I’m starting to wonder if the Speaker of the House is really the most powerful politician in Rhode Island.
Traditional wisdom says the Speaker controls the body that sets the state budget. He decides whether a bill will come to the floor for a vote. That means almost nothing becomes law without his blessing.
Yet at the end of the day, the Speaker still serves at the pleasure of the rank-and-file members of the House. That’s easy to forget sometimes, given how fractured the body is and how loathe they are to band together and flex their collective muscle.
There are times, however, when that happens. This week, at the Democratic Caucus over the issue of the Pawtucket Red, was one of those occasions.
Like so many other representatives, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D – Cranston), is from a district where most of his constituents don’t want to spend their money to finance a shiny new baseball field for the multi-millionaire owners of the Pawtucket Red Sox.
A Shiny New Stadium For A Dying Game
That should make his decision easy. Right? Just send the important issue to a referendum and defer to the voters.
At first blush, that might seem like an easy answer. But that’s a superficial analysis.
Here’s the problem. The state’s union members are strongly in favor of the new stadium. They want the jobs that will coincide with building it. It puts money into their pockets.
They’re in the minority, but they’re well-organized. That’s what matters come election time.
That’s the about democracy that people either forget, or don’t understand. In a democratic government, well-organized special interest groups band together and exert their will on the majority of people.
Democracy: Rule By Special Interests
The special interest groups, in this case, the union workers, are organized and motivated. It’s the motivated folks who will turn out and campaign during election season.
That’s what scared so many of the rank-and-file legislators–particularly the so-called progressives. Union members are a major donors, campaigners, and voters for progressive politicians. The progressives didn’t want to upset the unions on this issue.
(I do understand that there are some progressive Rhode Islanders who are against this deal.)
Neither did Mattiello.
Gotta Serve Somebody
Mattiello, by backing away from a referendum vote on this issue–he is implicitly stating that he believes he is better off by kowtowing to union members and hoping that he can convince his own constituents that keeping the stadium here is a wise decision for everyone.
That might very well be the correct move on his part, politically speaking. Let’s not underestimate Mattiello’s political instincts. One does not get to be Speaker of the House without them.
Time will tell if it was the correct move, politically speaking, for Mattiello to reject a referendum vote on the stadium. But those who follow Rhode Island politics–or at least read this column–know why he did it.
Like the great Bob Dylan sings, everybody’s “gotta serve somebody”.