Rhode Island: The Ocean State goes to the polls, maybe


Rhode Island is "Safe Obama" country, according to the website www.270towin.com featured in this screen shot.

NEWPORT, RI — There can be few places on the east coast more appealing than Newport, with its 19th-century mansions devoted to wretched excess, its bustling waterfront dotted with seafood restaurants and quaint museum shops, and picturesque Goat Island sparkling offshore.

On this unseasonably warm April day, the tourists are out in force, in T-shirts and shorts, baseball hats and sunshades. There are a lot of pink arms and noses, and I briefly consider taking the afternoon off and heading for the beach.

Instead, I talk to an old friend who has been living and working in Newport for the past six years. In deference to her prominent standing in the community, I will not identify her further.

“I love it here, it’s great,” she says, over salad and mussels at The Mooring, one of Newport’s premier eateries. “But the politics? Horrible.”

Rhode Island will conduct its GOP primary on Tuesday, along with Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. The 19 delegates at play here have not inspired much campaigning, especially since the nomination is all but certain to go to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

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Texas Congressman Ron Paul — remember him? — did make a significant ad buy in Rhode Island’s media market recently; he will run his campaign spot “The Plan” on local television for the next few days. He will also stump the Ocean State, according to his campaign, in an effort to boost his standing, and his influence, heading into the Republican National Convention in August.

Newt Gingrich did not bother to show up, but he is sending his wife, Callista, to make a few appearances. The Gingrich campaign is moribund and heavily in debt, so the former speaker of the House has a lot of fundraising to do.

Romney, the presumptive candidate, made a few stops in Rhode Island earlier in the month, but he is off courting prickly voters in Pennsylvania, whose 72 delegates make it a much more tempting prize. If Romney scores convincing wins in Tuesday’s five states — something that should be a given — the Republican establishment may finally put aside its reservations and embrace him fully, elusive politics and all.

But few people in Newport, a monument to wealth and beauty, seem to care about national politics. They have problems much closer to home.

“Rhode Island’s official state motto is 'Hope,'" laughs my friend. “But those in the know say that, really, it’s ‘I know a guy ….’”

Rhode Island, the tiny jewel of New England, has an image problem, at least with its residents. Perception of corruption is high — a former governor and a former mayor of Providence both served time for racketeering, while a state chief justice resigned in a corruption scandal.

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My brother-in-law, who used to work in school administration, cannot even utter the state’s name without a growl.

“It’s a cesspool,” he sputters when asked. “The worst state in the country.”

The state corruption report card, however, gave Rhode Island a very creditable C, and ranked it 10th best out of the 50 states.

This put it well ahead of those swamps of dirty dealing such as Wyoming (47th), South Dakota (49th), and the worst state, Georgia, but lagging well behind Number One, New Jersey.

New Jersey? Either the index needs a tuneup or Tony Soprano had one of the judges in a headlock at the time of grading.

Back to Newport: The election on Tuesday will not be a major event here. Rhode Island is a pretty blue state, and is classified as “Safe Obama” on the state’s presidential election website.

But with only four electoral votes to contribute, it is not going to be a hotbed of campaigning in the fall, either.

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“Obama will win,” shrugged Brad, the attendant at the Mobil station where I fill up. “Nobody likes Romney here. He ran Massachusetts into the ground, now he wants a chance to do the same thing to the country?”

The president’s popularity might take a beating if gas prices go much higher. I wince at the $4.19 I have to pay for a gallon of regular; in my home state, Massachusetts, I usually pay no more than $3.85. And in New Jersey, that paragon of virtue, gas is as low as $3.67. Maybe that corruption index wasn’t so far off after all.

“Rhode Island has the third-highest state taxes on gas,” Brad informs me. “They take 42 cents on every gallon.”

This is not, actually, true; according to official sources, Rhode Island takes a mere $.33 on each gallon, as opposed to $.49 for Connecticut and New York.

But Brad is convinced. He does not blame the president; he knows whose fault it is.

“I’ll be working two jobs just to fill up my tank,” he said. “This state is a mess."