When people ask me what I think about the presidential campaign and the rise of Donald Trump, I’ll admit I don’t have a lot of smart things to say. Throughout the primary process, I expected one of the moderate governors (Kasich, Bush or Christie) to emerge as the party favorite and take down Trump for kidnapping the party of Lincoln. While plenty of alternate scenarios could still play out, After more than 25 years in and around politics, I had never seen this kind of traction for such an anti-establishment candidate but was reminded last week that maybe I had. While we don’t lead the nation in many ways, voter dissatisfaction in Rhode Island may have foreshadowed the national trend. After all, we had Bob Healey long before Donald Trump ran for president.
Let me be clear: there will be no comparing Mr. Healey to Mr. Trump in this space. By all accounts Bob was a kind and generous man who was passionate about everything he was involved in from pro bono legal work and local business to making state government more effective for those it serves. As a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2010 — even as he was campaigning to abolish said office — he was articulate, funny and obviously made a good case, garnering 40% of the vote. As a candidate for governor in 2014, he stunned most by grabbing 21% of the vote in the governor’s race, winning more than 69,000 votes. While some viewed him as a spoiler, for the tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders who voted for him he was the candidate who personified anything but “politics as usual” in Rhode Island. I met him when he spoke at my daughter’s student government assembly and he connected easily with the children and gave them a great talk about public service. The “Elect Healey Governor - Why not? You’ve done worse” yardstick is a cherished souvenir from his visit and its message remains sadly on point.
While I won’t argue that Bob Healey and Donald Trump have anything in common, I will say that both candidates have a message that appeals to people dissatisfied with their government. Bob’s common sense message and regular guy persona resonated with Rhode Islanders who were tired of Rhode Island-style leadership (“you’ve done worse”) while Trump supporters are the “mad as hell and not taking it anymore” group that has arisen from a fragmented Republican party. What’s interesting — and will continue to be hard to predict — is whether Trump will continue to engage people who have not previously voted, essentially creating a movement with “making America great again” the way Obama was able to bring in voters by saying “hope and change” was on the horizon. My crystal ball is pretty hazy but as I think of Bob Healey and his race for governor, I think I should have seen the Trump train coming down the tracks.