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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 one independent. In the Wyoming Senate, four Democrats counter 26 Republicans. And in Hawaii, state Sen. 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.