Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Dust yourself off and stay engaged

Every year, one team emerges at the end of the MLB season as World Series Champion and that franchise gets to carry that honor until another champion is crowned. It’s worth noting that the other 29 teams that do not win the title do not pack it in or send their players home with a stain on their resume. And yet in politics this is exactly what happens — losing candidates often disappear from the scene and the people who worked for them have a “loser” label on their resume. This is not unique to Rhode Island — losing candidates are treated like pariahs everywhere — but in Little Rhody it actually hurts us all more because we don’t have a deep bench in the “best and brightest” category. This year the leading candidates for governor all had some good ideas we will lose more by not encouraging the candidates who lost to stay engaged.

Staying engaged can be painful. One candidate I have spoken with several times post-loss told me that he can’t go anywhere without hearing “you should have won” and “why don’t you run again?”  Losing is hard — he didn’t want to talk to anyone about the loss — especially not the guy in front of him at Dunkin Donuts. Running again is frequently not an option for candidates that can’t self-fund (i.e. those that aren’t multi-millionaires) since raising money becomes twice as hard when you’ve lost a race. There’s also a fine line between staying engaged and being constructive and seeming like a sore loser who just wants to take a few shots at his former opponent. 

For campaign staff, the loss can be exceptionally difficult as well. Not only do you wake up Wednesday unemployed, but you very quickly lose the camaraderie of being on a team when people — including your former teammates — start to try to pin the loss on you. Whether it was bad fundraising, a disorganized field operation, lame commercials or poor media strategy, there’s always a blame game that feels more like a firing line for losing campaign staffers. Having a losing campaign on someone’s resume should not equate to a black mark. Some of the smartest people I’ve worked with have worked on disastrous campaigns at every level and none of them were responsible for the loss. Campaigns create McGyver-like skills that can’t be replicated in any other environment and train people to prioritize and focus like few other jobs can. Campaign experience is valuable, win or lose.

It’s too early to give much solace to those who lost Tuesday so my unsolicited advice is actually for the winners. Engage your opponents and invite them to join your team. We need more people in the political process, not less. Talk to your opponents about their ideas and incorporate what makes sense. Hire your opponents’ staffers and bring them onto your campaign. In 1990, Governor-elect Sundlun hired “Paolino people” and “Flaherty people” to key administration jobs recognizing their talents and wanting them on his team. Following on the heels of a very bitter primary, the move raised a few eyebrows but Sundlun’s determination to get the best people in his administration was the best thing for Rhode Island. Truth be told, the “Paolino people” still get a ribbing every once in a while (and they give it right back) but we all recognize that asking them to join the administration was key to steering the state through some very tough times. Rhode Island faces similar challenges today and we will all be better off if the losing candidates stay engaged and the winners welcome them into the fold.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Providence has a bench full of talent

Providence is a great city with some enormous problems. Some of them are typical urban problems like crime and the high cost of housing while others are uniquely Rhode Island: there are jobs to be had, but no residents with the skills to fill them.  We all know that Providence has been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy for at least five years and only a series of clever accounting tricks and last minute infusions of cash have allowed the city to make payroll. If the last mayor inherited a category 5 hurricane, the next one will have the responsibility of doing the post-disaster clean up.

While more than 80% of Rhode Islanders don’t live in Providence, the problems of the city impact all of us: our income taxes go to Providence and a big chunk of them never leave the capital city. For no other reason that this, people all over the state should care about who fills the leadership vacuum in Providence. It goes without saying that Providence has a great fan base of residents committed to the city’s future and the last few weeks have shown that there are real stars in her clubhouse.

When Buddy Cianci first declared his intention to run for mayor once again – this time as an independent – much of the political chatter focused around who, if anyone, could beat him in what began as a four-way race. The thought was that despite his record, Buddy has a real base and could find 30% of voters at almost any time, making a four-way race an ideal situation for the rise of Buddy. When that became clear, Lorne Adrain (I) dropped out, making Buddy’s math more difficult by creating a three-way race.

In recent weeks, revelations about the Democratic frontrunner, Michael Solomon, have led some observers to call him “Buddy lite” suggesting that he would be no better than Buddy at moving Providence forward. The Providence fan base realized that even if Solomon could beat Buddy in a three-way, the same insider politics would once again rule the city and so last week Brett Smiley left the race, throwing his support to the anti-Buddy/ anti-Solomon candidate, squeaky clean former judge Jorge Elorza.

Ego usually keeps candidates in races they cannot win, declaring themselves contenders to the end and I have to admit that I thought this race would be no different. I can’t remember a time when two candidates have dropped out of a race not because of lack of money or support – Adrain and Smiley had both – but because they wanted their supporters’ votes to matter and for their city to be in the best hands possible when the dust settles.

Providence is a lucky city to have these stars on the bench and their commitment to the city’s future bodes well for everyone in our little city-state. The primary election is now in the hands of the voters and for many, the choice is now clearer.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Rhode Island must not concede vacationers


I have been on a vacation for more than a week traveling with my family in an RV around Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. Being offline means that I'm behind on the latest in Rhode Island politics and that I have not seen a Red Sox game since leaving the land of NESN. I know I didn't miss much since the Sox season was over long ago and then truly dead when they traded four of five starting pitchers. Perhaps they should just forfeit the remaining games and rest up until spring training.

Being unplugged has been nice but my mind wanders back to something I always think about when I travel - how RI compares to where I am. We have seen plenty of evidence that shows Rhode Island at the bottom of almost every measure of success and that people leave Rhode Island and don't come back. While I don't plan to change my address (ever) I do like checking out the things that other states do better. It's clear that Rhode Island definitely has room for improvement.

These western states could not be any different from Little Rhody. In the "where are you from" conversation that inevitably occurs locals have been quick to remind us that both Rhode Island and Delaware could fit into Yellowstone Park together. We went to a dinner show where one of the jokes was based on the fact that no one from Rhode Island is ever there. On three separate occasions people have said some variation of "Rhode Island is the only state I haven't been to and I don't know why I would go." While it's nice to live in the country's best kept secret, we would benefit tremendously from a boost in visitors. 

While the Sox have conceded for the season, I think it's time that Rhode Island fought to be a contender in tourism revenue but our state's puny budget for promotion - $400,000 - shows that growing this sector of our economy is not a priority.  Our tourism website (visitri.com) is embarrassing and to confuse matters, there seems to be two "official" sites since visitrhodeisland.com displays alongside the state site. A smart investment in attracting more visitors will pay off by creating jobs and generating tax revenue, but this scattershot effort is clearly not working. Locally we have seen this kind of success through the efforts of Explore Bristol. Can you imagine if this effort were replicated statewide?

Several candidates for governor have seized on this issue and have pledged to put more money into tourism promotion. I would like to see the General Assembly share that commitment as well since a governor can propose whatever he or she wants but without General Assembly support, a governor's initiatives go nowhere. Rhode Island has so much to offer in such a small place that promoting all our assets together with a significant investment is the smart way to go. In a typical "Rhode Island" our individual tourism bureaus are allocated funds but left to design and promote their own campaigns. Visitors from other states will be willing - if not thrilled - to move around the state taking in the sights. After all, they aren't Rhode Islanders so driving from Providence to Newport and back is not considered a multi-day journey.

One thing I have missed about home since we've been out here: a Rhode Island license plate. Day 10 of the license plate game and we've yet to spot one. It's a good reminder that Rhode Island is a great place to staycation in the summer. Now it's time to open our doors and invite the rest of the country over for a vacation.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Trading players and candidates

Every year July 31st is circled on our calendar because what happens on that day — the non-waiver trade deadline — is a big indicator of whether the Red Sox can hope to contend in the playoffs. (I should also mention that it’s our wedding anniversary so perhaps it is circled for two reasons.) This year is a big one (15th) and I am expecting a bit of a fire sale at Fenway since the team seems to have taken up residence in the basement of the American League East. For many teams, the trade deadline symbolizes the end of the season for many teams — even with two full months to play — because trades made on that day might hamper their performance in the current year but allow them to rebuild the roster for the following seasons. While it’s a sad day for Red Sox fans who won’t see October baseball, it probably is a great day for traded players that might end up on a contending team.

 The day after the election — the day when the cold, hard reality of losing sets in for more than half the people who run for office — provides no soft landing for losing candidates. One minute they are hopeful, the next minute they are crushed. Many losing campaigns know well in advance that they have no shot (and yet some candidates continue to run year after year) but for candidates and staff that have poured blood, sweat and tears into a race, the loss can be overwhelming. Everyone handles that disappointment differently — some candidates and their staffs disappear entirely from the public arena and some seem to take to social media to fight their battles there. Some folks do the smart thing and switch teams gracefully and professionally.
 

During the 1990 Democratic primary for governor, I worked for Bruce Sundlun. During much of the race, we were probably viewed as the misfits. Most of the insiders supported either Providence Mayor Joe Paolino or Warwick Mayor Frank Flaherty and the “good money” was not on Sundlun who was a three-time loser at that point. We were a bit rag-tag on the outside, but inside that headquarters, an amazing amount of work was being done day and night. The gloves came off early and Sundlun poured a tremendous amount of money into paid advertising to get out his core messages. “I am a businessman, not a politician” seemed to echo in every television. Primary night was a phenomenal win for the Sundlun team but when the smoke cleared we welcomed Paolino and Flaherty staffers and supporters into the tent. I won’t lie — my favorite “Paolino People” still get teased today — but Sundlun made it clear that a new team would form.

As primary day approaches and the war of rhetoric heats up on the airwaves, it’s great to remind staffers and supporters that the trade deadline in politics comes on September 10th. Even if the results are disappointing, remember that you may end up with the opportunity to work for another team that can contend for the big prize. It’s a lot more satisfying and professionally enriching to be part of a win in November than to be whining on Facebook about what could have been.

Time to end the finger pointing and fix the problem

I don't know if it's just me but it seems that the way things are going for President Obama, he will be lucky to leave the White House with the dignity that was afforded Richard Nixon. The latest blow to the administration has been its appalling bungling of the migration of tens of thousands of undocumented children into the United States.

While it's been front page news around the country in recent weeks, the surge of undocumented children - most of them teens - has been going on for more than a year. Unlike what some conspiracy theorists are saying, this is a humanitarian crisis and the majority of these children are fleeing poverty and unspeakable violence in their home countries - they are runaways and many of them are candidates for asylum. Sadly, they were inspired to make the dangerous journey north with the knowledge that they could slip across our weak border and that if they were caught, there would be few repercussions. Much of the surge began after President Obama announced during his reelection bid that the U.S. Would stop deporting certain undocumented children living in the United States. I'm not sure what was lost in translation, but clearly some viewed it as a opening to head north.

Immigration reform has been a front-and-center issue for several years, but partisan feuding (and there is plenty of blame to go around) has prevented anything from getting done. Whether it's hubris or stupidity, the Obama administration has refused to budge towards the middle and now - with a humanitarian crisis in his hands and on his watch - he is in the unenviable position of having to beg Congress for the money to handle a problem that he has been trying to sweep under the rug for many months. Recent news stories reveal that the White House was warned in 2012 about the high number of children coming across the border but the administration did little to acknowledge the crisis until it began looking for places to house these children around the country when facilities in border states were overloaded.

Justifiably many governors - even Democrats- have told President Obama publicly and privately that their states cannot afford to take on the burden of housing and caring for thousands of parentless children. Controlling immigration and processing those that cross into this country - even to seek amnesty - is the responsibility of the federal government and falls to a system that needs to be reformed.

While the Obama administration has surfed through many scandals, I think this is the one that may damage his legacy. Hiding a humanitarian crisis at one's border for political reasons is something a third world dictator would condone - not a U.S. President. There's time to turn the tide by showing some decisive leadership but the clock is ticking.

Red Sox GOTV failure

At the midway point of the season, the Red Sox delegation to the All-Star game is puny with no position players being selected and only Jon Lester and Koji Uehara representing the pitching staff. Considering the World Series win and the massive campaign put behind trying to get Red Sox on the team, this has got to be seen as a loss for the Red Sox marketing team because they failed to get their voters out. Let their loss be an early reminder to candidates: you need a get-out-the-vote plan.

Campaigns are a complicated recipe of fundraising, messaging, endorsements, media and public appearances, but the most important piece of any campaign is identifying and turning out supporters. I don’t care if you are running for President or county coroner, (surprisingly, coroner is an elected position in some areas), making sure that “your” voters cast their ballot is the most critical piece — and often most overlooked — part of a winning campaign. It’s so basic that it’s almost odd to talk about it, but I have spoken with several candidates who have lost close races and they were horrified to learn that people whose votes they were counting on never voted because they had a last minute trip or were simply not in their hometown during voting hours.

As lines at polling places have grown longer, voting has also become more of a time commitment, so even people who intend to vote might get discouraged by the sight of a long line out the door. While I could write a book about ways that Rhode Island could improve its voting processes — because we are almost twenty years behind other states — I’m just going to make one point today: you don’t need to wait until Election Day to vote.

Recent changes to Rhode Island voting laws have ushered in the era of  “no excuse” absentee voting in Rhode Island. In the past, Rhode Island had some of the most strict absentee voting requirements in the country and only allowed absentee ballots only under a prescribed set of circumstances. Now any Rhode Island voter can request an absentee ballot and cast their vote without ever setting foot in a polling place.

There’s a bit of a process involved, but for people like me who know they want to vote, and have a good idea who they will vote for, it’s a great way to make sure that nothing gets in the way of casting a ballot. The process is pretty simple: fill out an application for a mail ballot at the Board of Canvassers (you can download the form online from the Secretary of State but it requires an original signature so a hard copy to your local Board of Canvassers is required). When you receive your mail ballot, follow the instructions to return it. Make sure that you mail it several days in advance of the election because the ballot has to be received by the Board of Elections in Providence by Election Day. The deadline to get an application for this year’s primary is August 19 and for the general election it is October 14.

As far as I can tell, the only downside to voting absentee is that you don’t get a nifty “I voted” sticker to wear for the rest of the day. But I’ll skip the sticker — and the line — this year because my ballot will already be cast when the polling places open. Maybe I’ll even write in Dustin Pedroia.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Some seasons need to end

Although this has not been great year for the Red Sox, as the All-Star break approaches, I am a little sad to know that we are almost halfway through the baseball season. Unlike some who think that the games and the season are far too long, I wish it were even longer and that some sports (particularly professional basketball) were only played in alternate years.

The never-ending season is also an issue for the Rhode Island General Assembly. I bring this up not because Capitol TV impinges on my enjoyment of baseball, but because I think it’s a major roadblock to running for office. Much has been made of the fact that more than 40 of our 113 legislators will be unopposed this year, but the truth is that every year an enormous percentage of the seats are uncontested. While others might say that the “power of incumbency” scares off newcomers, I believe that the job hours and responsibilities are so completely out of whack with the pay and the benefits that the logistics of actually serving in the General Assembly are far more intimidating to a newcomer than campaigning against an entrenched incumbent.

The legislative session lasts about 24 or 25 weeks each year for three days a week. Even if very little business is being done on the floor of either Chamber, legislators have committee hearings and events to attend as well as constituent meetings, policy briefings  and legislative work. Nights and weekends are often filled with must-attend events that include everything from fundraisers to community events. During the session, it is far more than a part-time job. Over the years I have closely observed the hours of several members and spoken with others who spend at least 20 hours a week during session on their General Assembly duties.  Next year the pay will be $15,171.55 with health benefits.

While some people would like a $15,171.55 part-year job that comes with benefits, the truth is that for most Rhode Islanders, the General Assembly salary neither pays the bills nor allows a person to have a traditional nine-to-five job. And let’s be honest: we need highly-qualified people to serve and many of the most qualified are not attracted by this salary level — or even triple it — so we are not going to get more candidates to run even with significantly higher compensation. I know one legislator who takes his vacation time in hourly increments to attend session so he can keep his day job, but I am certain he runs out of vacation time long before the end of session. Despite the focus on legislative salaries, people serve because they want to and real the challenge to getting more people is not about money, it’s about time.

Thankfully there are 49 other states with similar challenges that we can look to for solutions. While some states like California and Pennsylvania have full-time legislatures and pay their legislators full-time salaries, other states like Texas, Florida and Kentucky limit the length and frequency of their legislative sessions. In Kentucky, session is limited to 30 days in odd numbered years and 60 days in even years. Texas’ legislature only meets every other year and Florida’s is limited to 60 day sessions every year. These are states with far bigger budgets and many more residents but much tighter legislative sessions. It should also be noted that no other state has an official state appetizer, so I suspect that the shorter legislative session does not allow for discussion of truly trivial matters as they wrestle with real policy issues and challenges. Perhaps Rhode Island would do better with a two-year budget addressed in a 60-day session in even years and a 30-day session in odd years for everything else.

Bottom line: before assuming that apathy and a fear of incumbency prevents people from running, we should take a long hard look at the job we are asking folks to take on and think about whether we’d want to do it ourselves. If the answer is “heck no” perhaps it’s time to shorten the season.