The One 2014 Primary Highlighting the Democratic Divide

Democrats have mostly avoided high-profile primary fights this year. But the one in Rhode Island highlights the differences across wings of the party.

Rhode Island state Treasurer Gina Raimondo (National Journal)

While the 2014 primary season has provided countless examples of Republican infighting, the split between Democrats' populist left and their middle with stronger corporate ties has been more of an abstract discussion. The one exception: Rhode Island, where the fiercely contested Democratic gubernatorial primary may be the best window into the party's divisions.

And yet, the true differences between two potential Democratic stars — pension reform-championing state Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Elizabeth Warren-channeling Providence Mayor Angel Taveras — largely lie in the margins. But when Democrats next grapple with their internal differences on a national stage, having mostly avoided high-profile primary fights since Barack Obama surprised Hillary Clinton in 2008, their rhetoric may echo the fight Raimondo and Taveras are having right now in the Ocean State.

"Rhode Island really does encompass every element of internal divisions within the Democratic Party right now," said Brown University political scientist Wendy Schiller. "On ethnicity, gender, union versus non-union."

The candidates personifying those splits are two of Rhode Island's biggest political personalities, both coming from modest backgrounds and heading toward November with the chance to make history. Raimondo, a Rhodes scholar and founder of a local venture capital firm, would be the state's first woman governor, while Taveras, the son of a Dominican-born single mother, would be the first Hispanic to hold that office.

The most important difference between them, though, is that Raimondo was the one spearheading a deal to reform the state's underfunded pension system in 2011. The deal raised the state retirement age, cut benefits, and changed the system from a defined-benefit plan to a mixed one including some personal savings accounts, sparking massive pushback and litigation from Rhode Island's unions. And part of Raimondo's plan to keep the state's investments growing including putting a big chunk of them into hedge funds, where some of her biggest campaign backers come from.

Taveras is trying to capitalize off growing populist sentiments by painting Raimondo as the candidate beholden to Wall Street. In one TV ad, Taveras says: "Wall Street values, they make money off of your hard work. I believe we're all in this together," and claims "I'll take Main Street in Rhode Island over Wall Street any day." Taveras's ads feature construction workers, and his campaign puts heavy emphasis on his support from labor.

Taveras's mantra is derivative of Elizabeth Warren's refrain: "We need a cop on the beat so no one steals your purse on Main Street or your pension on Wall Street." But the tagline willfully ignores all Taveras and Raimondo share in common, even when it comes to those same pension investments and relationships with organized labor.

A handful of public employee unions see almost no difference between Taveras and Raimondo, particularly teacher's unions, which take issue with Taveras's policies as mayor — specifically, when he fired and then rehired thousands of teachers in his first year in office to allow greater flexibility to close the city's huge budget gap.

"Gina Raimondo is under fire for having so much of the state's pension funds invested in hedge funds, but Angel actually had a higher percent of the city of Providence's funds invested in hedge funds," said Robert Walsh, the executive director of the Rhode Island National Education Association. "And the changes Angel made are now also tied up in litigation," like Raimondo's.

But Taveras's slogan "conjures up a whole stream of resentment" that many feel toward "Wall Street" right now, University of Rhode Island political scientist Maureen Moakley said, and he's brought them to bear against Raimondo effectively.

"The Wall Street attacks are untrue and a deliberate mischaracterization of who I am and what I've done as treasurer," Raimondo said. "I don't work for Wall Street, I never have. I'm from Rhode Island and I ran a business in Providence."

"Regardless of whether it's true, it fits into the national conversation," Raimondo said. "It's rhetoric. There is that nationally. It's a theme, and it's a problem. Income inequality is a huge problem in America."

Raimondo actually has more union endorsements than Taveras. She has consolidated support among private sector building trades unions, which tend to be more conservative. Public employee unions have split their support between Taveras and Clay Pell, the grandson of former Sen. Claiborne Pell and the third Democrat in the race. Walsh's teachers union, one of Rhode Island's largest with 12,000 members, opted to endorse Pell.

Despite the Goliath versus Goliath nature of the Raimondo-Taveras matchup, one way or another, Pell is expected to play spoiler. "What saves Raimondo is that Clay Pell is still in the race," said Schiller. "The teachers union has backed him 100 percent, and if the teachers union votes for Clay Pell that takes away votes from Taveras. Under the state's open primary system she's counting on getting a lot of independents and women who might not vote in a Democratic primary to vote."

"Clay's the first choice of a lot of people and the second choice of everyone else," Walsh said.

But he comes with his own set of vulnerabilities. Taveras describes himself as "the son of nobody famous," a quiet jab at Pell and outgoing Gov. Lincoln Chafee, the son of former governor and Senator John Chafee, a family whose political lineage dates back to 19th century governor Henry Lippitt. The wedge is just one more example of how Rhode Island could serve as a harbinger of things to come.

"In a very small way the idea of Clay Pell failing to resonate in Rhode Island is similar to Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jeb Bush," Schiller said. "People are a little bit sick of dynasty politics even in the little state of Rhode Island."