Rhode Island`s Heritage Bond Issue was planned in 1983, defeated in 1984, and finally approved by the voters in 1985. During what turned out to be a three-year campaign, Rhode Island preservationists discovered we had a lot to learn about electoral politics.
In 1983 preservationists were reeling in the gloom of federal cutbacks and struggling just to hold the program together. State Senator Bob McKenna told us to use the state political process to help ourselves. He told us to put together a bond issue uniting historic preservation interests with natural conservation thus making a stronger political coalition; and to include items in the bond issue that would appeal to as many constituencies as possible. We followed his directions by writing an omnibus bill that included a low-interest loan fund for historic restorations; a loan fund for natural area acquisition; restoration work at the State House and historic Fort Adams; renovation of facilities at the state`s most popular beach; purchase of natural areas for use by hikers, canoeists, bicyclists and fishermen; and purchase of development rights on prime agricultural lands. Thus, historic preservation, natural conservation and outdoor recreation were joined in a manner calculated to spread benefits geographically statewide.
A Heritage Bond Issue Committee was formed to work for passage. We all were novices at electoral campaigning, and we made a lot of mistakes. In order to help unite preservation and conservation groups, the cochairmen of the committee were Antoinette F. Downing (chairman, Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission) and Al Hawkes (director, Rhode Island Audubon Society). Conservation groups tended to have statewide organizations, while preservation groups were organized locally; as a result, it was hard to fit the organizations together for a unified campaign. The basic unit of our campaign was a brochure stressing heritage in terms of future generations. It was a tasteful piece of graphic art, showing a little girl standing by a historic house surrounded by woods, all done in sepias, beiges and browns. Unfortunately, the brochure was not as eyecatching as it should have been, and the text discussed heritage more than the actual bond issue. Furthermore, our tiny budget only let us print 30,000 brochures, which we diluted by printing posters, flyers and fact sheets. We gave a few voters a lot of information, and we gave most voters nothing.
In addition to printed matter, we organized a series of events. We staged press conferences which became increasingly dull as we repeated ourselves to the same members of the media. We had open-houses at historic buildings, hikes to highlight conservation areas, a canoe trip and a tour of the State House.
These special events generated some media attention; but few voters attended, and the effort devoted by the organizers to the events would have been better spent in direct campaigning. Finally, 1984 was a presidential election year, and our bond issue was at the bottom of a ballot that included federal, state and local elections and 12 other bond issues. We lost.
Our 1985 campaign began the next morning. Buoyed by a Providence Journal editorial saying the Heritage Bond should have been approved, we announced that our committee would not disband and that U.S. Senators John Chafee and Claiborne Pell had agreed to be honorary cochairmen. Senator Pell loaned us a political aide from his staff, Leo Skenyon, who knew how to organize and run campaigns. Under Leo`s guidance we did things differently the second time around.
Our new brochure--we printed 100,000--was white with bright red hearts all over it and said: "Say I love you Rhode Island, vote yes." It was not great art and lacked subtlety, but it was straightforward, quickly understandable, and carried our message. Our budget remained small, so we skipped posters and fact sheets. We begged free artwork and printing: for example, since the governor supported the bond, we persuaded his campaign printer to contribute 20,000 brochures.
Leo told us we should spend a little money for a study targeting voting districts where we were strong or weak and where the voter turnout would be largest. In 1984 we had tried to reach all voters equally; in 1985 we wrote off some areas and concentrated on others. Then we created an organization of "captains" and "workers" in every town who canvassed door-to-door in key areas and who attended local events where large numbers of people were expected, such as Octoberfests or football games. In 1985 we cancelled all of our own events, except a single Saturday of historic open houses statewide. This event received media attention and was a way for each local preservation group to participate actively in the campaign. Finally, 1985 was an off-year election. Only a few other items were on the ballot; voter turnout was low. Our dedicated constituency was a much larger percentage of those voting than was the case in the 1984 presidential election. In 1985 we won!
After the election, we learned we must try to keep the organization intact. We thanked our supporters and told them how the new programs had been implemented. We will need their support and help in our next campaign.
Publication Date: Summer 1988