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Will RI Democratic Primary Be Bernie's Insurgents versus Hillary's Establishment?

If campaign kick-offs are any indication of the respective strengths of the candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, Rhode Island’s...

If campaign kick-offs are any indication of the respective strengths of the candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, Rhode Island’s April 26th primary will boil down to grass roots Democrats campaigning for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and party leaders supporting Hillary Clinton.

About 250 enthusiastic Sanders acolytes thronged the opening of Sanders Rhode Island headquarters  on Broad Street in Providence this afternoon. They held large light blue `Bernie 2016’  signs and waved them at cars and pedestrians in the South Side neighborhood.

Yet, elected Democrats and party poohbahs were as scarce at the Sanders event as Donald Trump stickers on the capital city’s liberal East Side.  No statewide elected officials showed up. The only elected officials present were Democratic state senators Josh Miller of Cranston and James Sheehan of North Kingstown, who has endorsed Sanders. Miller has not made a formal endorsement.

That was in sharp relief to the turnout at the opening of Clinton’s state headquarters last week, which attracted such Democratic household names as Gov. Gina Raimondo, State Party Chairman  Joseph McNamara of Warwick, former Providence mayor Joseph Paolino Jr., and former state Democratic chairman Mark Weiner, a top Clinton fund-raiser and supporter.

Supporters picked up signs, bumper strips and brochures touting Sanders stands on such issues as income inequality, climate change and campaign finance reform. Brochures were printed in both English and Spanish in a city where Latinos make up a significant voting pool.

Rhode Island has been a strong Clinton state for many years; Bill Clinton did very well here in his general election presidential campaigns, although he did lose the 1992 RI Democratic primary to the late Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, a local New England favorite. In 2008, amid a record RI voter turnout of about 200,000,  Hillary Clinton crushed Barack Obama in the Democratic state presidential contest, which was held that year in March.

``This is a great event,’’ said Joe Caiazzo, a Massachusetts native who is the Sanders Rhode Island political director. ``Great crowd here with a lot of energy.’’

The crowd tilted toward Millennials, with a healthy sprinkling of Baby Boomers.

Also in attendance was Jim Dean, a Sanders supporter, Democratic party activist  and the brother of former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who is supporting Clinton. Jim Dean says the Sanders campaign is making a big push in Rhode Island and neighboring Connecticut. Both states hold primaries on April 26th.

Rhode Island’s Democratic electoral demographics are similar to Massachusetts, where Clinton narrowly bested Sanders earlier in the campaign cycle. Sanders won the first-in-the nation New Hampshire primary by a huge (pronounced yuuuuge in Bernie world) margin.

``We’re going to be working very hard,’’ in the run-up to primary, said Caiazzo. He joked that the Rhode Island Sanders campaign is under a microscope because ``it is Tad Devine’s home state.’’ That was a reference to Devine, the Providence native and Brown University graduate who is Sanders media-and-message maven.

Devine grew up in a South Side not far from the Sanders headquarters, a unprepossessing former hair salon near Trinity Square.

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders