definitely in my second.” The self-confidence necessary for such a response from a politician in a longtime citadel of the labor movement betrays one of two things, a cocksure attitude tied to delusions of grandeur or, more disturbing, the possibility that Fung felt he would have a legislative coalition in place that would be strong enough to pass such a measure.

In 2014, Raimondo won by a narrow margin owing entirely to an independent third party candidate that siphoned away enough Fung votes to tip the election to her. In 2014, the candidate was the Libertarian-leaning Bob Healey, a congenial and charitable gentleman whose politics, while conservative, never were known for vitriol and nastiness.

This year, the third party candidate is Representative Joe Trillo, a loudmouthed, bigoted Italian gremlin whose star has been ascendant in the past 36 months as the Rhode Island chair of the 2015-16 Trump campaign. In a truly emblematic moment in the sun last July, his campaign yacht ran gloriously aground off the coast in a southern part of the state (notably, this video of that incident makes me doubt my atheism).

The mere prospect of such a narcissistic Mediterranean Meatball becoming governor is rather astounding. Even more astonishing would be a Trillo spoiler effect that returns a pro-choice Raimondo to office.

Women’s rights and labor protections are just two areas that could be significantly impacted over the next two voting cycles at the federal level. If a Republican takes office and outlaws abortion and/or union organizing, the results could be catastrophic for not just Rhode Island but in fact the entire east coast. Remember, it was after Indiana became a right-to-work state in 2012 that we saw longtime Midwestern pillars of the AFL-CIO, such as Michigan and Wisconsin, follow suit in short order, making it now 27 states that have such laws on the books. Such a ripple effect would potentially be seen across the entire Northeast, first with New Hampshire, location of the multi-decade Koch brothers-financed Free State Project to pack the Granite State with Libertarian voters, probably picking up the baton.

Furthermore, this might be the last election that sees Rhode Island sending two members of Congress to the House of Representatives. Over the past decade, the state’s population has plummeted due to a combination of the rising cost of living, reduced birthrates nationwide owing to austerity measures, and a service sector economy that has remained in the tank. Congressional re-apportionment after tabulation of the latest census could see one of the reliable Democratic votes from the Ocean State re-assigned to a southern red state.

If that comes to pass, things could get very desperate very quickly. We are now just a few states away from having the numbers necessary for a Republican-controlled national Constitutional Convention. An amendment that makes the entire country right-to-work? Codified criminal penalties for provision of abortion care? Mandatory state and federal balanced budgets combined with a flat tax system? Revocation of birthright citizenship for not just the children of immigrants but also African Americans? Such formerly-marginalized fantasies of the hard right have found a new lease on life with this presidency and it would be a big mistake to brush all these possibilities aside as pure alarmism.

With all that said, I frankly have very little interest in playing the myopic and childish ‘lesser-evil voting’ game. First off, it’s a simple matter of fact that a viable three-way race is going to be what salvages Gina Raimondo’s otherwise-abysmal political career, a shambling failure that has wrought nothing but misery for many.

Second, we’ve reached a point over the past decade where political polarization and ideological radicalization have made such pleas for rationality a fundamental impossibility. Everyday voters are absolutely sure at this point whether they are voting BLUE or RED, and there’s no reasoning with them to the contrary.

Third, in such a political landscape, the best hope for the next few years is absolute gridlock in DC, meaning that all politics are going to fundamentally be fought out on the local level. And in this situation, it is groups like Democratic Socialists of America and the Green Party that are making important inroads that can change the discourse in a fashion that is not currently possible at the federal level. Even the Congressional Progressive Caucus (Bernie Sanders, Elijah Cummings, Tulsi Gabbard, Rhode Island’s David Cicilline, et. al.) consistently defers to the Pelosi-Schumer-Wall Street troika.

In conclusion, vote for what you think is right. But also remember that not going to the polls also means something.

UPDATE 11/6/18, 9:50 PM:

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