Higgins, Edward J., 1894-1979
Edward “Rip” Higgins was born November 16, 1894 to Irish immigrant parents in Warren. During WW I, Rip served in the U.S. Navy as a pharmacist’s mate. Immediately after the war, he worked at Smith’s Drug Store, a Warren Democratic bastion, even into the 1980s, and there got his entree into politics.
Rip held a job at the Providence News and was a member of the State Democratic Committee in 1930, when Democrat Theodore Francis Green ran for governor. Rip toured the state as an unofficial pollster and concluded that the Democrats were not doing well. Hearing of Rip’s observations, which proved accurate, candidate Green asked Rip to serve as his secretary and campaign manager. Though the Republicans prevailed in 1930, Green made another run two years later with Higgins at his side. When Green won in the Roosevelt landslide, he made Rip his executive secretary. For four years Rip was Green’s right-hand man. Then, in 1936, Rip helped Green get elected to the U.S. Senate, and both men began their productive twenty-five year Washington careers. What made their union unique was the very nature of the two men–Green, the wealthy Protestant aristocrat from the East side, and Rip, the first generation Irish-Catholic of modest means from the mill town of Warren. Rip fought his way to the top with a sharp mind, a keen sense of humor, and a flair for political gamesmanship.
While he was in Washington, Rip never forgot his hometown. He was instrumental in getting major businesses to open plants in Warren and often got the Army Band to play summer concerts there. In 1948, Rip was involved heavily in promoting the reelection bid of Harry Truman and the election of other Democratic candidates. During Truman’s whistle-stop campaign, Higgins got the President to travel from Fall River through Warren en route to Providence.
According to political scientist Erwin L. Levine, Senator Green’s biographer: “Higgins never took advantage of his unique position. In time he became an effective intermediary between Green and other senators. For example, Higgins developed close ties with the staff of Senator Lyndon B. Johnson; when Johnson subsequently became majority leader, Higgins made effective use of his access to the Democratic leader. Senators, as well as staff aides, knew that Green’s assistant was trustworthy and that he spoke with Green’s authority behind him. As one prominent southern Democrat put it, “Higgins played the ideal role. He was loyal as any Senator could ask and a good deal smarter than most of us.” In Senator John O. Pastore’s words, “You just didn’t have to go any further than Eddie. Eddie handled it for you.” As Green advanced in age, many knowledgeable local politicians began to refer to Higgins as “Rhode Island’s third United States Senator.”
In addition to politics, Rip’s other passion was baseball, whether it involved support for his hometown team or the Washington Senators. Each spring Senator Green would buy Rip a pair of season tickets to Griffith Stadium for the Senators’ games.
Rip died in 1979, and among his few bequests was a fund to restore what is now known as the “Higgins Room” of the 1757 Maxwell House in Warren. No Rhode Island politician who climbed to the lofty level enjoyed by Rip Higgins was ever more loyal to his roots.
– General Richard J. Valente (Ret.)