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.

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 ( is embarrassing and to confuse matters, there seems to be two "official" sites since 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.