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.

Love him or hate him, Buddy’s back

Last week the conversation in Rhode Island political circles changed quickly from "will he run" to "can he win" as Buddy Cianci announced that he would once again run for mayor of Providence. Love him or hate him, he's in the race to win and has aligned the stars to give him the best possible chance to win. While several people I've spoken with said his entry in the race was "bad" for Providence, the reality is that without an extraordinary - and coordinated — effort to defeat him, he stands a good chance of being sworn in as Providence's next mayor, despite the horrified protests of some Rhode Islanders. 

Like Buddy, chances are good that when Alex Rodriguez returns to professional baseball next year he'll get a chilly reception from certain circles who think that a PED user with such a lucrative contract is bad for baseball. The Yankees will be a different team than the one he left in 2013. There will be no Mariano Rivera, no Andy Pettitte and no Derek Jeter to have his back and although it's too early to tell how a post-suspension A-Rod will play, there will be many of us quick to point out any decline in his performance. Like Buddy, A-Rod has a resume to point to that shows he is perhaps a better player than his his “convictions” might indicate — and then of course, there are the “intangibles.” A-Rod’s return will drive up viewership and ticket sales in a way that introducing a new Yankee player named Brett, Lorne, Anthony, Dan or Jorge (unless it was Posada) would not. And again, love him or hate him, Providence flourished during Buddy’s tenure and no other man in the race can say that he has had equivalent experience.

While A-Rod has a valid contract, the only guarantees for Buddy are the ones that he has created for himself. At 73, Buddy is a generation older than several of the candidates for mayor and many of his voters have left the city, so he needed certain circumstances to come together to make his candidacy viable. By filing as an Independent, he places himself on the November ballot and into a 4-way race where the strongest candidate (one of the Democrats) will already have been battered by a primary. While a certain percentage of Providence voters will never vote for him, there are some that will always vote for him and by placing himself into a crowded field of lesser-known candidates, he has created the scenario in which he has the best chance to win.

For those in Providence who are tearing their hair out as Buddy 3.0 takes shape, there is one way to beat him: create a united front. Two of the four remaining candidates need to drop out of the race, deconstructing the ideal electoral situation for Cianci and putting one candidate forward as the alternative to Buddy. The Democratic primary would have to be more about coming together and less about ripping each other apart. With an overwhelming party affiliation, a non-Democrat should never have a chance in Providence but a divisive primary that gives the winner a short eight-week window to woo general election voters is just what Buddy needs to win.

As the battle to be the anti-Buddy candidate commences now, there’s two things that are nearly indisputable: there is no one in politics more astute than Buddy Cianci and there’s no doubt that he’s got his eyes set on City Hall.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Swooping in from centerfield in the Treasurer's race

As the Red Sox continue their June swoon, one of the very few high points this season has been the emergence of Brock Holt. At a time when some major leaguers complain about being moved down in the batting order or being asked to play first instead of third, Brock Holt has jumped in to do almost everything except for roll out the tarp — and I am quite sure he would do that if asked. I was at Fenway last week when he came flying out of center field to make a leap-n-roll catch when Jonny Gomes lost the ball in the twilight sky. He then led off the next inning with a double, stole third and scored on a sacrifice fly.  In fact, he scored both Boston runs that night and in almost every game, his play has brought a bit of excitement to what has otherwise been a disappointing season.

There’s a new face on the Rhode Island political scene who just might turn out to be the Brock Holt of the 2014 election. While Frank Caprio runs the insider game to get his old job back and Ernie Almonte’s campaign seems to be stuck in first gear, Seth Magaziner has emerged as the candidate to watch in the race for General Treasurer.

In a recent WPRI poll of Democratic primary voters, Caprio was leading the pack with 29%, Magaziner had 11% and Almonte had 9%. While Caprio’s lead might seem insurmountable for either trailing candidate, the truth is that 29% had to be a bitterly disappointing result for Caprio since he has held statewide office before, spent millions on advertising in 2010 and comes from a very prominent Rhode Island political family. Chances are good that the 46% of undecided voters know who Frank Caprio is and are planning to vote for someone else in 2014.

Ernie Almonte also underperformed in the WPRI poll. While Almonte seems to be well-liked and well-respected, accountants don’t make compelling candidates and he seems to have very little name recognition from his sixteen-year service as Rhode Island’s Auditor General. He’s also spent more than two years running for office — first as governor, now treasurer — and seems to have little support to show for it. While he has collected a few town committee endorsements, without a significant uptick in fundraising or a groundswell of grassroots support, it is likely that he will continue to track where he is.

In contrast to Caprio and Almonte, the upside looks good for Magaziner. His 11% in the WPRI poll was quite respectable considering that he has never run for office before, had a public job or spent any money on paid advertising. He has some of the “intangibles” that help win races: a big rolodex (with Bill Clinton’s cell phone in it) and outside-of-Rhode Island experience and perspective. He’s also proven himself to be a versatile campaigner too, raising more money than Almonte and Caprio in each of the last three quarters and collecting numerous endorsements along the way. Most telling was the Narragansett Democrats endorsement of Magaziner. Narrangansett has long been a Caprio stronghold and that endorsement should have been an easy one for Frank, but like the ball the got lost in the twilight, Magaziner jumped in and grabbed it.

While the race for governor is going to get Ortiz-type attention, I can see some real excitement down ballot as well. And who knows: before Brock Holt has earned a single vote for Rookie of the Year, there’s a good chance that Seth Magaziner will have secured enough votes to be General Treasurer of Rhode Island.