When the Rhode Island Senate voted in April to legalize same-sex marriage, it produced an unusual political dynamic: every Republican supported it.
All five of them.
“We wanted to make a statement as a Republican caucus in Rhode Island that our position came down to equality and fairness,” state Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere said in an interview at his sparsely-decorated, part-time office in Providence, the state capital.
In a few states, those that are deeply Republican-red or Democratic-blue, the partisan hue is so one-sided that it’s creating super-minorities in some Senate chambers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In Rhode Island, the Republican quintet matches up against 32 Democrats and 1 independent. In the Wyoming Senate, four Democrats counter 26 Republicans. And in Hawaii, state Senator Sam Slom, 71, has been nicknamed the “Lone Ranger” because he’s the only Republican in the 25-member chamber.
Slom serves as the minority leader, the minority floor leader, and is a member of all 16 standing committees and every ad-hoc and investigative panel. He’s taking his staff to see the latest Lone Ranger movie, out in July.
“I don’t mind being called Lone Ranger because he was a good guy,” he said in an interview.
Slom’s use of humor to adapt to his lonely partisan status offers a glimpse of how differently politics can operate outside of Washington, where Republicans control 54 percent of House seats and Democrats hold 54 percent of Senate seats.
Members of these tiny caucuses say they still can influence debate, are included in bipartisan legislative deliberations and can attract attention while being outnumbered. The upshot: state legislatures often aren’t the partisan combat zone that Congress has become, and their lawmakers find ways to work cooperatively on issues, an environment presidents can only envy.
“When we work bills, we tend to work them more from our perspective of expertise than from our party,” said Wyoming state Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss, a Democrat who used to work at the U.S. State Department and has a Ph.D in chemical engineering. “We all have to go home and live the life that we’ve created through the legislature.”
The super-minorities have mastered a few maneuvers to ensure they aren’t run roughshod over by their opponents, mostly by sticking together and creating strategic alliances with some majority-party lawmakers. And there are some upsides to their fate: they don’t face the same pressures as super-majorities that have the responsibility to govern, and securing a leadership position is a breeze.
All five of the Rhode Island Republican state senators have titles. Algiere is the minority leader and his fellow 20-year veteran in the chamber, David Bates, is minority whip. Chris Ottiano and Dawson Hodgson, second-term members, are the deputy minority leaders, and Nicholas Kettle, also in his second term, is deputy minority whip.
“Usually the majority party in these situations has plenty of conflicts of its own,” Karl Kurtz, a political scientist with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said in an e-mail. “In fact, many majority party leaders have told us that they would prefer to lead a narrow majority than a wide one, because there is more necessity for the majority to stick together with a small margin of control.”
Algiere said that he’s forged working relationships with Democratic leaders who keep him apprised of legislation and invite him to meetings.
“I can sit back and I can say, ’I’m in the minority and I can’t get anything done’ and sit at my desk and cry, or I’m going to go out there and hustle,” Algiere said. “I do it in a gentleman’s way and work with the majority leadership and try to put across our point of view, our position.”
Kettle said he sees his role as a “watchdog” and “whistleblower.”
The gay marriage vote provided an opportunity for the Republicans to distinguish themselves in the state and send a broader political message. Though their votes weren’t determinative of the outcome, their unanimous support contrasted with the divided Democrats, who provided all 12 votes against the bill.
The Republicans also decided to do something that Democrats couldn’t: issue a statement touting their caucus as the first in the nation to unanimously support same-sex unions.
“We wanted to make that statement loud and clear,” said Algiere.
It was a missive intended for all audiences, including their own national party, which has lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections and lacks a U.S. House member in the six-state New England region. Voters aged 18 to 29 backed President Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012 by a margin of 23 percentage points, and they’re also more supportive of same-sex marriage.
“We felt it was a good thing to sort of nudge the party” and show to independent-minded voters that “there is diversity of thought and differences of opinion” among Republicans, said Hodgson, 34, a senator since 2011. “It can only help the image of our party.”
The vote on same-sex marriage in Rhode Island showed how partisan affiliation in the Senate means “less and less and less,” said Ottiano. “I don’t think anyone in our caucus is the most conservative in the Senate.”
No state legislative chamber in the U.S. is as politically lopsided as Hawaii’s Senate, where Slom has served as the only Republican since 2011.
The last time one party held just one seat in a state legislative chamber was after the 1990 election in West Virginia, where a sole Republican occupied a seat in the state Senate, according to the NCSL.
Slom, who first won his seat in 1996, said he finds the minority-of-one experience liberating.
After he became the only Hawaii Republican senator, “I got a lot of condolence calls and sympathy cards that said, ’Oh no, you poor thing, you’re going to be all alone,’” said Slom. “And I’m saying to myself, ’Yippee!’”
“As a libertarian conservative individualist, my point was, ’Well OK, now I get to see and show people what I can do as one person,’” Slom said. “Now it’s been three years, and it’s actually worked out fairly well from that standpoint.”
He said he gets to talk as long as he wants on the Senate floor. Though he spends most of his time opposing what he terms “bad legislation,” Slom said some of his bills get passed and others are co-opted by Democrats.
In the Wyoming Senate, where Republicans outnumber Democrats by 26 to 4, Rothfuss said the chamber is “surprisingly functional” despite the lopsided margin against his party.
“We have a very good legislature and we have very good leadership in both parties in both chambers,” Rothfuss said. “Nobody’s there playing political games.”
When controversial votes do occur, they usually don’t break along party lines as is often the case in Washington, said Rothfuss, who lost a U.S. Senate bid in 2008 to Republican incumbent Mike Enzi, 76 percent to 24 percent.
In energy-dependent Wyoming, disagreements have surfaced between pro-development and pro-conservation legislators that don’t break neatly along party lines. The Republican Party majority is also split on such social issues as gay marriage and anti-discrimination laws.
“While the expectation based on watching Congress is that we should be blown out of the water each and every vote” by a 26-4 margin, Rothfuss said, “it turns out that almost never happens.”