The East Side has been a linchpin of Providence and Rhode Island politics since Colonial times. Yet one can make a pretty cogent argument that the historic, leafy neighborhood has never been as influential as it is today.
In recent times, the three East Side wards have spawned the first openly gay and African American Speaker of the House (Gordon Fox), even if his tenure ended in disgrace and he now bides his time at taxpayer expense in the federal pen. It was the neighborhood that cleared the path for women in state politics in the early 1980s, when Republican Susan Farmer’s upset over a well-established Democrat made her the first woman elected to statewide office in the Ocean State. By the way, even if she’d lost, her opponent Vicky Lederberg was an East Sider, too. And it made Buddy Cianci mayor in the critical 1974 election, when he ran as a Republican reformer – remember those anti-corruption candidate ads? In 2014, it was the neighborhood that, two felonies later, crushed his comeback campaign.
I’ll never forget election night in 2014. As returns slowly filtered in, we at Rhode Island Public Radio had the foresight to send one of our intrepid Brown University interns, Emily Wooldridge, to Hope High School to watch as the voting machines were opened. She quickly texted the first results – Democrat Jorge Elorza captured 823 votes, Independent Cianci tallied 163 and Republican Dan Harrop trailed far behind with 31. I gave myself some wiggle room but felt quite confident predicting the Elorza victory, stating that the election was his if the East Side trend continued, which, of course, it did.
From Right to Left
The neighborhood was once a bastion of New England moderate Republicanism. It’s birthed and supported such politicians as longtime RI House Minority Leader Fred Lippitt, Susie Farmer and her husband, Malcolm “Mac” Farmer III, Governor and US Senator John Chafee, RI Senate Minority Leader Lila Sapinsley and such party strategists and fundraisers as Mort Smith and Bruce Selya, who became a federal judge.
That Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party, fiscally prudent but socially liberal, is history. As the national GOP veered right and the party was taken over by the Sunbelt states and the Old Confederacy, the party shriveled in the Northeast. Once, East Side Republicans voted in their own primaries. Now, a neighborhood of Independent voters cast ballots in Democratic
primaries where the crucial decisions in City elections are forged.
The Voting Base
All you need to know is that the East Side’s clout in recent City elections exceeds the neighborhood’s share of the population. The three East Side wards make up about 19% of the City’s population. But in the recent Democratic primaries that have picked mayors, the East Side’s share of the vote is significantly larger. In the 2002 primary that launched state Representative David Cicilline to City Hall, 26% of the total citywide vote came from wards one, two and three; Cicilline got 76% of it. In the 2010 primary, the East Side accounted for 25% of the total vote and Angel Taveras harvested 73% in the neighborhood. And Elorza in 2014 pulled in 67% of the East Side tally, which was 29% of the citywide effort.
Providence has evolved into a place with a weaker middle class. New immigrants tend to be Latinos, and many of them are not yet citizens. And the Irish-American and Italian-American working class neighborhoods that were the fulcrum of the 20th Century Democratic Party of Roosevelt and Kennedy are no more. The East Side, which arguably still is the most livable East Coast urban neighborhood between the Back Bay and Georgetown, remains a traditional, politically engaged, well-educated and stable section of a struggling state capital.
Who Makes Up Our Neighborhood
There is a long line of Rhode Island politicians who trace their heritage to the East Side, many others who were educated at Brown and more who have moved to the neighborhood. Don Carcieri, he of the Red State social issue views, probably could not have been elected to any local office in the neighborhood, but he was educated at Brown. Linc Chafee moved to the neighborhood when he became governor and Gina Raimondo, raised in Smithfield, now calls the East Side home.
Providence has never melted well; East Siders tend to bond with people like themselves. The stereotype as seen by the rest of Rhode Island is of a neighborhood of wealthy professionals – Yankees, rich Catholics and Jews – and overly educated types who plaster their cars with “Bernie 2016” and “No New Stadium” bumper strips.
The reality is a section of the city that is fairly diverse, except for a substantial Latino population. The Mount Hope neighborhood has been an African-American redoubt since colonial times. State Representative Aaron Regunberg, who lives on blue-collar Camp Street, jokes that he can toss a stone from his street to nearby Blackstone Boulevard, one of the wealthiest parts of the state, according to the US Census.
Tied to the East Side
The roster of Rhode Island politicians with East Side ties is voluminous: Former Governors Bruce Sundlun and Frank Licht, Attorney General Dennis Roberts II, Lieutenant Governor Richard Licht, State Representative Linda Kushner (who ran for US Senate against John Chafee in 1994), State Senator Myrth York (who was thrice the Democratic candidate for governor), Sheldon Whitehouse (who lived in the neighborhood when he ran for US Senate) and many others. Among the social liberals who advocated for same-sex marriage and abortion rights at the State House have been such lawmakers as Ray Rickman, Edie Ajello, Rhoda Perry and Paul Moura. Plus, a new generation of well-educated liberal politicians is rising – Regunberg, City Councilman Sam Zurier and State Representative Chris Blazejewski.
In addition, many East Side residents were on the inside of politics (i.e. the advisors and money people who fuel campaigns). Jay Goodman, Bob Reisman, Elmer Cornwell, Darrell West, Bernie Buonanno and Jack McConnell all were linked to the area.
East Siders love to grouse about their taxes, property crimes, potholes, schools and the decline of Providence. The City may have seen better days, but at this moment in history, the East Side’s political influence is growing.
Scott MacKay is political analyst for Rhode Island Public Radio in Providence, the state’s NPR affiliate. He is also a former Providence City Hall and State House reporter for the Providence Journal.