As much as the news about what sounds like a pending reversal of Roe v Wade was seismic, it wasn’t surprising; this is the very outcome that women activists and their allies warned about before Rhode Island passed a state-based abortion law, the Reproductive Privacy Act, in 2019. That came after some local Democratic leaders – mostly notably then-Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and then-Lt. Gov. Dan McKee – downplayed the threat to Roe and questioned the need for a state law to protect abortion rights. But a strong grassroots movement convinced General Assembly leaders who personally oppose abortion (including Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio) to bring the legislation to a vote. That was not unlike what happened in 2013, when a grassroots campaign propelled legalization of same-sex marriage in RI, over the prevailing more socially conservative ethos of legislative Democrats. Opponents of abortion rights are cheering the tea leaves from SCOTUS. Yet supporters of a woman’s right to choose (a majority of Americans, according to polls) are on edge, and they fear the high court could roll back same-sex marriage and other privacy-based rights. Moving ahead, the ability to get an abortion may largely depend on whether a woman resides in a red or a blue state. Democrats have remained on the defensive as Republicans have reshaped the direction of the nation’s top court. The question now is whether SCOTUS follows through in outlawing Roe and whether that significantly changes the political dynamic surrounding elections and rights.
Pundits and other observers now debate whether abortion is enough of a prioritized issue to change voting behavior by Americans. In Rhode Island races, the biggest impact could be in the Second Congressional District, where the issue underscores differences between Democrats and Republicans. Republican favorite Allan Fung has made clear that he wants to focus on inflation and higher gas prices. In a statement, Fung minimized the relevance of abortion in the CD2 campaign: “My views are in line with the majority of Rhode Islanders. As your next congressman, I would not vote for legislation that allowed late term or partial birth abortion, and I would be against taxpayer funding of abortion. In Rhode Island, Roe is already on the law books, and as such nothing would change for Rhode Islanders. I am not running to change abortion laws, I’m running as laser-focused on lowering the price of groceries, lowering the price of gas and home heating oil, and keeping our neighborhoods safe.” On the Democratic side, whichever candidate emerges as the general election candidate can be expected to zero in on the abortion issue – and what they believe it says about DC Republicans.
The biggest surprise from the gubernatorial forum organized by RIPEC and staged last week at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick was how barely any punches were thrown at the incumbent, Gov. Dan McKee. Matt Brown represented a contrast from the other candidates in his criticism of the political status quo. But Republican Ashley Kalus and Democrats Helena Foulkes and Nellie Gorbea didn’t make any real effort to bring the fight to McKee. The governor acted like an incumbent, hanging back and sticking to his message about an improving economy. There was no mention of the ILO Group controversy or McKee’s flip-flop-flip in variously deciding to participate in the debate or skip it. Former CVS exec Foulkes – who has yet to go on TV despite a well-stocked campaign account – underscored that by telling the audience of business titans that they do not yet know her. Some of the talk focused on housing. And in a display of the benefits of incumbency, McKee teased possible tax relief while simultaneously touting RI’s unusually robust budget outlook.
Jack Lyle, the former representative and former senator from Lincoln, tells me he’s more likely than not to run for the General Assembly this year, although he’s still deciding between a House and Senate run. Lyle was ousted in 2020 by Rep. Mary Ann Shallcross Smith (D-Lincoln), who beat him by 604 votes in a three-way race. On the Senate side, Lyle resides in the district represented by Sen. Thomas Paolino (R-Lincoln). A Republican-turned-independent, Lyle voted for RI’s abortion law in 2019, and he said he’s concerned about the country’s direction.
The progressive RI Political Cooperative unveiled five more legislative candidates this week to run (in most cases) against incumbent Democrats. Savannah DaCruz, an artist and activist who works for Dorcas International, is running for the seat held by House Majority Leader Chis Blazejewski of Providence; Danielle Walsh, a mother, educator and development director for BLM RI PAC, is running for the seat held by House Judiciary Chairman Robert Craven of North Kingstown; Jennifer Stewart, described by the Co-op as an award-winning teacher, is aiming for the seat held by Rep. Jean Philippe Barros of Pawtucket; Finally, Arthur Flanders, described by the Co-op as a diabetic and a queer working class man, is opposing Sen. Frank Ciccone of Providence, chairman of the Senate Labor Committee; and Stan Shoppell, a chef, artist and community advocate, is seeking the seat being vacated by Rep. Gregg Amore of East Providence as he runs for secretary of state.
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