updated 7/15/2008 7:17:42 PM ET 2008-07-15T23:17:42

The tiny city-state with a mouthful of an official name, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, has as turbulent a political history as any state in the Union. A successful trading community since the 1600s, a leader in manufacturing since Samuel Slater replicated from memory an English water-powered cotton textile mill in Pawtucket in 1791, Rhode Island also had its beginning as an upstart community, a refuge for religious dissenters, ‘‘the sewer of New England,’’ as the orthodox Cotton Mather put it. Rhode Island profited from slavery (two-thirds of America’s slaves arrived on ships owned by Rhode Islanders) and war (the state boomed during the Civil War), and carried its tradition of tolerating just about anything into its politics. Rhode Island refused to pay its share for the Revolutionary War, declined to send delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and delayed joining the Union until the other 12 states had, prompting George Washington to say, ‘‘Rhode Island still perseveres in that impolitic, unjust—and one might add without much impropriety—scandalous conduct, which seems to have marked all her public counsels of late.’’ The new nation’s first bank failure occurred here in 1809, when a bank capitalized at $45 issued $800,000 in bank notes. In the 1840s, conflict between hard money merchants and soft money farmers resulted in two state governments and a conflict known as Dorr’s War, with the outcome determined when merchant Dorr’s two ancient cannons failed to fire.

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Then, in the 1930s, Rhode Island had something resembling a political revolution. Thousands of immigrants from French Canada, Ireland and Italy came to Rhode Island to work in the textile mills and this colony of dissident Protestants became the most heavily Catholic state in the nation. Yankee Republicans tried to appeal to Catholics by running French Canadians for office. But national events—Al Smith’s candidacy in 1928, when he carried Rhode Island, and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal—moved the Catholics toward the Democrats. Then came the revolution: in 1935, the Democrats under Governor Theodore Green, although they had won only 20 of the 42 state Senate seats, refused to seat two Republicans. With the lieutenant governor’s tie-breaker, they voted Democrats into the seats, and proceeded in 14 minutes to declare the state Supreme Court seats vacant, abolish state boards that controlled Democratic cities, strengthen the power of the governor and reorganize state government to purge Republicans. This ended the direct political control of Rhode Island’s ‘‘Five Families’’—the Browns, Metcalfs, Goddards, Lippitts and Chafees—who owned or ran many of the textile mills, the Rhode Island Hospital Trust (long the largest bank), the Providence Journal-Bulletin, Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design and the state Republican Party. The Democrats have won most elections with the lion’s share of votes from Rhode Island’s Catholic majority, starting with Green’s election in 1936, at age 69, to the first of his four terms as U.S. senator. From 1940 to 1980, Democrats won every election for U.S. House seats; its Democratic percentages in presidential elections from 1968 to 2004 are rivaled only by Massachusetts. Republicans have won when they’ve been able to capitalize on scandal or Democratic disarray, as Governors Lincoln Almond and Donald Carcieri did in 1994 and 2002. But the most durable Republican politician here was John Chafee, elected governor in 1962, 1964 and 1966, senator in 1976, 1982, 1988 and 1994, who also lost twice, in 1968 and 1972; he died in 1999.

Rhode Island has gone through a long and often painful economic transformation, from blue collar to white collar, from textiles to high-tech. It suffered economic problems in the early 1990s, as the submarine factory and Navy base at Quonset Point shed thousands of jobs, and employment in costume jewelry, Rhode Island’s major manufacturer, fell from 32,500 in 1977 to 6,300 in 2000. But Republican Governor Lincoln Almond, elected in 1994 and 1998, persuaded the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature to gradually cut income taxes and eliminate the car tax, and Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci promoted brilliantly successful redevelopment in the state’s capital and largest city. Tourism became Rhode Island’s second largest industry, and computer data processing a major part of the economy. The state’s population, after hovering around 1 million for decades, increased by more than 80,000 between 1990 and 2005. This new Rhode Island suffered only modest job losses in the 2001 recession; it recovered quickly as new jobs were generated faster than elsewhere in New England. Providence, after losing population for decades, grew 10% in that period, and its downtown has been enlivened with new buildings like the Gtech tower and events like the SoundSession music festival and WaterFire, an art fair with 100 bonfires lit along the city’s three rivers. In 2005 the legislature passed a 25% tax rebate for moviemakers, and Disney was given free rein to shoot Underdog film scenes in the State House; all 11 episodes of the Brotherhood series were shot in the state. To encourage economic growth the state halved the top income tax rate and voted a 30% tax credit for rehabilitation of historic buildings.

Still, problems remain. Rhode Island is one of the most elderly of states—it ranks fifth in percentage of population 75 and older—and housing is expensive; the state law requiring cities and towns to set aside 10% of new housing for low- and middle-income people may have thwarted some developments. Unemployment has remained relatively high despite job growth. The state is still mourning the 100 young people killed in the night club fire in West Warwick in 2003. Local lobstermen have faced a halving of the lobster population since 1999 due to shell disease but they’ve responded creatively. The settlement in an oil spill case financed a notching program, under which lobstermen were paid $8.50 each for carving notches in the shells of 1.2 million female lobsters and throwing them back into the ocean, not to be harvested until new shells grew in a few years. And lobstermen have proposed privatizing fishing rights, with transferrable shares of 800 lobster pots to lobstermen working in 2001–03. Massachusetts’s same-sex marriage law has caused some legal problems, since many people commute between the two states. In September 2006 a Massachusetts judge said that same-sex couples living in Rhode Island could marry in Massachusetts, since in his view Rhode Island had no law holding such marriages illegal; Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch said that same-sex marriages in Rhode Island could only be legalized by the legislature or the courts. In February 2007, in response to a question from a state agency, Lynch concluded, "Rhode Island will recognize same-sex marriages lawfully performed in Massachusetts as marriages in Rhode Island" but maintained that same-sex couples cannot marry in Rhode Island.

Politically, Rhode Island continues to be heavily Democratic—although not always so. Republican Governor Donald Carcieri was reelected 51%-49% in 2006; Rhode Island has not elected a Democratic governor since 1992, the last time a governor was elected to a two-year term. Carcieri lost Providence and Pawtucket and some working class suburbs, but carried just about every other city and town. Senator Lincoln Chafee, who was appointed to succeed his father in 1999 and elected to a full term in 2000 by a 57%-41% margin, compiled the most liberal record of any Republican senator. He was opposed by conservative Cranston Mayor Steven Laffey in the Republican primary, and won by only 54%-46%; Chafee’s campaign encouraged Independents and Democrats to reregister as Republicans, and turnout in the Republican primary ballooned from 26,000 in 2002 to 64,500—almost as many as the 85,000 who voted in the Democratic primary. Chafee ran strongest in Providence and in the affluent suburbs on either side of Narragansett Bay; Laffey carried most of the downscale suburbs north and west of Providence. But Chafee’s crossover support was not enough for him to beat the Democratic nominee, former Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse. (This is a small state: the two candidates’ fathers were roommates at Yale.) Whitehouse won 54%-46%. Whitehouse won 72% in Providence, which had voted 63% for Chafee in the primary and had given him 44% of the vote six years before; his percentages declined similarly in other ethnic cities and by somewhat lesser margins in affluent suburbs. A Democratic trend was also observable in the 52%-48% approval of restoring felons’ right to vote; that had been taken away by voters in 1986. But the biggest spending was on a proposition to allow Harrah’s to build a casino in West Warwick; racetrack owners, fearful of losing slot machine revenues, financed an opposition campaign, and the proposition lost 63%-37%.


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