Scott MacKay Commentary: What the RI Right Can Learn From Progressives


By Scott MacKay  Oct 5, 2018

Rhode Island conservatives and Republicans are bemoaning the leftward turn of the state’s Democratic Party. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay begs to disagree. 

If you listen to the conservative rhetoric, you might think Rhode Island is sliding into a socialist state. Republican State Rep. Patricia Morgan said last week in a Providence Journal op-ed piece that lamented the success of progressives in recent Democratic General Assembly primaries. “They will now be pursuing their socialist agenda of bigger government, extensive regulation and hostility to private enterprise.” she said. Joe Trillo, the Republican-turned-independent who is running for governor, regularly denounces progressive Democratic initiatives.

The Gaspee Project, the self-appointed voice of small business, compares state lawmakers to sheep, saying they vote 90 percent of the time with the Democratic leadership. And on, onetime governor candidate and conservative activist Ken Block hammers away at Democratic lawmakers for pushing important votes to the end of the session and failing to give the governor a line-item veto.

The grand irony of all this chatter is that Rhode Island government supports for low-income workers and their families are much lower than in neighboring Massachusetts. A striking example: the earned income tax credit available to low-income families. Massachusetts recently approved expanding this tax credit from 23 percent of the federal credit to 30 percent. Two other New England states –Vermont and Connecticut—have earned income tax credits substantially higher than Rhode Island’s 15 percent.

And if you listen to some on the right, Rhode Island has become a welfare magnet for the poor and lazy. Monthly welfare benefits in New England states range from a high of $675 a month in New Hampshire to a low of $554 monthly in…Rhode Island, according to data from the Economic Progress Institute, a liberal think tank.

Rhode Island also has the lowest subsidized child care assistance eligibility limits in New England. And Rhode Island has more stringent Medicaid eligibility limits than almost every other state in the region. And the minimum wage in Massachusetts is about a dollar an hour higher than Rhode Island.

Like Rhode Island, Massachusetts has a Democratic-controlled legislature. Unlike Rhode Island, Massachusetts has a Republican governor, the ever-popular moderate and Donald Trump-bashing Charlie Baker.

Massachusetts’ more generous government medical and welfare benefits don’t seem to be hurting the economy, particularly the blossom of 21st Century innovation and technology jobs in booming Boston.

So one just has to laugh when Republicans and small-business conservatives point to the better economy in Massachusetts and assert that Rhode Island ought to do things the Bay State way.

Too many on the right in Rhode Island believe they can usher in change from the top down. They back such measures as the line-item veto, separation of powers and getting rid of straight-party voting. The latest panacea is amending the Statehouse rules to give the House speaker less influence.

You can make a good case that these are all laudable goals. But they don’t alter the political culture much, if at all. That’s because in a democracy, elections dictate power relationships among politicians. So long as the Assembly has the taxing and spending authority, elections will matter.

Which brings us to the Republicans and their small-business advocates. Rhode Island Republicans are splintered like a pile of toothpicks hit by a jackhammer. Longtime Republicans Morgan and Trillo have abandoned their party’s duly nominated candidate for governor, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung. And a big reason Republicans have scant influence in the Assembly is that they don’t recruit electable candidates. Too many in the small-business realm have checked out of politics. They settle for hiring high-paid Statehouse lobbyists to protect their interests.

Why have progressives and liberals and been successful in winning elections?  It’s simple—they don’t view politics as a spectator sport. They build coalitions, run energetic candidates and turn out voters.

Controlling the talk radio chatter and musing on the Journal editorial pages may make some conservatives feel good. But it’s not a blueprint for change in a one-party state that would benefit from a vibrant two-party system.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:45 and 8:45 and at 5:44 in the afternoon. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our” On Politics” blog at