State of state’s progressive, conservative politics

07/14/2011, Edward Fitzpatrick-PROVIDENCE-

Human-service programs took a hit in the state budget, and advocates failed to restore funding for the Neighborhood Opportunities Program, which subsidizes housing for poor, disabled and homeless people.

The push for same-sex marriage ended with a civil-unions law that contains “a religious exemption of unparalleled and alarming scope” (in Governor Chafee’s words). And legislators passed a law requiring voters to show a photo ID before casting a ballot.

So I was curious when I heard that state Rep. Christopher R. Blazejewski had spoken about “the status of progressive politics in our state.” In an interview, the Providence Democrat, who cofounded Young Lawyers for Obama and the progressive social group Drinking Liberally, summed it up this way: “We had some high-profile challenges, but there were numerous lower-profile victories in the legislative session for progressives.”

For example, the Assembly passed three bills that aim to “kick-start the renewable-energy industry,” Blazejewski said. “You can do economic development in a way that is consistent with progressive politics.” He also cited a new law intended to provide a safety net for low-income utility customers facing shutoffs.

Blazejewski said he tried in vain to salvage funding for the Neighborhood Opportunities Program, and he considers the voter-ID law a “step in the wrong direction,” a “solution looking for a problem.”

But he said, “I don’t take the view that it was a lost year for progressive values at the State House. We shouldn’t be discouraged by some of the challenges and roadblocks, as long as we continue to organize and get our message out.”

So what about the status of conservative politics in our state? “It’s not great, it’s not good, but we are making progress,” said Rep. Doreen M. Costa, a North Kingstown Republican who was media adviser for the Rhode Island Tea Party and a state GOP central committee member.

Republicans remain vastly outnumbered in the Assembly, and Costa said she can’t understand why voters keep electing Democrats when “people keep telling me how bad the state is.” But she believes the Assembly is becoming more conservative. For example, she noted legislators eliminated future longevity bonuses for state workers and dropped the idea of extending binding arbitration to teacher contracts.

Costa said she was disappointed the Assembly passed a law letting the police stop motorists for not wearing seat belts. “We are for smaller government, not bigger government,” she said.

But Costa was glad the Assembly passed the voter-ID law. “Everybody knows there is voter fraud,” she said, noting Rep. Anastasia P. Williams, D-Providence, says she was a victim of voter fraud. She said her “personal victory” was opposing new taxes.

So did Blazejewski and Costa agree on anything this year? Blazejewski said, “Progressives and conservatives have an interest in having an open government, where sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

Costa agreed and said she supported Blazejewski’s proposed tax credit for college students who stay in Rhode Island. “There is common ground. It’s far and few between,” she said. “But we can talk about politics, agree to disagree, and still come out smiling.”