The battle for RI’s State Senate District 5 (Providence’s West End, Federal Hill, Olneyville, Mt. Pleasant, and Downtown) belongs to a very short list of General Assembly races to watch. The race is a 3-way Democratic primary and ranks among the highest legislative races for fundraising and spending. In addition to finances, what’s happening in the race is emblematic of trends and tensions in the Democratic Party that are emerging in the looming generational handoff from aging and increasingly retiring baby boomers, to the tech-savvy and globally-connected younger generations. The 3 Democrats in the race are Senator Paul Jabour, Nick Autiello, and Sam Bell. The following is my take on the race.
The incumbent Jabour is a careerist that has been in politics since I was in diapers. He bears all the markers and legacy of an older time; stubbornly conservative for a district that is increasingly liberal. Jabour’s recent record shows a year-on-year retreat in the activity and business he brings before the Senate, a clear sign of a waning appetite for the new work involved in representing the needs of a changing constituency. His vote is used more to impede new ideas than to support change. Over the course of his tenure, he presided over a generation of economic decline in Rhode Island, even voting against pro-growth infrastructure measures in the recession. To his credit, for a politician who spent that much time in politics, Sen. Jabour seems to have resisted Rhody’s unfortunate and well-known pastime of public corruption.
As to his ability to represent an increasingly liberal district, for example, he is pro-life; and not just because RI Right-to-Life gave him an unsolicited endorsement. To be against legal abortion denies the very real history of trauma and danger to women before Roe v. Wade. As should be clear, abolition did not and will stop abortion. Whatever his reason for this preference, he does not offset it with support for things like gender pay equity. It’s that his is a paternalist view, and it’s 2018.
I cringe at his primary sponsorship of a bill to penalize the protest activities of Providence #blacklivesmatter in 2015 (S 129). While there was a public safety concern addressed in the bill, Jabour offered no protections, resources, guidance or any offsetting or empowering tools for the benefit of the protesters. He just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t represent evolving 21st century values, and I think that after a long career of public service the time has come for him to let District 5 have a chance at something new.
Another candidate, Sam Bell, is a recent transplant to the district as of late 2017, previously running for House of Representatives from the East Side’s District 4. His own campaign materials and videos signal, if not outright call for, an intent to obstruct compromise. In today’s climate of toxic partisanship, more toxicity is certainly not the solution. I have often found issues following Bell’s core logic while he was at the helm of RI Progressive Democrats. There he led the organization to consistently put forward candidates who did not have the name-recognition, resources, or experience needed to win an election. The entrance of such candidates into Democratic primaries have repeatedly served to effectively help elect the most conservative candidate in each race by siphoning away votes from the center, only for his candidates to get a last-place finish.
Also problematic are his calls to increase taxes on business and luxury. It’s painful to me that part of his progressive agenda, while big-hearted and correct in the desire to decrease income inequality, seeks to do it by tax-and-transfer. The same tax on wealth and luxury was already tried in RI in the early 90s, to a disastrous effect on the RI’s maritime industries. That policy pushed wealth and business over state lines, gutting an industry’s-worth of jobs, and bankrupting small businesses. Perhaps a big state can get away with such a thing…but history is clear that that’s not so of a state with a border just 30 min away in any direction. Bell’s economic agenda ignores even our own recent history, and that’s alarming.
And then there is candidate Nick Autiello, who loudly represents the millennial, liberal values of diversity, equality, inclusivity, and tech literacy, and also shares a humble story all-too-familiar in the memory of our recent changed and globalized economy. He is intelligent, articulate, and personable; the combination needed to make a difference. The success of a modern economy is based on infrastructure, education, and strategic investment; undoubtedly lessons one foments over several-years’ work in economic development. So I am happy to see Autiello base his campaign on supporting policies that look to successful long-term economic outcomes; like investing in ports, roads, green energy, and accessible workforce development, career-and-tech training, and job re-training at CCRI.
Each generation brings a fresh set of values, cultural identities, skills, and innovations. At the same time that we recognize that the solution to the recent decades’ economic decline does not lie in reelecting the same, tried and tired representation that presided over our decline, we must also not elect leaders who blindly disregard the economic mistakes of the past. As the generational handoff continues, we must strive to install candidates who can bridge divides, who are mindful of lessons-learned, and who also understand what the economy needs for us to thrive.
So here we have a snapshot that’s exemplary of current Democratic politics: a member of the old guard that leans more right than left; a callow leftist that refuses compromise; and then a liberal, problem-solving, practical millennial Democrat. It is time for a new generation of forward-thinking leaders to bring modern ideas to the General Assembly. For these reasons, and that he has long roots in the district, I am supporting Nick Autiello.