[Sidebar] November 18 - 25, 1999


The insurgent

Kate Coyne-McCoy enjoys taking on the establishment. But can she outpace Jim Langevin in the four-way Democratic race in the Second Congressional District?

by Ian Donnis

More than 100 distressed health-care consumers have turned out for a recent meeting at the Elmwood Community Center in Providence, and three conspicuously empty chairs -- bearing placards with the names of Governor Lincoln Almond and the state's directors of health and business regulation -- are poised at the front of the room. As co-moderator of the event, Kate Coyne-McCoy occasionally flashes a wincing smile as agitated members of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care of New England describe the uncertainty they're facing because of the HMO's collapse.

Coyne-McCoy periodically pipes in with her own cogent remarks and writes a list of the consumers' concerns on an oversized pad at the front of the room. As a leader of the Health Care Organizing Project, a coalition of 22 health-care providers and community groups, she clearly relishes the chance to transform the anxious throng into an organized force. The fight-the-power spirit of the gathering is characteristic of Coyne-McCoy, 40, who has established her credentials as a progressive activist by agitating on a range of related issues.

In 1997, for example, as a leader of the group that became the Health Care Organizing Project, she rallied opposition to the proposed purchase of Roger Williams Medical Center by the giant health-care conglomerate Columbia/HCA, which wanted to convert it into a for-profit hospital. The sale never went through, and the issue gave rise to legislation making it more difficult to turn a community hospital into a for-profit venture. Coyne-McCoy and other critics of Columbia/HCA looked like gold shortly thereafter, when the company's president was forced to resign and four high-level officials were indicted for allegedly defrauding federal health care programs.

Now, Coyne-McCoy is making her first bid for public office. and she expects her health-care expertise to be one of her main strengths. It's a potentially valuable issue, considering how health-care in Rhode Island is in a state of crisis. But for all of Coyne-McCoy's comfort in taking on the establishment, she still faces a challenge in trying to upset Secretary of State James R. Langevin, the early favorite among the four Democrats seeking to succeed US Representative Robert Weygand in Congress.

Not lacking for brass, Coyne-McCoy professes no use for the conventional wisdom. In one measure of her moxie, the Scituate resident remained unruffled when a suddenly scorching sun roasted her as she announced her candidacy during a July news conference on the grounds of the Eleanor Slater Hospital in Cranston. It's telling, though, that Slater, the Democratic Party doyenne who in the '50s became the first woman elected to the General Assembly, is an enthusiastic Langevin backer.

Langevin, who is perhaps best known for championing the cause of open government in Rhode Island, angered legislative leaders with "Access Denied," a scathing report that described how the General Assembly was flouting the Open Meetings Law. Nonetheless, his personal wealth and status as a well-liked incumbent make him the front-runner, particularly among middle-of-the-road Democrats. Langevin has also shown admirable pluck in transforming sharp misfortune -- being partially paralyzed as a 16-year-old aspiring FBI agent when he was accidentally shot by a Warwick police officer -- into a successful political career.

And while the confident and outspoken Coyne-McCoy may stand out as the only woman in the race, it's possible that the presence of two other appealing, but lesser-known candidates -- Cranston City Council President Kevin J. McAllister and Angel Taveras, a 29-year-old Providence lawyer who is making his first run for public office -- could help Langevin by splitting the vote in the Second Congressional District (see "Crowded field," page 17). On the Republican side, John Matson, the GOP nominee in 1998, and former state Representatives Brock Bierman of Cranston and Rod Driver of Richmond are considering a run.

But although Coyne-McCoy faces an uphill battle in overcoming Langevin's name recognition, state Representative Joan Quick (R-Little Compton), chair of the state Republican Party, thinks she will benefit from her direct, outgoing personality, and a weariness among voters with highly polished candidates. "I think the voting electorate is coming to a point where people who appear to be one of them -- who speak like them, who speak to their issues, and may be viewed as an underdog in terms of raising money -- may have appeal to voters," Quick says. "This may be a good time for her in that sense."

Despite sharp differences, Langevin and Coyne-McCoy are similar in their support of some issues, such as protecting Social Security and supporting gun control and universal health-care, while also being short on specifics at this stage in the campaign. But they generally represent divergent elements of the Democratic spectrum.

Coyne-McCoy, who has worked for the last nine years as the executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, is an unapologetic progressive. Although she lacks a record as a public official, she has actively advocated on health-care issues and, in the mid-'90s, against cuts in General Public Assistance. She doesn't have a tested constituency, but was recently endorsed by EMILY's List, the Washington-based political action committee that supports pro-choice Democratic women, and is likely to attract strong support from liberals and the social service community.

Coyne-McCoy, whose extended family includes many union members, is a strong supporter of unions, as well as of gay rights. Like Taveras and McAllister, she supports a woman's right to choose an abortion. Asked why she hasn't previously run for office, she says, "I wasn't personally ready and I am now."

By contrast, Langevin is staunchly pro-life and compiled a moderate-to-conservative voting record over six years after being elected as a state representative from Warwick at age 24. Although Langevin, 35, is Constitutionally barred from seeking a third term as secretary of state and wants to trade up to Congress, he has remained vague about his positions on tax policy and social and economic issues ("Mystery Man," News, July 9). He has a mixed record on gay rights. Langevin's relations with labor have also been strained by his friendship with John Hazen White Sr. -- who broke a 1977 machinists strike at his Taco manufacturing plant by hiring strike breakers -- and his promotion of voter initiative, which, according to the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, would allow monied interests to bypass the General Assembly with well-financed referendum campaigns.

In 1993, Langevin voted to sharply cut GPA, the state's welfare program (he also voted to cut the corporate income tax by $7 million and to support a multi-million dollar tax break for employees of American Power Conversion), but reversed his stand on GPA in 1994 when former Governor Bruce Sundlun and House Speaker John Harwood proposed to complete eliminate it. Langevin now says that the APC tax break was meant to keep jobs in Rhode Island, and that he initially backed the GPA cut since he mistakenly believed that the needy wouldn't be hurt by it.

During his campaign, Langevin is likely to emphasize his experience as a public official and his accomplishments in the cause of open government. Coyne-McCoy, meanwhile, defines herself as a political outsider who will fight for the concerns of ordinary people. "I think I have a perspective that is sorely needed in Washington. There are plenty of people down there who carry the water of big business and corporations," she says, while few know what it's like to work at a regular job, wrestle with a tight budget and make sure that the laundry and kids' homework gets done.

If elected, Coyne-McCoy says her priorities will include protecting unions, producing a patients' bill of rights, and opposing tax breaks for the rich at the expense of the working class.

In 1994, Myrth York's upstart bid for governor was largely undermined by a perception that she was too liberal. But observers agree that ideological shading is far less significant to voters when it comes to electing one of the 435 members in the US House of Representatives, rather than the single person who serves as governor. For her part, Coyne-McCoy, who served as political director for York's campaign in 1994, reveres the social welfare policies of the New Deal and adds, "If someone calls me a liberal, I smile."

Coyne-McCoy's challenge, aside from raising enough money to communicate her message and winning support from key interest groups, is crafting a message that makes her more appealing to voters than Langevin or the other two Democrats in the race.

"I think she'll make a very exciting candidate," says George Nee, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, which will probably not endorse a candidate in the race until next spring. "She has dedicated her life to a lot of the issues that will be critical issues before Congress in the coming year: health-care, child care, women's issues. And she has a long track record in advocating for those issues."

LABOR WAS A VITAL SOURCE of support for Weygand, who is running for the Senate seat held by Lincoln Chafee, in 1996 when his Democratic rival, former Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino, was backed by Jack Reed, now a US senator; US Representative Patrick Kennedy; Providence Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci; and Myrth York. This time around, the question is how supportive labor will be, says Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University. "If they tilt one way or another, that will be a major advantage."

Although the Rhode Island AFL-CIO has never endorsed Langevin for statewide office, "Everyone comes in clean," says Nee, and "Jim has been making a very solid effort to improve his relations with the labor movement."

It will also be interesting to see which candidate wins the support of the state Democratic Party and Patrick Kennedy, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the influential campaign fund-raising arm of House Democrats. It caught West's attention when Kennedy "virtually endorsed Langevin from the platform," when Vice President Al Gore attended a rally at the Convention Center in April. "I was a little surprised because you assume Kennedy would go for a more liberal candidate," West says, although he also has a pragmatic streak.

The Rhode Island Democratic Party endorsement, which is essentially controlled by the General Assembly's leadership, "is probably a lot trickier from Langevin's perspective," West says, since he has upset legislative leaders with his support of open government, "but Kennedy could talk to his good friend, Speaker Harwood." Harwood did not return calls seeking comment from the Phoenix.

Kennedy's spokesman, Larry Berman, says he will endorse the candidate who is selected by the state Democratic Party. Kennedy spoke so favorably about Langevin at the Convention Center event, Berman says, since "Jim has done a great job as the secretary of state."

When it comes to campaign fund-raising, Coyne-McCoy raised $59,550 through the June 30, 92 percent which came from individuals and 8 percent from political action committees, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C. Langevin raised $50,700 from individuals during the same period, while also throwing in $100,000 of his own money, or 64 percent of his warchest. Langevin, who spent $300,000 of his own money during his 1998 re-election campaign, says he plans to spend about $1 million on the campaign, while Coyne-McCoy says she will expend about $600,000, close to the average for a US House campaign.

Although Langevin refuses to release his income tax returns, describing them as personal, his wealth is widely believed to come from the $20 million lawsuit his parents filed against the city of Warwick, the Boy Scouts and gunmaker Colt's Manufacturing after he was accidentally shot by a Warwick police officer in 1980, leaving him paralyzed below the chest. Langevin's money enabled him to win the secretary of state's office in 1994, when he outspent a better-known primary opponent, Ray Rickman, seven-to-one, and the incumbent Secretary of State, Barbara Leonard, more than two-to-one.

Asked if he will pay himself back for the money that he loans to his campaign, if he wins election, Langevin hedged, saying, "I probably will, if I'm able to do that." (He said he has repaid himself for $30,000 of the $330,000 that he contributed to his 1998 campaign.) While Coyne-McCoy faults Langevin for underwriting his campaigns, he cites it as part of his dedication to public service.

AS THE OLDEST OF SIX SIBLINGS, Coyne-McCoy was raised on stories of how her paternal grandfather, Urban Coyne, who served in the Rhode Island House in the mid-'30s, would give away his coat or part of his pay to someone less fortunate as he walked home from work during the Depression. Then, after her family moved from Providence to Glocester, her father, a union plumber, successfully challenged the longstanding hegemony of local Republicans by winning election to the Town Council.

Coyne-McCoy, who was about 12 at the time, says, "One of the best childhood memories I have is of driving with him on election night. I was in the backseat, hanging over him, and he was crying. It was the culmination of so much work. It made a lasting impression on me -- all these people who believed change was possible and that they could make a difference."

It was this background, Coyne-McCoy says, that led her into social work, studying at Providence College and Rhode Island College, and then working at a Johnston nursing home and a Providence facility for children with serious health problems. In addition to directing the state chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, she has served as NASW's national field director since 1998, traveling to 17 states to provide technical assistance and training on related legislative and electoral issues. Coyne-McCoy is married to her childhood sweetheart, Mark McCoy, and the couple have two children.

In one of her activist fights, Coyne-McCoy battled advertising officials at the Providence Journal in 1997 when they refused to run an advertisement critical of Blue Cross & Blue Shield's effort to reduce options for mental health treatment. The ads, which highlighted the pay of top Blue Cross executives, ultimately ran in the ProJo, albeit without the execs' names, and Coyne-McCoy says they influenced Blue Cross to back away from significantly reducing its mental health network.

Coyne-McCoy's friends and supporters cite this kind of episode in describing her as tenacious and determined. Scott Nova, a friend and former official with Ocean State Job Action, says he was impressed when Coyne-McCoy became vocally involved in Ocean State's effort a few years ago to reduce auto insurance costs. "It's rare in coalition politics to find leaders who will show real passion and commitment on an issue when it's not narrowly `their' issue," says Nova, who now directs the Citizens Trade Campaign in Washington, D.C. "She's someone with a passionate commitment to making changes that help ordinary people."

Crowded field: Taveras and McAllister could draw votes from Coyne-McCoy

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]phx.com.

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