Rhode Island State Survey Commentary, June 1999

U.S. Senate Race
The possibility of an Arlene Violet independent candidacy has thrown Rhode Island's 2000 U.S. Senate race into a tizzy. In a trial matchup between Congressman Robert Weygand and Warwick Mayor Lincoln Chafee, Weygand leads by 45 to 26 percent. However, when talk radio show host Violet is included, 29 percent support Weygand, 24 percent favor Violet, and 21 percent support Chafee.

A breakdown of the numbers reveals that Violet does well in Providence, the Blackstone Valley, and the West Bay, and among those who identify themselves as political Independents. The latter group is especially important because it is the swing vote in most elections and the largest single grouping in the electorate. Nearly 50 percent of the Rhode Island electorate designates itself as Independent.

Right now, Violet takes more votes away from Weygand than Chafee. Whereas Chafee drops by five percentage points between the two- and three-way comparisons, Weygand drops 16 percentage points. Underlying numbers from the survey help to explain why this happens. In a two-way race with Chafee, Weygand garners support from 72 percent of the Democrats in the state and 41 percent of the Independents. But with Violet included, Weygand's support among Democrats drops to 55 percent and among Independents to 23 percent. In contrast, Chafee maintains support from 75 percent of state Republicans in either a two- or three-way race. Among Independents, he draws support from 24 percent in the two-way and 20 percent in the three-way contest.

Job Performance of Leading Officials
In Rhode Island, the most popular public official is Buddy Cianci (69%), followed by Senator John Chafee (67%), President Bill Clinton (65%), U.S. Senator Jack Reed (64%), Congressman Patrick Kennedy (55%), Secretary of State James Langevin (54%), Congressman Robert Weygand (53%), Governor Lincoln Almond (52%), Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse (44%), Treasurer Paul Tavares (32%), Lieutenant Governor Charles Fogarty (29%), House Speaker John Harwood (24%), and Senate Majority Leader Paul Kelly (18%).

Quonset Point Port
The proposal to develop a large container port at Quonset Point has sharply divided voters. Whereas 38 percent favor it, 30 percent oppose it and 32 percent are undivided. These numbers suggest significant slippage since a January survey conducted by pro-port supporters that found 61 percent of state residents favored the port.

Opposition to the port proposal was especially pronounced in areas surrounding the port. For example, 46 percent of the people in Newport and Middletown oppose the port, as do 40 percent of those in the West Bay area, and 43 percent of those in South County. Younger people were more likely to oppose the port proposal than were older voters.

Since that January poll, a series of negative developments has bedeviled the port proposal. Environmental organizations such as Save the Bay and the Conservation Law Foundation have announced plans to block permitting for the port. Seven town councils from around the Bay (Jamestown, Newport, North Kingstown, South Kingstown, Richmond, Narragansett, and Bristol) have voted disapproval of the port. The regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency has expressed his doubts about a large container port. News stories have criticized the port proposal on grounds of noise, environmental damage, and traffic congestion. And past bankruptcies have been uncovered in the backgrounds of port developers, raising doubts about their ability to be successful with this project.

The Brown survey found that even though three-quarters believe the port will create jobs, 63 percent believe it will increase noise and traffic congestion around the port and 43 percent think it will hurt Narragansett Bay. Only 17 percent support filling in part of the Bay leading up to the port and 32 percent favor dredging, both of which are crucial ingredients of current plans. The poll revealed that some people who expressed support for the port were unaware the port proposal including dredging and filling in part of the Bay leading up to the port. If environmental organizations are able to inform the public that the port proposal involves both dredging and filling in a portion of the bay around the port, public opinion could turn even more negative on the port.

Tax Cut for the Wealthy
By a two-to-one margin, Rhode Island voters do not buy a proposal from a group of business leaders that individuals earning over $200,000 deserve an income and capital gains tax cut in exchange for creating 7,500 high-paying jobs. Voters volunteered a number of negative comments about the proposal, saying it was unfair, would only benefit the rich, and was just a form of extortion by wealthy business interests.

There were significant differences by party grouping. Whereas 47 percent of Republicans favored the proposal, only 30 percent of Democrats and 24 percent of Independents supported the tax cut. Senior citizens were especially unlikely to favor the tax cut. Only 19 percent of those aged 65 or older favored the tax cut as did only 21 percent of those aged 55 to 64.

Gambling Casino
Public opinion is closely divided on the Narragansetts' proposal to build a gambling casino in West Warwick. Forty-seven percent favor the proposal, while 42 percent are opposed. Support for the casino is higher than what we found last May, when 42 percent supported a Narragansett casino and 53 percent opposed it.

If this measure ends up on the 2000 ballot, look for a very close race between pro- and anti-casino forces.

Providence Corruption Probe
The federal probe into corruption in Providence City Hall has produced two note-worthy reactions from the Rhode Island public. On the one hand, 79 percent believe that corruption in Providence government is a very or somewhat serious problem. Yet on the other hand, 69 percent believe Mayor Buddy Cianci is doing an excellent or good job, making him the most popular public official in the state. Up through this point, Cianci has been the Teflon Mayor.

The results demonstrate that voters right now are not blaming Mayor Cianci for the indictments that have taken place in his administration. The unresolved question is if there are more indictments higher in the Cianci Administration, will voters continue to express such strong support for the mayor. Stay tuned on this front!

Doubts about State Direction
From a long-term standpoint, the most noteworthy results of this survey are: 1) a 5 percent downturn in consumer optimism about the economy as measured by our Index of Consumer Sentiment, and 2) a significant drop in voter sentiment that the state is headed in the right direction. Whereas 83 percent of voters in January believed the state was headed in the right direction, only 67 percent felt that way in June.

Taken together, these results suggest potential trouble down the road for the state. Typically, any at given point in time over the past decade, there have been one or two issues that polarized voters and raised concerns about the future of the state. For example, in 1991, the state's banking crisis galvanized people. In 1994, the proposed Providence Place Mall was an object of contention.

The problem for Rhode Island right now is there are half a dozen issues that are aggravating different groups of voters. The proposed port at Quonset Point has upset environmentalists and people who live around Narragansett Bay. The possibility of a gambling casino in West Warwick is disturbing to those opposed to an expansion of gambling. The corruption probe into Providence city government has revived memories of Rhode Island's troubled past on ethics. The tax cut for individuals making over $200,000 in exchange for creating jobs has raised fundamental issues of justice and fairness. Problems at the Traffic Court have created citizen doubts about how our judicial system functions and how the General Assembly handles political reform.

The state has make great progress over the last decade because it was able to deal with a number of complicated policy issues in sequence such that the political system at any given point of time was not overburdened. Right now, citizens are starting to question whether the state is headed in the right direction based on the large number of contentious issues that are on the political agenda. If the economy weakens, the political situation could grow quite troublesome over the next 12 months.

Darrell M. West