Monday, November 3, 2014

Get off the bench and vote

For people who work in and around politics, a general election is like jamming four World Series into thirteen hours but only finding out whether you scored any runs after the game is over. It’s a long day at the end of a long campaign and can turn into a long night if things aren’t going your way. Losing brings a lot of regret and “what ifs” but nothing is more infuriating than hearing someone complain about government and then admitting that they do not vote. 
Voting is not hard. Polls open early (most at 7am) and all close at 8pm. Chances are good that your polling place is in your neighborhood or very close by. If you can’t get to the polls during that time, no excuse absentee ballots can be cast ahead of time. If you have a last minute change of plans that takes you out of town, go to the Town Clerk and you can cast an emergency absentee ballot. Our local election officials are accommodating. 
I certainly understand that many people are not interested in politics and are truly turned off by the process, but we all have a stake in how we are governed. From the policies that guide our school systems to the money we ask the state to invest on our behalf, elections matter and have an impact on all our lives. We are lucky to live in a place where we can participate in the process. For anyone who says “my vote doesn’t matter,” there are plenty of races in recent Rhode Island elections that were decided by the tiniest of margins. In fact, one state representative race in 2012 was decided by just one vote. Ask Carlos Tobon if one vote matters — he knows that it does. 
This year turnout will be especially important. While turnout surges when the office of president is on the ballot, the midterm elections for Rhode Island’s general officers frequently see a precipitous drop in turnout. In 2010 — when Governor Chafee was elected — less than 47% of eligible Rhode Islanders chose to vote. Since he won with about 36% of the vote, that low turnout gave him a victory with the votes from only 17% of Rhode Island’s eligible voters. With such low numbers from the voters and no party to draw support from, it’s not a surprise that he was a lame duck from day one. Our state cannot afford another four years of a governor without the public support to move our state forward. We have been the butt of jokes for far too long and have to find a way to be competitive and prosperous again. 
So consider this column another annoying robocall. I am not plugging a candidate or an issue - I am simply asking you to take a few minutes and participate. It's time to get off the bench and vote. 

We don’t need a wild card in every contest

Many of us in Red Sox Nation remember this week ten years ago as being the greatest in sports history. After securing the AL wild card spot in the playoffs, the Red Sox beat the Angels in the American League Division Series before facing the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. After being down three games to none, the Red Sox came back to win four games in a row and beat the Yankees for the American League title. By October 27, 2004, the AL wild card Red Sox were World Series Champions and the generations-long streak of gut-wrenching losses was over.

Since the baseball gods did not smile on the Red Sox this year, I’m forced to reminisce and focus on political races instead of baseball playoffs. In RI we have a wild card in the race for governor. Local attorney Bob Healey was a last minute entry for the Moderate Party, dropping the Cool Moose label and swapping positions with another candidate who was too ill to run. Mr. Healey is well-regarded as a smart man who reflects the common-sense values of our area, so I am puzzled by why he would allow himself to used as a spoiler in such an important race. He insists that his campaign is a serious one but in my opinion, using a loophole to join a race less than eight weeks from Election Day is a stunt, not what one would expect from a person who wants to move Rhode Island forward.

From a constitutional standpoint, Rhode Island’s governor is weak. There is no line-item veto and a governor cannot place a referendum on the ballot. However, the job is nevertheless an immense responsibility as the governor serves as the administrator for state government and the public-facing representative of our state. For most candidates, the decision to run is a difficult one because the campaign — and serving in the office — is an incredible commitment and requires an investment of time and money. I’m sure many candidates would like to slide into the race after the primary, saving money and an entire summer on the campaign trail.

And while I certainly understand Mr. Healey’s dislike for the influence of money in politics and respect his decision not to raise any money or to self-fund, it shows that he’s not in this to win.  The simple truth is that one needs to spend some money to compete in politics. A serious hockey player would never try and play without skates, pads, a stick and ice time and a serious candidate for public office needs basic campaign infrastructure — and that requires money. This is not a revelation: Bob Healey has been running for statewide office over the course of the last 30 years and he has yet to do two things: raise money and win.

While I respect anyone willing to put his or her name on the ballot, I think it’s important to do it the right way and to respect our democratic process. While finding the loophole, dropping the Cool Moose banner and sliding in as a Moderate has been okayed by the lawyers, it still won’t sit well with many voters. Rhode Island needs serious candidates for these difficult days and fewer wild cards on the ballot.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Opportunity awaits in off year

The baseball playoffs have been a bit of a snooze — literally. Try as a I might I cannot seem to stay awake for games played in far away stadiums between teams I have little interest in. The Dodgers are probably the most interesting to me because their lineup is filled with former Red Sox. I did have to feel a tinge badly for Detroit since they failed to beat the Orioles in the ALDS (yes, the Orioles!) despite having the best pitching in the league, great hitters and good chances to win in every game. They just didn’t take advantage of their opportunities.

I am hoping that Rhode Island voters are paying a little more attention to the “down ballot” races than I am to the baseball playoffs. While some races could be snoozers, this is the once-every-four-years opportunity to elect the five people who run our state, so I am hopeful that voters will spend a few minutes to educate themselves on their choices. While Rhode Island is one of the most heavily Democratic states in the country, the fact that our general officers are not elected the same year as the Presidential candidates means that less people vote.

These off-year elections may be the reason why Rhode Island has only elected Republican (or those who had at one point been Republican) governors since the first four year term was won by Lincoln Almond in 1994 since conservative voters tend to show up to vote more regularly. While each race has a story and some begin and end with bad Democratic campaigns or fractured primaries, the truth is that this year could be a good one for Republicans.

With the emphasis on women’s candidates, I think Catherine Taylor may be the beneficiary of this Republican ripple (too small to be a wave) as she has run a very good campaign with a sharp focus on issues and bipartisanship. Catherine cut her political teeth as a staffer to Senator John Chafee in Washington and most recently worked for Governor Lincoln Chafee in the Department of Elderly Affairs, so she is comfortable talking about a wide range of state and federal issues and can count friends across the political spectrum.  Ms. Taylor may also be helped by the fact that Democratic opponent, Dan McKee, can’t count on the love (and election day support) from organized labor because he has been the driving force behind mayoral academies — publicly funded charter schools — in Rhode Island. Labor’s non-support of McKee, coupled with a higher GOP turnout could create a perfect storm for Taylor and she could be the right candidate to cut across party lines for her win.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Ode to Jeter

Last weekend not only marked the end of a really bad Red Sox season, but the end of the great career of Derek Jeter. As a Red Sox fan, I always dreaded seeing the ball hit to short knowing that he would turn a double play in a most spectacular and athletic fashion. His plate appearances against the Red Sox always seemed to end with him on base starting a Yankee rally. I won’t bore anyone with the endless statistics about games played, runs saved, hits made or women dated, but it’s pretty clear that he’s a first ballot Hall of Famer. The only question is whether or not it will be unanimous.

The thing I appreciate most about Derek Jeter is that he managed to play well consistently for almost 20 years, on the same team, win multiple awards and be universally respected. I learned over the weekend that he leads the Yankees in being hit by pitches and yet has never been ejected from a game. How he managed to keep his cool after getting drilled 170 times is beyond me. While his off-the-field behavior got some tabloid attention, it was pretty much just gossip about who he was dating or no longer dating. The only time his shiny image was clouded was for a brief period of time when he was hanging around with Alex Rodriguez.

People in politics could learn a lot from Derek Jeter. The old adage “it’s not whether you win or lose it’s how you play the game” is probably the first takeaway that Jeter embodied and that candidates should remember. While it’s much easier to be a gracious winner than to be a good loser, candidates have to prepare for either scenario. There is only one winner in an election, but most still live here after the fact so good conduct in the election — and afterwards — is important. In these post primary days, much has been made of party “unity” and some candidates have really been “walking the walk.” In Providence Michael Solomon has been campaigning for Jorge Elorza, hoping that their combined efforts will keep Buddy Cianci out of the Mayor’s chair. Clay Pell has continued to be a positive voice in Rhode Island politics, appearing recently at a veterans event. Losing candidates will further their own goals, politically and otherwise, by being as “classy” as Jeter. 

So while we all salute Jeter for the player he was and the character he embodied, I have to say that the real reason I will always love Derek Jeter: there’s a play he didn’t make. He was a millisecond too late with that swipe tag to Dave Roberts in 2004, making “the steal” one of the best moments in sports and not just another bone-crushing, heart-wrenching defeat for Red Sox fans. He could not have known what lay ahead but the fact that he didn’t whine, pout or have a tantrum — at a play that looks closer every time I watch it — was enough for me. So thanks for playing #2 — and thanks for missing too.

Sometimes voting is like football

The Red Sox season is winding down quickly and while I won’t miss seeing them lose game after game, I do not like my options for fall sports. In our house there seem to be two options: pro football or college football — and neither is the least bit appealing.

I have several issues with football. The first is that it just seems to be about hurting your opponents. There are really really big guys whose only job is to push against the other team’s really really big guys so that none of them have the option to squish the somewhat smaller quarterback. These really big guys do not seem like athletes to me and I am sad to think about how they are encouraged to gain more mass than a healthy human should carry. People have argued to me that injuries are incidental — and part of any sport — and that the really big guys can run really fast. I’ll argue that there aren’t too many sports that require a player to pounce on each other at full speed or have to discipline professional coaches for putting bounties on opposing players’ knees.

The other reason I like baseball better than football is that the league seems to be a lot more concerned about the behavior of its players. Former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon made an obscene gesture at a fan and was almost immediately suspended for seven games. Ray Rice knocks his fiancĂ© out cold during a brawl in an elevator and seven months later and many alleged cover ups later, he finally gets suspended. I admit that it took baseball a long time to deal with their performance-enhancing drug policies, but as Alex Rodriguez contemplates his existence during his year-long suspension, the NFL has recently decided that off season amphetamine use is actually okay, clearing the way for Wes Welker to play for the Broncos this season. What kind of message does that send to kids? I’m hearing, “it’s okay to do drugs that may be bad for you, just don’t let them catch you during the season.”

So while football season — and my spouse — provide me few options for fall entertainment, the Superbowl of politics is just around the corner. Election Day is less than six weeks away and I am looking forward to making my voting choices. It’s unfortunate that voters don’t have as many choices as they should. Too many incumbents go unchallenged and without two strong parties in our state, sometimes policies are not properly debated and accountability goes out the window. Elections are about choices and if there aren’t any, I try not to give in to the urge to just draw a bunch of lines. Sometimes I look at my ballot and vote against someone or write in a name or only pick two when I could actually pick five (like for Town Council). There’s still very little I can do about the overwhelming amount of football watching in my house, but like my ballot, I often I pick “none of the above” and make other plans.

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.