On November 4, 2014, Rhode Islanders will vote on a referendum for or against convening a state constitutional convention. On April 30, 2014, Citizens For Responsible Government was publicly launched to support a no vote. On August 20, 2014, RenewRI was publicly launched to support a yes vote. How do these groups differ?
Citizens For Responsible Government was launched under the joint leadership of Jim Parisi and Paula Hodges.
- Jim Parisi, Field Representative and Lobbyist for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals.
- Paula Hodges, Director of Government Relations, Planned Parenthood of Southern New England; Former Political Director, Missouri Education Association.
In July, Parisi and Hodges were replaced on the masthead by Jennifer Norris, and Kyla Pecchia.
- Jennifer Norris, Campaign Manager, Center for Responsible Government; Former Organizer in Training, SEIU.
- Kyla Pecchia, Field Director, Center for Responsible Government, and graduate student, Roger Williams University; Former Administrative Assistant (part-time), Operation Clean Government.
RenewRI was launched and has been led by Gary Sasse,
- Gary Sasse, Director, Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University; Former Executive Director, Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, and Former Director, Rhode Island Department of Administration and Department of Revenue. Five months prior to forming RenewRI, Sasse’s Hassenfeld Institute produced a conference, A Constitutional Convention for Rhode Island?
A difference between the announced leadership of Citizens For Responsible Government and RenewRI is that the former apparently has two full-time paid staff whereas the latter has none. The staff for Citizens For Responsible Government are early in their careers and presumably dependent on substantial hand holding; Sasse is an old-timer.
At launch, the following groups were listed on the website of Citizens for Responsible Politics as supporters (current coalition partners may be found here):
- RI ACLU
- RI AFL-CIO
- RI Alliance for Retired Americans
- Central Falls Teachers Union
- RI Commission for Human Rights
- RI Commission on Occupational Safety and Health
- RI Economic Progress Institute
- Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals
- Fuerza Laboral
- Humanists of RI
- IATSE Local 23
- Jobs With Justice
- National Association of Letter Carriers
- National Council of Jewish Women RI
- Providence Central Labor Council
- Providence NAACP
- Planned Parenthood Southern New England
- RI National Association of Social Workers
- RI NOW, RI Pride
- RI Progressive Democrats
- Secular Coalition for Rhode Island
- UAW Local 7770
- USW Local 16031
- UWUA Local 310
- UFCW Local 328
- UNITE HERE
- United Nurses and Allied Professionals
- Warwick Teachers Union Local 915
- Women’s Health and Education Fund
At launch, the following groups were listed on the RenewRI website as supporters (current coalition partners can be found here):
- Jan Bergandy, Board Member, RI Association of School Committees
- Beverly Clay, Citizen Activist and former Research Director, Operation Clean Government
- William Clay, Citizen Activist
- Timothy Duffy, Executive Director, RI Association of School Committees
- Liana Ferreira Fenton, Executive Board Member, RI Association of School Committees
- Lawrence J. Fitzmorris, Interim Chairman, RI Taxpayers Association, President, Portsmouth Concerned Citizens
- Robert G. Flanders, Jr., Esq., Partner, Hinckley, Allen & Snyder LLP, Former Associate Justice, RI Supreme Court, Chair, Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education, Central Falls Receiver, co-author, The Rhode Island State Constitution, A Reference Guide
- Jo Eva Gaines, RI Board of Education, Vice-Chair Newport School Committee
- Lawrence Girouard, Co-Chairman, RI Taxpayers Association
- Alan G. Hassenfeld, Chairman, Hassenfeld Family Initiatives, Inc., former Chief Executive, Hasbro, Inc.
- Margaret Kane, President, Operation Clean Government
- Timothy Murphy, MD, Medical Director, Vascular Disease Research Center, Brown University
- Stephen Robinson, Esq., Partner, Robinson & Clapham, Education Reform Advocate
- Sandy Riojas, Vice President, Operation Clean Government
- Randall Rose, Member, RI Coalition to Defend Human and Civil Rights
- Gary Sasse, Founding Director, Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership, Bryant University, former Director of the Departments of Administration & Revenue, State of RI, former Executive Director, RIPEC
- Barry Schiller, Board Member, Operation Clean Government
- James Courtney Segovis, Ph.D., Professor of Management, Bryant University, William M. Davies, Jr. Career and Technical High School Board of Trustees
- Mike Stenhouse
- H. Philip West, Jr., Author, Secrets and Scandals: Reforming Rhode Island, 1986-2006, former Executive Director, Common Cause RI
- John Hazen White, Jr., President & CEO, Taco, Inc.
- Samuel D. Zurier, Esq., Member, Providence City Council
Members of Citizens for Responsible Government were exclusively groups, whereas members of RenewRI were a combination of individuals and groups. The group members of Citizens for Responsible Government include some of the most powerful in Rhode Island. The individual members of RenewRI include some high prestige individuals, but the groups (when measured by budget, membership, and legislative clout) tend to be much weaker than those for Citizens for Responsible Government.
Citizens for Responsible Government is made up of a coalition of union and social issues groups that work together on a wide range of issues not only in Rhode Island but many other states. RenewRI, in contrast, appears to be more of a strange bedfellows coalition of individuals who don’t ordinarily engage in the you-scratch-my-back-I’ll scratch-your-back politics that is the heart and soul of effective and durable coalition building.
The key financial backers for Citizens for Responsible Government are mostly the same as those that supported the coalition effort opposing a constitutional convention in 2004 and 1994. That coalition was called “Citizens for Representative Government.”
In contrast, there was no comparable yes coalition in 1994 and 2004. In 2004, Operation Clean Government was the primary fundraiser and organizer for the yes campaign, albeit at a much smaller scale than the no campaign. Two leaders of RenewRI, Gary Sasse and Phil West (then the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island), both opposed a yes vote in 2004. It is curious that Citizens for Responsible Government would hire as its field director a former part time administrative assistant from Operation Clean Government.
As of July 10, 2014, Citizens for Responsible Government reported $59,000 funding; RenewRI $0 funding. The last deadline for campaign finance reporting was July 10.
In addition to greater resources for advertising campaigns, Citizens for Responsible Government has greater access to an established grassroots network via its coalition members. For example, its union and social values group backers have a large and effective grassroots network that can easily be mobilized on short notice. I estimate that the groups that belong to RenewRI have less than 5% of the membership of Citizens for Responsible Government.
Comparison with Other States
In most states during the past few decades, periodic constitutional convention referendums are low profile events that receive little pro or con political activity. This has worked very well for no campaigns, as people vote against referendums if they are confused about their purpose and the little information they have suggests controversy.
However, in the relatively few cases when polling indicates a referendum might be close, the political dynamic tends to be different. The no campaign raises a lot of money and comes out in force, especially in the week or so before the election. Yes campaigns are usually pitiful affairs, with little money, political sophistication, or coalition building. To the extent they have organization, they are usually led by groups pushing agendas with no chance of popular ratification.
In framing these referendums, a typical dynamic is that the press goes to their usual sources (that is, leading legislators from the different political parties) to ask them what a constitutional convention would be about. The reporters are typically as clueless about the nature of periodic constitutional convention referendums as the public they are entrusted to inform.
The legislators and their allies are happy to be helpful. They frame the substantive issues as about one or more controversial civil rights issues with little popular support. If asked about reform issues such as legislative redistricting, term limits, or ethics, they are told those issues are red herrings. They point to a variety of groups who have no chance of getting their agendas ratified by voters but like the publicity. A self-fulfilling prophecy may then be established, as the marginal groups that the legislature and its allies have identified as opponents get substantial publicity and become the face of the yes advocates.
Of course, this is merely politics 101. Experienced political operators always seek to identify their opponent with unpopular extremists. For example, that’s why, regardless of which Congressional district they were in, Democrats ran against Newt Gingrich in 1998 and Republicans against Nancy Pelosi in 2010. The fact that they weren’t actually running for office against those individuals didn’t negate the effectiveness of the strategy.
For some reason, this political dynamic hasn’t happened in Rhode Island. For example, RenewRI hasn’t been publicized and endorsed as the face of the opposition by the opponents of a constitutional convention. RenewRI has had to seek legitimacy on its own. Normally, I would expect that some advocacy group pushing a relatively unpopular social agenda would wake up to the fact that for a relatively modest investment it could earn hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of free publicity if it were simply willing to serve as bogeyman for constitutional convention opponents. But so far in Rhode Island, no credible group has stepped forward to reap such a windfall, and it’s now probably too late in the election cycle for one to be able to do so. Perhaps I’m wrong and a plausible bogeyman will be found. Meanwhile, the press is likely to frame the debate as Citizens for Responsible Government vs. RenewRI.